Balkrishna Doshi: Building Compassion
Pritzker Prize-winning architect Balkrishna Doshi learned a lot about his craft as a bedridden 10-year-old.
Balkrishna Doshi is an influential architect known for designing sustainable housing developments for mixed income groups. In 2018, he won the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, the first Indian architect to do so.
Doshi was born in 1927 in Pune, India, into a family of furniture makers. He studied at the Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai then apprenticed in Paris under Le Corbusier. In the 1950s, Doshi worked with the renowned modernist architect designing the planned regional capital city of Chandigarh before starting his own firm in 1944. In 1962 he founded what is now the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad, India, where he served as director until 1981.
Doshi is highly regarded in India and beyond for his low-cost sustainable urban planning, incorporating concepts of sustainability, livability, and adaptable design. These ideals are exemplified in his Aranya Housing Project, which provides low-cost housing for 80,000 residents and won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in Muslim societies in 1995.
At 91 years old, the Indian architect, Balkrishna Doshi has seen a lot, from India’s overthrow of British rule in 1947 to the country’s more recent transformation into a hotbed of technology, industry and innovation. But Doshi has not allowed the ups and downs of the past century to distract him from his life’s work, providing affordable, adaptable, sustainable housing for mixed income groups and educating the next generation of Indian architects to do the same. His prodigious talent was recognized at the highest level in 2018 when he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, sometimes also referred to as architecture’s Nobel. But for the great magnitude of his impact, Balkrishna Doshi has remained remarkably humble and profoundly compassionate.
Balkrishna Doshi: When you give somebody, as education or culture, don’t give it a price. It is not a charity, it is your obligation, because you come here to give not to take.
Balkrishna Doshi was born in 1927 in Pune, India to a family of furniture makers, he describes his grandfather as an early influence and the person who introduced him to elements of Indian culture that would become important themes in his work.
Doshi: He would take me to the temples, and then he would talk about the glories of our epics and our myths. I think I was fascinated by those things. He was giving me a glimpse of the world that I should somehow pick up in my life.
Doshi’s mother died when he was very young, but he describes her absence as a perennial influence.
Doshi: When I was almost eight-nine months, she passed away. But she haunts me all the time, and somewhere, she’s the one who guides me. There was one photograph that I saw—only that photograph was there, and that photograph os the only memory that I have, which I carry with me. But the most important thing was that the relationship that the family had with her and what my grandfather talked about her, I think created a great impact for me. There were a lot of myths after her. So those things made me think that she’s there. So it’s like haunting, you don’t know. You are searching, but you don’t know where.
Besides his mother’s absence, there were other events in his early life that would turn out to be highly influential. It was while recovering from a nasty childhood injury that a bedridden, young Doshi began to see buildings in a new way.
Doshi: I was lying alone for six months in a room, and there I realized the quality of space, light, silence. Because when you are in an absolute agony and days pass and night passes, time lingers, and you wait for the early morning sun to come, and then gradually the light changes.
After studying architecture in Mumbai, a 20-something-year-old Doshi went to London, where he met with Le Corbusier. Soon after, he moved to Paris to apprentice under the now legendary modernist architect. Doshi spoke no French and was, as he remembers it, quite naive.
Doshi: I had not known about Corbusier when I joined him. Neither I was very much educated in architecture, because I did it halfway. So from all those points of view, I went there as a curious thing.
Today, Doshi describes Le Corbusier as a guru, one who taught him new ways to think about space, structure, form and light. In the 1950s, the master architect was commissioned to design Chandigarh, a planned city that would serve as capital for the Northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab. Le Corbusier tasked Doshi with overseeing aspects of design and construction. The project would transform them both.
Doshi: The first thing that I saw in his office was a big climatic chart—a chart which said about 12 months of the year and the seasons, the temperature, humidity, orientation of breeze. So when I met him, he says “I have to have a pact with nature.” A man who never talked about nature that way, he says “I’m going to have a pact with nature.” But nature doesn’t mean only climate. Nature also means people—their habits, their patterns. In his sketches, one could see insects and animals and tortoises and shells and woman dress and religious. So he was looking at the kind of fragility of life. Actually, the most precious thing, is most fragile.
When their work in Chandigarh was completed, Doshi moved south to a Ahmedabad. There in the 1960s, he founded the architecture school that is today called The Center For Environmental Planning and Technology.
Doshi: The Indian mind is very, very capable, very ingenious. When I started the school, I realized that the mind which comes from the rural areas or unexposed areas are brilliant because the think, they innovate ideas,
Students at his school learn practical aspects of architecture, as well as more ephemeral philosophies. Doshi believes that at their best, spaces should be designed to feel genuinely inviting.
Doshi: What you are doing is creating situations by which whosoever uses it, whosoever comes there, should feel at home. I think the most important thing is, do we create? Do we think that we can give them a feeling of homecoming? I think that “homecoming” word is quite different from a visitor or a guest.
Ahmedabad is also home to some of Doshi’s other well-known works. In 1963, he built a home for his family, Kamala House, named for his wife. In 1981 came his studio called Sangath, a Sanskrit word which means moving together. But the work that best exemplifies Doshi’s ethos and maybe his crowning achievement, is 250 miles or so east of Ahmedabad in Indore.
Completed in 1989, the Irania low-cost housing project is a masterpiece of sustainable, urban planning, designed to house 80,000 mixed-income people comfortably and humanely. The houses, made with local materials, are separated by exterior corridors and courtyards, which welcome the breeze and protect against the sun. And each home is designed to be easily adapted as the family within grows.
Doshi: Change doesn’t mean that it is ruined. Change, it means that it has been alive and it has been now made for another kind of expression or experience. I think change is not an abuse. Change is the use of things for something, which is now required, but it is a heightening level of understanding.
AJC: Many architects believe that when they design a building, that that is it, that it is perfect—it is the perfect expression of their ego and that the people who are—nobody else afterwards can mess with it, their not aloud to mess with this work of art.
Doshi: Well, they want to make it a stillborn baby. It’s a stillborn child. Which you can’t do much about. I think the one which is made, what you call “subject to modification” or “change” to me, is, living organism.
In Irania, as in all of Balkrishna Doshi’s projects, his early influences are evident. His life-long mission has been to engender compassion, especially for the poor.
Doshi: I would like everybody to be happy, because my childhood, you know, somebody took care of me, and I think I should do the same. That, I think, I try.
Balkrishna Doshi has been widely regarded in India for decades and today, the rest of the world is at last recognizing him.