“Buildings are critical instruments to celebrating life," says Balkrishna Doshi Image Credit: Courtesy: VSF

Even if you can’t name a building by architect Balkrishna Doshi, you’ll know it when you see it: Doshi’s is the structure that is modern and yet rooted in place, a creative nucleus of Indian culture and local traditions. His style is dynamic, never flashy, and subtle.

It is no wonder then that the architect was awarded the Pritzker Prize — regarded as the profession’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize — earlier this year. “It’s a gift from heaven,” says Doshi, the first Indian architect to win the $100,000 award in its 40-year history that has celebrated such figures as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Oscar Niemeyer. “I’m moved by the jury’s decision. It’s surprising and heartwarming.”

Sangath Architect’s Studio

“Balkrishna Doshi has created an equilibrium and peace among all the components — material and immaterial,” said the Pritzker jury in its citation, praising his work as embodying “a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high-quality, authentic architecture”.

His narrative isn’t flamboyant, but it is undeniably fascinating. Doshi emerges from the constraints of mid-century modernism, grapples with questions of urban development and human scale of a new nation, and comes increasingly to rely on the quintessential qualities of architecture — form, space and light — and engagement with the public realm to create buildings of lasting meaning and value.

“Buildings are critical instruments to celebrating life. Anything that enhances the quality of life, amplifies our senses, needs to be valued,” says the 90-year-old Indian architect, who transformed architecture into a wonderful thing of fluid geometries, lightness and unforgettable forms. “Architecture makes you aware of your senses.”

Premabhai Hall, 1976. Ahmedabad, India

He’s the last of the “heroes” of Indian architecture since the country’s independence, along with Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde and Anant Raje, who transformed Modern movement architecture to suit Indian conditions.

With a career spanning six decades as an educator and an architect, writing a history of the modern architecture of India without acknowledging Doshi’s seminal contributions, especially for reimagining low-cost housing, is impossible.

“I have been slowly learning,” he says, ever so humbly, reflecting a commitment to using architecture as a force for public good. “All my life I have been interested in working for the have-nots — homeless and migrants — who are struggling to survive, and how we can build for these people.”

Referring to his own childhood encounters with “poverty”, he adds, “It was important for me to upgrade the quality of life of these people, the ‘other half’.”

It all started when the Indian nation was not even a decade old. In 1955, Doshi founded his office in the western city of Ahmedabad where Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram served as the epicentre of India’s struggle for independence against British imperialism.

“For the last 60 years, empowering people has been my priority. So I thought of setting up a school (Ahmedabad School of Architecture) where good architects will be nurtured, to focus on collaborative learning, learning on deeper understanding of context. Also, I continued with my passion for working in low-cost housing, and through all that Aranya came into being…”

Praised for the integration of mixed-income groups and maximising rationalisation and efficiency, Doshi’s Aranya, built in Indore in 1989, accommodates more than 80,000 people in a complex of houses, interconnected passages, courtyards and public spaces where people from varied castes and diverse religions mix and cooperate. It won the Aga Khan award for architecture in 1995. In fact, the champion of housing for poor, Doshi was awarded the Pritzker in large part for Aranya.

“I have an inner longing to work for impoverished communities,” continues Doshi. “Disparity and social inequity, albeit with varying degrees, is the story of most of the developing countries. But in India, when you look around, it is stark, and increasing.”

“Look at the housing that increasingly ring our towns and cities,” he says. “Do any of them reflect the best design, the changing way we live, or how environmental thinking ought to be transforming architecture?”

In such a scenario, Doshi says, the task for architects and urban planners is to break down prejudices because architecture and urban design, if done right, can be socially transformative.

“We can’t live in a segmented society. Designing and building living spaces should benefit the whole community, rich and poor. We need to build an environment for the well-being of all people; it should be inclusive and accessible for all.”

Aranya Low Cost Housing, 1989. Indore, India

He is a strong advocate of creating a better social mix through housing. Much before Aranya, for which he is best known, he designed — with extension and adaptability in mind — a complex for the Life Insurance Corporation in Ahmedabad, locally called Bima Nagar, consisting of 324 houses arranged in a duplex terraced unit scheme in 1973.

“Different income groups housing can be successful, if done well. People there [Bima Nagar] are healthier, safer, and vibrant. They are extremely happy, learning form each other. Shared spaces and amenities give them sense of community,” he says. “If you put them together as a community, there’s cooperation, there’s sharing, there’s understanding.”

Needless to say, his aim was to foster social cohesion through these housing projects. A defining attribute of Doshi’s architecture has been bringing design to the masses, to produce not only a new aesthetic, but also a new egalitarian order.

“Housing as shelter is but one aspect of these projects,” the Pritzker jury rightly said in its citation. “The entire planning of the community, the scale, the creation of public, semi-public and private spaces are a testament to his understanding of how cities work and the importance of the urban design.”

His socially progressive agenda echoes that theme, and stands out in a country with persisting housing issues in urban areas for its poorest citizens, which is estimated at over 19 million households. The lack of affordable housing is especially acute in Mumbai, India’s financial capital and home to some of the world’s costliest real estate, where an estimated six out of every 10 people live in slums.

It’s crucial to come up with cost-effective solutions, Doshi says. “These people have nothing — no land, no place, no employment. But cities have enough land to solve the housing crisis. More importantly, if there’s enough land to build factories and industries, then why is there a problem to build affordable homes?”

“Trees have disappeared, public spaces have gone away, gardens have gone away…The only priority of a country can’t be economic growth. Growth has to be balanced,” he adds. “I think the problem is our thinking. Our thinking must change radically and we must humanise things.”

Also, though public buildings and gated communities in cities across the country are not part of a chain and don’t have their interior design directed by a single corporate overlord, they have a way of mimicking the same tired style. Such architecture, says Doshi, is pure imitation and out of milieu. It’s an unwillingness to be experimental.

“Architecture is not mechanical. It should connect the body, mind and spirit through space. A man must feel joy and tranquility when he visits a place. We must always be creating new interpretations of life,” he adds.

He has had quite a life. Born in 1927 into a family that had been involved in the furniture industry for two generations, Doshi, after studying architecture in Mumbai’s famous Sir JJ School of Architecture, travelled to Paris in 1951 to work in the atelier of iconic 20th century modernist Le Corbusier. He returned to India in 1954 to oversee Corbusier’s projects in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad, such as the celebrated Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan — the buildings that demonstrated Corbusier’s architectural grammar for the region.

In the early 1960s, Doshi worked with American architect Louis Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He is a huge part of the landmarks that shaped the discourse of architecture in post-Independence India, that embraced and humanised modernism’s principles, with an understanding of the deep traditions of India’s architecture.

“Corbusier and Kahn widened my horizon, they taught me the purpose of architecture is more than aesthetics. It’s about joy and vigour, an extension of life,” says Doshi. “Their teachings helped me discover contemporary expression for a sustainable holistic habitat.”

Combining the lessons learned from these two modern masters, Doshi found a language of his own, which he fully articulated in his later works, including the Jnana-Pravaha Centre for Cultural Studies in Varanasi; the Sawai Gandharva performing arts centre in Pune; the Tagore Hall on the banks of the Sabarmati and Amdavad Ni Gufa, a cave-like underground art gallery that reveals an evolution of an indigenous artistry, in Ahmedabad; the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi that is based on the concept of a central step-well; the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru, a complex of interlocking buildings and galleries inspired by the temples in Madurai and the Fatehpur Sikri, and his design school in Ahmedabad, now known as the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) University, which has open-air classrooms and won international recognition for its pioneering approach.

The range of institutional buildings he designed in different cities, including Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Jaipur, and the way they are contemplative, fitting into a city’s context and yet standing out, is fascinating. His best buildings seemed to have emerged in an instant, as if fully formed from his mind. You cannot imagine them being any other way — they seem to spring naturally from their sites.

“I have tried to make all my buildings more or less participatory — connecting with the environment and people,” says Doshi. To him, architecture works in collaboration with end users and their needs and ambitions, and it has the power to be a source of happiness. “It’s important to understand the building, and the space in between buildings… the real habitat, the open space or the public space.”

His body of work, while taking into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, represent every strata of society — low-income groups, the middle-class and the elite. “There’s a need for architecture to reflect social lifestyles. I am a part of the society, so what I see in society at large, its concerns, I try to provide solutions through my work,” says the man who has not only designed some of the most admired, and beautiful, buildings of the past 60 years, but who has lived and breathed architecture as few others have.

Of the 100 wide-ranging works, which include academic institutions, mixed-use complexes, housing projects, public spaces, galleries and private residences, his favourite is his design studio Sangath — Sanskrit for “moving together through participation” — in Ahmedabad. A compelling microcosm of his ideas, the space — with buildings half-buried in the ground, a series of sunken vaults sheathed in mosaic made of recycled ceramic tiles, a small terraced amphitheatre with intricate water details — is integrated with the natural characteristics of the site. It works not just as a studio but as a living ground for exhibitions, performances and festivities.

“My main focus was sustainability, making good use of waste products, orienting the building to to protect it from heat. I believe in traditional way of building, of maximising limited resources.”

“It was important for me to create comfortable living environment without any mechanical cooling or heating and have low environmental impact. It’s important to find out how to get the sunlight inside and work the shadows,” he adds. “We don’t have the need for air-conditioning here [at Sangath].”

Tellingly, his architectural artistry has responded to social and environmental concerns, whether it’s low-cost housing or energy-efficiency of his own studio.

His Vastushilpa Foundation, founded in 1978, develops planning and design approaches suited to the Indian cultural context, and serves as a crucial link between the academy and the architectural profession.

It’s important to look at the climate, culture, material, location and how does the building connects to the larger context — people and their environment, he says, while designing a building.

He paid particular attention to the conservation aspects of wind power, solar orientation, planting and water in his works. Through his buildings, he made people aware of nature — the sun, rain, ground and sky. He’s been engaged with sustainability since the 1960s — using patios, courtyards, and covered walkways to protect from the sun, catch the wind and provide comfort and enjoyment in and around the buildings. Architects need to learn from their surroundings, he says.

He is inspired by ancient wisdom of building science that emphasises harmony with nature. “My teacher is nature.”

Teaching has been at the heart of Doshi’s practice throughout his long career. In fact, one of his most important contributions has been his engagement with the academic world, and many have been influenced by his ideology of evolving architectural language.

“I’m a people-oriented person,” he says. “I enjoy teaching as much as designing, and like interacting with young people. I learn from them, as they are around me all the time.”

For 50 years, he has been a visiting professor at a number of universities around the world, including Washington University and University of Pennsylvania.

“I always look forward to meet students from all over the world when I get an opportunity,” he adds.

The architect turned 90 last August and regularly comes to his studio. He is remarkably agile, brims with energy. “God’s grace keeps me motivated,” he says. “But I work less than what I used to.”

So what’s his next passion project, I ask. Nothing concrete, he says. “Dreaming about life and future, and making the most of energy and time. I think about how we can create an awareness of natural phenomena, which is the real virtue of good architecture, and how we can combine, create, mix and create our own new ways of interpreting life…”

Unsurprisingly, Doshi’s humanist outlook was explicitly recognised by the Pritzker Prize committee that said his projects “go beyond the functional to connect with the human spirit through poetic and philosophical underpinnings”.

Is it important for an architect to have humanist values like him? Doshi chuckles. “Is social consciousness not part of the architect’s duty? It’s good to be humane, generous and compassionate. We must try to do the best we can,” says the prolific form-giver.

Despite having created some of the most compelling buildings of the past 70 years, Doshi, the living legend, likes to to talk more about human well-being, sustainability and social consciousness than architecture. Perhaps he doesn’t need to. Just look at what he has built.

Suparna Dutt-D’Cunha is a writer based in Pune, India.