By any standard, balkrishna Doshi is a giant in the world of Indian architecture and design, and his influence on future generations cannot be challenged

By Joshua Dawson

When you say that there are many ways to use a staircase, then the word ‘staircase’ does not exist. You have changed the whole definition. Your image of a stair changes. All we need to know is, where and how we want to go up and in what time. But if you say to yourself…a stair…is a stair…is a stair… Then how would you ever invent anything new?”
Balkrishna Doshi’s words resonated under the concrete vaults at Sangath, where we eagerly learned from a master who seemed more like a guru with his disciples than a teacher in a classroom. That was just one of many such evenings where we would sit cross-legged in the subterranean studio and hear him speak on the importance of embracing – but not abusing – technology, the secrets of measurement and the power of observation in developing your intuition.
In Fall 2011, I was fortunate enough to be trained at the office of Vastu Shilpa Consultants at Sangath. I spent most of my time at the model shop, and I soon received direct assignments from Doshi himself to make models of Le Corbusier’s Villa Shodhan in preparation for us to study and consider the addition of a vertical circulation core to its exterior. He told me, “This will be a good opportunity for you to visit the building, because they usually don’t allow people in there.” Though Doshi did not mention it at the time, he knew that working on the project would teach me to look beyond the obvious to see a structure’s deeper meaning and potential.
By measuring, drawing and physically modeling specific areas of the Villa, I discovered that the use of Corbusier’s Le Modulor was more than just a tool to create proportional harmony; it was meant to control the user’s experience through his highly-defined programmatic spaces. The human-centric nature of its design exerts a form of control on every user moving through the building, making circulation more than just a route to get from point A to B. He had also harnessed concrete’s plasticine quality to contain the arrangement of these spaces in his precise mathematical alignment.
Doshi first worked on this building in the early 1950s, and I was lucky to play a small part more than half a century later. The task instilled in me a method of reading, deciphering and analysing any building I visit. And that is at the heart of what Doshi tried to impart to me and to all of his students: a new way of seeing. Though many architects specialise in one field, Doshi has always brought together diverse perspectives, disciplines and practices to find the best solution. In his work and his teaching, he emphasises the importance of re-examining your premises and challenging your own perceptions – even if that means starting over from scratch.
Doshi’s work stands apart because he is not bound by assumptions about what something should be or how it should be done. Instead, he focuses on using his formidable skill-set, design tools and vision to reimagine what a structure can be. His work defies convention, and so does he.

THE STAIR
In the post-starchitect era, many designers believe in the avant-garde ‘masterstroke’ or the ‘genius sketch’. The thick line-drawing on a napkin at a cocktail party that ends up being passed on to lower-level employees to develop with sophisticated software tools. They believe that there’s only one answer, and the artist’s first thought is usually the right one. Any indication of rigorous self-critique is seen as a sign of weakness, and any deviation from the initial plan represents a failure of your design capability. Anything less than beginning on a perfect note is unacceptable.
The act becomes more a form of image-making than the making of place and space. In the most extreme cases, each new building becomes almost a caricature of the last. In an age where the value of a building is judged by its retweets and Instagram likes and where photorealistic renderings are meant to look better than the finished building itself, it becomes harder to take a firm stance against such practices of showmanship. Perhaps they are less about style and iconography, and more about efficiency and frugal management of resources.
But Doshi’s approach is the antithesis of this. He always starts from first principles. His design decisions stem from a rigorous line of inquiry that investigates the root of any problem. This process resembles a form of self-dialogue through a meticulous investigation where every fresh iteration he produces, challenges its predecessor at its very core.
Besides the many active projects in the office, Doshi often had a few pet projects he would take on, primarily extensions or additions to his existing buildings. One of them was the design of a staircase.
The east wing of Sangath had a gallery space that was populated by a few models and a collection of books. Doshi intended on splitting it into a double-height space connected by a stair.
He walked into the model shop one morning and asked us to make a model of the Sangath gallery. That afternoon, Doshi placed a stool adjacent to the model, pulled out a sketchbook and began to sketch his ideas for the stair. Purushotham, his longtime model-maker, observed the direction of his sketch and sculpted those gestures in high-density thermocol with a hot wire and sandpaper. Doshi then held the model to the light, dusted off the sandpaper residue from his sketchbook and continued to sketch a variation of the model. Purushotham picked up from where Doshi left off. The two had developed a shorthand of their own over many decades of working together, making verbal communication unnecessary.
Doshi came in the next morning and began the same process from the very beginning, producing new versions by completely rethinking the earlier ones. The entire process ran a little over two weeks and resulted in 18 different options, each a unique invention and all physically hand-modeled. All of them worked perfectly but could never be reused on any other project, since they remained rooted to the constraints of that single gallery space. Every evening, the employees would stop by the model shop and gasp, “Oh my God…he changed it again?!” In our minds, it was, after all, a simple staircase that a couple of interns could have quickly drafted and built.
I had questions of my own. Why reinvent the wheel with every project? I wondered. Wouldn’t our time be better spent further building upon the mobility that the invention of the wheel has allowed us?
Over time, I’ve come to realise that, for Doshi, it’s not about the wheel itself. He doesn’t take the wheel at face value. He isn’t always certain that he can find a better solution, but he dares to challenge the premise behind it. Doshi is happiest when finding multiple ways to arrive at a solution. He takes pleasure in discovering new approaches by looking at the same problem from a different lens. His particular quest to rethink existing solutions gives each of his projects distinct characteristics. If the process leads him back to the wheel in the end, then so be it – but he sure likes to try new approaches first.
Although, knowing Doshi…if he ever really did reinvent the wheel, he would put millennia of human civilization to shame.

THE STORYTELLER & MYTH-MAKER
Doshi loves a good story. Myths and fables are all a part of his ethos. While he frequently quoted the Mahabharata and Ramayana, he also used his own metaphors and rhetoric to convey complex ideas. We most often heard his recollections of his encounters with Corbusier and Kahn – but over time, we came to understand his use of mythology and narrative as an important part of his design toolkit as well.
Doshi’s buildings are intricately-carved storyscapes. Every representational line drawn during the design process has a narrative connotation that extends directly into our lives. He takes myriad perspectives and points of view into account during a building’s conception. As opposed to an inert thrusting of programmatic spaces into a drawing, he instead envisions a series of characters and their possible routines. He establishes direct lines of sight, visual connections and circulation patterns that cater to every possible way an individual could use the space. The relationship with nature, materiality and response to local site conditions are all part of the larger narrative, which remains integral to his plot device.
The logical framework that binds his worlds together is organic, making every element of his building coherent and meant for his characters to inhabit. These characters are not restricted to people. Dogs love to borrow shade on his tree seaters at CEPT, squirrels run wild between his vaults at Sangath, peacocks visit the garden at Kamala residence and honeybees hive under the high beams at IIM-Bangalore.
The rigidity often brought by pragmatic and functional constraints is turned on its head to make way for a unique spatial experience. Every user and visitor develops personal relationships with Doshi’s buildings, because the spaces he crafts behave as a canvas for life itself.
His buildings incorporate a dynamic adaptability to diurnal and seasonal change. As a result, every event that I remember at Sangath or CEPT has etched with it the exact time of day and precise location. With such an evocative and memorable nature, his buildings have become the obvious choice as backdrops and thematic settings for movies in popular culture.

THE FUNAMBULIST
Just as Doshi’s buildings have taken on a whole new life in popular culture, so too has the legend of Doshi himself. The public perception of Doshi is akin to that of a mystic, content to let life happen to him. From tributes to Doshi, biographies, documentaries and interviews, it’s easy to buy into the collective image. He himself attributes his success to chance, fate and an alignment of the stars.
In this age of super-specialisation, we tend to separate everyone into simple dichotomies: the dreamers from the doers, the thinkers from the makers, the creatives from the suits, the academics from the professionals, the commercial practices from the ateliers. Some international design schools have even abandoned the profession altogether, believing that the discipline and profession of architecture are completely distinct entities. A highly-respected professor once told me that you’re either a good teacher or a good architect, but can never be both. When I hear such broadly generalised and circumscribing statements, I often think to myself, “But what about Doshi?”
It is easy enough to conclude that everyone else falls short compared to your idol, but Doshi truly does stand out. His career has encompassed all of the aforementioned identities. Not only is he an intuitive designer and thinker, but also an ambitious entrepreneur, teacher and institution-builder.
When imparting his knowledge, Doshi’s favourite analogy to illustrate these dualities in life was of walking the tightrope. He would explain how the left and right brain find perfect balance, but you’re never consciously thinking about it. You’re focusing on the absolute certainty that you will make it to the other side alive. At that moment, you are one with your core being. Doshi embraces nuance and believes in thinking on a spectrum.
Over time, the analogy of the tightrope has begun to make more sense to me. As a 21-year-old, I was always thrown off when Doshi would share stories with morals of discipline, ritual, cleanliness and punctuality. What about the image of the creative individual as a rebel with no respect for authority, which I often read about? My preconceived biases didn’t quite align with Doshi’s philosophy of “cultivating good habits”. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see the value of his habitualised self-discipline, and I have realised that it serves as an asset to his creative mind. His discipline and his creativity serve as counterweights as he walks the tightrope, helping him balance so that he can travel much further than he would with just one or the other. Instead of embracing a false division, he uses both traits in conjunction, and he encourages his students to do the same.

THE INTERDISCIPLINARIAN
The year after I finished my internship at Sangath, Doshi embarked on a book tour through the country. Seeing an opportunity, the RV School of Architecture student body timed their annual exhibition to coincide with his visit to Bengaluru.
In 2012, RV School of Architecture was still located within its engineering campus. We had an unspoken hostility toward each other on account of our differences. As students of the architecture school, we took pride in being ‘edgier’ than and a cut above the engineering students. We never participated in engineering events, and they never participated in ours.
After the inauguration and formalities, Doshi walked through the exhibition, observing every project carefully – but reserving any comments. Curious to hear his thoughts, I asked him as we drove him back to his hotel. He responded with a question of his own: “Why does all of the work seem to look the same?” Before we could respond, he followed his first question with another: “Do you not engage with the other departments on campus?” His questions illuminated possibilities we had never considered. Perhaps we would have a more diverse range of designs if we had exchanged knowledge across schools…
Doshi’s ability to recognise the strength of an alliance among disciplines, when we saw only segregation, struck a chord with me. So when I headed to the University of Southern California (USC) for my post-professional Master’s program, I decided to experiment with Doshi’s idea of “engaging with other departments on campus”.
This approach broadened my outlook, encouraging me to re-examine my assumptions and reimagine my own work. My observations confirmed that architects are passionate about finding unique solutions to complex problems and resolving complexity into favourable conditions. But when I worked with filmmakers at USC film school, I quickly realised that they were obsessed with the opposite: they loved finding a conflict in every situation, analysing its narrative potential – even if it meant writing themselves into a corner. This exchange of problem-solving and problem-finding mindsets led to some truly unusual and unique ideas.
That is what the true meaning of the word Sangath is: ‘Moving together through participation’. This experience revealed to me that true innovation lies in the synthesis of interdisciplinary collaboration. Forging alliances, building bridges, exchanging information and sharing knowledge make for better outcomes. And that is at the heart of Doshi’s philosophy.
Doshi’s own relationships with people like Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Vikram Sarabhai, MF Husain and many others all show his openness to a broad range of influences. His career stands testament to his ability to bring together disparate ideas in a quest for novel results.

THE TEACHER
It wasn’t until I completed my training period at the office that I realised that Doshi was aware that I was witness to the entire process of the design of the staircase.
On my last day of training, he asked me, “You watched the transformation of the staircase, didn’t you?”
“What finally happened…”
“Isn’t it completely different…”
“Which was your favourite…”
“Do you think the last solution is better? Do you think it’s simpler?”
Purushotham later revealed to me that Doshi might not even end up building the staircase. These experimental projects are for students like me to watch and learn the process of design.
At Sangath, I made lasting friendships with people from different cities and countries. Just as Sangath expanded my personal worldview by introducing me to new friends, it also fostered my architectural knowledge through journeys to heritage sites and monuments in Ahmedabad.
When we returned from those visits, Doshi would make time to meet with us at his house or on the lawn at Sangath, and ask us to tell him what we saw and what each of us thought. He never accepted vague answers like “it was nice” or “beautiful”. He wanted us to articulate the experience in detail. He was keenly aware of the varied interpretations of his work, and he liked to hear all of it. He believed that someone new to the field could ask better questions about architecture because they come with no baggage. Doshi often attributed his own unique understanding of Corbusier’s work to his background: unlike the other employees at the atelier, he never went to architecture school.
Our training varied from a semester to a year, and Doshi realised that, in the limited time we were there, he might not be able to impart all of the technical knowledge we would need to design a building. So, in order to convey information as efficiently as possible, the office was loosely structured. His door was always open, and he was never unapproachable.
Doshi often referenced the story of Ekalavya to highlight the value of having a mentor or role model, even one that you may not have a direct connection with — just like Kahn acknowledged Corbusier as his mentor because of Corbusier’s influence on his work.
“Be a thief…” Doshi would say. “You must absorb as much knowledge as you can from here before you leave.”
I learnt even more from him about life than I did about architecture, partly because the launch of his autobiography, Paths Uncharted, coincided with my training period. This makes it hard for me not to evaluate all of my life by the standard that he set for us. After all, as Doshi himself said, “It’s not enough to simply reflect on your current position in life and have affirmations. One must evaluate and take action.”
Looking back on my interactions with him, I realise that Doshi’s most valuable lesson was teaching me how to learn.
Before I completed my training at Sangath, Doshi wrote me a letter on the importance of discovering alternative routes to solutions. I try to live by those words every day. That letter serves as a physical reminder of the personal interest he took in understanding each of his mentees. He saw potential in me that I myself did not, and that is the mark of a great teacher.

DAWN OF A NEW EPOCH
The announcement of the winner of the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize has filled me with joy, renewed my passion, drive and hope for the future. Doshi was instrumental in shaping me as an individual and a thinker, and has had a tremendous influence on our lives as architecture students.
Like many, my initial reaction was that this honour was long overdue. However, in an age of extreme climate change, polarising partisan bias and a shortage of quality role models, I cannot help but see this event as more timely than ever. Never more than now has there been a need for his ideology.
His sustainable thinking, concern for the have-nots and mentality of doing more with less transcend architecture. These are timeless values, and humanity should take note. He is the living embodiment of practising what you preach, and his architecture is simply an extension of himself.
By honouring Doshi, this year’s Pritzker jury not only celebrates a life devoted to architecture, but also recognises an architecture that celebrates life. His work shows what architecture can be, and his teaching has shaped generations. Through his ideals, he has influenced the entire field, and his impact will continue to resonate for years to come. He has my heartfelt congratulations on this well-deserved honour and my deepest thanks for his life of service to his pupils, to the field of architecture and to the world.

Author : Joshua Dawson

By any standard, Balkrishna Doshi is a giant in the world of Indian architecture and design, and his influence on future generations cannot be challenged

Connect with:

Your email address will not be published.

" target="_blank">

NEWSLETTER

Subscribe our newsletter to stay updated.

Follow Us @architect_int_india

Error: Access Token is not valid or has expired. Feed will not update.
This error message is only visible to WordPress admins

There's an issue with the Instagram Access Token that you are using. Please obtain a new Access Token on the plugin's Settings page.
If you continue to have an issue with your Access Token then please see this FAQ for more information.

Subscribe