balkrishna doshi: remembering the indian dreamer
For the past seven years, Pritzker Laureate 2018 Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi (1927 – 2023) created a body of work that is highly praised for its poetry, its motives and its deep appreciation of the context of the subject. From affordable social housing to public space, Doshi’s works have such an impact on India’s native architecture and environment as they are teaching early about it By Corbusier and Louis Kahn — mentors he describes as his gurus and yogis, respectively. In 2022, he was formally awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in recognition of his outstanding contribution to architecture.
Doshi was born in 1927 in Pune, India. Growing up, he was close to following in his family’s footsteps as furniture makers, but eventually his interest in architecture became a passion. In 1947, he graduated from the JJ School of Architecture in Bombay and went on to work with By Corbusier for four years as senior designer in Paris (1951-54), and another four years in India to supervise projects in Ahmedabad. He then worked with Louis Kahn as an associate in building the Indian Institute of Management in that same city, and they continued to collaborate for more than ten years.
Doshi eventually established his own practice, Vastushilpa, in 1956, together with two architects. Now known as Vastushilpa Consultants, the multidisciplinary practice has grown to five partners over three generations, and sixty employees, with a portfolio of over 100 completed projects — each of which has made a significant impact on India’s architectural landscape and the surrounding regions. In the 1960s, Doshi settled with his wife Kamala in Ahmedabad, where he built their house in 1963 and later his studio, Sangath, in 1981.
Balkrishna Doshi in his studio Sangath, 2018 | image © Iwan Baan
plowing into the architect’s twenty-seven-year career
Beyond this early Western influence, Doshi developed a design philosophy that blended industrialism and primitivism, as well as modern architecture and traditional form. His practice integrates environmentally sustainable and climate-conscious ideals and architecture roots within the larger context of the surrounding culture, and its social, ethical and religious beliefs. A very humane attitude also complements his very sensitive approach. Indeed, Doshi sees architecture as an extension of the body, embedded in its own essence. ‘This is my philosophy then, asking the question, What is the essence of architecture? A building is a living organism. A building is alive. It is not a product, it is a process in which things happen. It is a reflection of life and architecture is a background to life,’ the architect shared with RIBA President Simon Allford.
Life Insurance Corporation Housing, Ahmedabad, India, 1973 | image © Vastu-Shilpa Consultants
In addition to being an active architect and urban planner, Doshi was a respected educator who taught his department at universities and through his Vastushilpa Foundation, dedicated to improving indigenous design and planning in India. Reflecting his passion for education, Doshi founded and established School of Architecture in Ahmedabad in 1966. Featuring a dramatic brick and concrete shell, the structure shows strong influences from Le Corbusier’s 20th century modernist features. Complementing its Western inspiration is a careful consideration of the Indian climate through slanted skylights, sliding doors and sunken plazas with tree silhouettes. The school complex was later expanded to accommodate the School of Planning (1970), the Visual Arts Center (1978), and the School of Interior Design (1982); it was renamed as CEPT University in 2002.
In 1992, Doshi furthered his passion for education by completing the Indian Institute of Management (1977 – 1992), a business school brought to life through interconnected courtyards, high corridors and a series of shrines and temples to provide breaks for personal and social activities. ‘The varied landscapes in the courtyards and pergolas, with their changing color and light, give a sense of time. Likewise, the outer stone walls are covered with creepers,’ he notes the practice of the architect.
Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, 1977-92 | image © Vinay Panjwani, courtesy Vastu-Shilpa Foundation
Another notable project of his is Aranya Low Cost Housing (1989), designed as a minimalist township for the economically weaker sections (EWS) in Indore. The master plan reveals clusters of 10 EWS households clustered around a central courtyard; Each unit is allocated a 30 square meter plot with a brick plinth, built-in toilet, water and electricity. ‘With the possibility of further growth as new options, these typologies found ways to improve the quality of life for each respective family. In thirty years, the fully developed township harmonizes the virtues of choice, freedom and social unity. As imagined, the EWS groups emulate maximizing multiple uses of space with little effort,’ writes Studio Sangath.
In the same spirit, Doshi completed the Life Insurance Corporation Housing (1973) in Ahmedabad. He was described as ‘an experiment to combine three income groups on three floors of a pyramid-shaped housing block accessed by a common staircase.’
A few years later, Doshi entered the world of arts with Amdavad Ni Gufa gallery in Ahmedabad (1994). Designed as an underground space, the center takes on an eerie quality, with warped columns resembling geological formations, and walls covered with works of art noting with the imprints of early civilizations. Here, visitors get to enjoy a cool climate while learning about each featured artist.
Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, India, 1977-1992
Other popular works include the Shreyas Comprehensive School Campus (1958-63), Ahmedabad, India; the Institute of Indology (1962), Ahmedabad, building containing rare documents; Tagore Hall & Memorial Theatre (1967), a brutal 700-seat auditorium in Ahmedabad; Premabhai Hall (1976), Ahmedabad, India; Sangath (1981), the studio for his architectural practice, Vastu Shilpa; Ompuri Temple (1998), Matar, sport-like shape; the Science Center and Environment (2005), New Delhi; the Flame University (2007), Pune, is imagined as a bazaar-like complex.