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Bringing home the Pritzker: Indian Architecture’s Continued Indebtedness to B. V. Doshi

Posted by
on March 08, 2018 at 06:10 PM

Yesterday’s announcement to confer this year’s Pritzker Award on India’s B. V. Doshi has seen the Indian design world erupt in proud and joyous celebration on various media platforms and fraternity exchanges. The prestigious Pritzker Award, considered architecture’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, was just beginning to be questioned by the world about its global relevance and its European-North American bias, when this announcement was made. The questioning led to some corrective self-introspection by the Pritzker foundation apparently, and well, they got it absolutely right this time! TFOD - The Future Of Design joins in the congratulatory celebrations, for if there is a future for design in India today, it owes in no small measure to Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, the de facto architect of the very identity of contemporary Indian architecture.

© Courtesy of internet resources

“I define architecture as a living organism. It is a place where you live and you celebrate life,” believes Balkrishna Doshi, the 2018 Pritzker Prize Laureate. The Pune-born architect, an alumnus of the Sir J. J. College of Architecture, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. “My works are an extension of my life, philosophy and dreams trying to create treasury of the architectural spirit. I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, Le Corbusier. His teachings led me to question identity and compelled me to discover new regionally adopted contemporary expression for a sustainable holistic habitat.”

The Jury of the 2018 Pritzker commended Doshi’s commitment to his philosophy and practice of architecture. “Over the years, Balkrishna Doshi has always created an architecture that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends. With a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality, authentic architecture, he has created projects for public administrations and utilities, educational and cultural institutions, and residences for private clients, among others. Doshi is acutely aware of the context in which his buildings are located. His solutions take into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability.”

Born in pre-independence India to the purest legacy of design in a carpenters’ household in Pune, Doshi pursued architecture at the Sir J J School in Mumbai. He gained international experience and honed his craft under the French master Le Corbusier and, later, oversaw his celebrated projects in a post-colonial, newly aspirational India. Being instrumental in introducing the practices of eminent international architects like Louis Kahn on the Indian terrain, he initiated in himself a search for an indigenous language of expression for Indian architecture that resulted not just in a contemporary Indian architectural identity, but an entire legacy of structures, institutions, practices, researchers and students of the same. Most importantly, he engineered a change in the attitude towards the built environment in the minds of the users, where they began to see design as a tool that they could easily use to shape it, rather than a luxury vested with only those who had the power or financial means to use it.

When Ar. B. V. Doshi set up a practice at age 28 in his office Sangath (meaning company or togetherness) in Ahmedabad, he broke the norms of standard architectural practice and set new trends of working in a non-hierarchical framework using innovative ideas and practical tools. The office building itself continues to be a place of pilgrimage of  sorts for visitors to this country. When he found himself looking for data and innovations in practice, he set up Vastu Shilpa Foundation to engage in architectural and design research and innovation – an Avant Garde proposition for those times. When he founded the school of architecture, he was all of 35 years, and he broke away from the standard colonial-influenced curriculum to set up new standards of excellence for teaching and learning methods. When he founded the school of planning, its scope extended beyond the physical built environment to examine the influences of economy, geography and sociology. When he designed institutions like the Gandhi Labour Institute, Ahmedabad, or the IIM, Bangalore, he pioneered new concepts for interactive learning spaces. When he designed private residences, he improvised the grammar of living spaces. When he designed Aranya in Indore, he re-interpreted the perception of low-cost housing. When he built the ‘Amdavad ni Gufa’, he gave art a refreshing context. Ever the improviser, innovator, researcher and learner, he steered the environment of Indian design In Toto towards a harnessed and steady trot to excellence. Today, at 90 years, he remains as passionate a teacher and as active a speaker as ever, as he receives this singular honour, the Pritzker, and as always, gives us ever more to be grateful for.

It would, indeed, prove an onerous task to find a life journey more committed and deserving of this great honour. Balkrishna Doshi has, even while restricting his karma bhoomi to India, been a global influencer, teacher and leader. Congratulations, Shri Balkrishna Doshi, for a lifetime of accomplishments that Indian architecture will forever be indebted to!

On a Personal Note:

I am indebted to Prof. B. V. Doshi for my own identity in the design field, as also would be multitudes of other designers, and the explanation is of the anecdotal kind. It stretches back to the days when, as my school education approached its end and I had to pick a field of choice to pursue, I chose architecture based on my comfort/ strength in visual art and spatial perception. The initial apprehensions expressed by my father about my choice, based on his perception of architecture as an expensive course leading to a service of aristocratic indulgence that was of little consequence to society at large, were dispelled by his memory of hearing Doshi’s speech at some event. He, an upholder of lofty ideals and exacting standards - and not remotely connected with the world of architecture - had been adequately impressed. Thank God (read: Prof. B.V. Doshi)! I could follow my dream...

Later, when I aspired to pursue a master’s program in the wider application of spatial design i.e. urban planning, I had the same God to thank again for having established the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) at Ahmedabad, which was within my easy reach; and without having to look beyond Indian shores.

Yes, this is what the phenomenon called B. V. Doshi has meant to generations of architecture and design aspirants and practitioners of modern India – a one-man force that revolutionised and democratised the concept of the field, searched for and created an Indian identity to the practice and facilitated a formidable home-grown legacy by establishing world class institutions on our own soil.

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