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BV Doshi, the lodestar of Indian architecture

Was associated with the Capitol Complex — first as intern at Le Corbusier’s Paris office and then site architect

BV Doshi, the lodestar of Indian architecture

A 2016 photo of architect BV Doshi addressing a gathering at the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh. Tribune file photo

Rajnish Wattas

MY last conversation with BV Doshi was when I called him up to congratulate on the Royal Gold Medal presented by the Royal Institute of British Architects last year. In a lighter vein, I said: “Both the presenter (the late Queen Elizabeth II) and the recipient will make a fine pair of nonagenarians!” He laughed heartily, “Yes, but I will be the younger one.” Notwithstanding the difference of age or stature, he bonded with natural ease and humane warmth with everyone.

In the 1980s, he had made 80 low-cost houses for the poor at Indore. The project was called Aranya. Photo courtesy: Vastu Shilpa Foundation 

I was lucky to be among that global sphere of his ‘disciple friends’. My biggest plus was that I was from Chandigarh, for which he had a special love. Doshi was a unique rarity as he worked not only with one, but two iconic international architects of the 20th century: Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. He was the only Indian who interned at the Paris office of Corbusier, working on the Capitol Complex at Chandigarh there. Upon his return, he became its site architect. This ensured his lifetime bond with Chandigarh and its creator.

The Royal Gold Medal was not the only top professional achievement; he was also the country’s first recipient of the illustrious Pritzker Architecture Prize (2018), besides the innumerable awards, honours and accolades showered on him — including the country’s second highest civilian honour Padma Vibhushan, given posthumously just two days after his demise.

Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi’s passing away on January 24 at the grand age of 96 marked the end of an era for post-Independence Indian architecture. He was foremost among the pioneering architects who trained abroad in modernism but were pulled back home by the excitement of nation-building.

His corpus of work includes a diverse range of illustrious projects, such as Shreyas Comprehensive School Campus in Ahmedabad, his hometown, (1958-63); low-cost housing Atira Guest House (1958), Ahmedabad; Institute of Indology (1962), Ahmedabad, a building to house rare documents; Ahmedabad School of Architecture (1966, with additions until 2012) that was renamed CEPT University in 2002; Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru (1977-92); Aranya low-cost housing (1989), Indore, which won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995. My own favourites are Sangath (1981), his studio, and the Amdavad ni Gufa (1994), a cave-like art gallery that exhibits the work of MF Husain.

I still recall my first visit to his office decades ago. It looked like a series of vaulted Buddhist viharas, partly below ground and above, teasingly configured in a verdant landscape. Where was the entrance? A meandering cobble-stoned pathway led to an obscure doorway where you had to bend your head to enter the threshold. It was a game of enigmas that Doshi was playing — like testing the tenacity of a seeker wanting to meet a Zen master!

Doshi’s greatest impact on Indian architecture is his multi-disciplinary approach to architecture and promoting dialogue, discourse and porosity of elements. He encouraged various streams of arts and creativity to have encounters with the learning of architecture: classical music, visual arts, performing arts and, most important of all, elements of nature. He was also deeply immersed in rediscovering the timeless principles of architecture embedded in the historic buildings of the country and weaving them into modern designs.

He was an Indian at heart — both in his work and in person. Always dressed in his hallmark kurta-pyjama with a Nehru jacket, with umpteen number of pockets for assorted pens, pencils, notebooks and drawing materials, he was forever observing and recording ideas. His openness to questions even by young students made him a teacher par excellence. He was moulded in the traditional Indian guru-shishya tradition of dialogue and discourse.

Doshi visited Chandigarh as often as he could. It was his sacred ground — the place of his master’s crowning glory. During his last visit in October 2016, I had the opportunity of walking with him every morning for nearly two hours in the Capitol Complex. While walking, he was constantly demystifying or highlighting myriad enigmas, symbolisms and visionary ideas of Corbusier embedded in those sculptural beton brut concrete monuments. Like a quintessential ancient Greek teacher.

Later, he delivered a spell-binding lecture standing from the sculptural concrete oval-shaped podium in the ‘Trench of Consideration’, just beneath the Open Hand in the Capitol Complex. Amidst the illuminated nocturnal ambience and a full moon, Corbusier’s edifices and monuments metamorphosed into another vision. No better man than Doshi deserved to speak from this historic pulpit.

Over dinner that evening, he said, “Rajnish, I want to thank you for organising all this, so I’m going to gift you something special.” My heart leapt with joy. He pulled out a paper napkin, scribbled something on it, folded it and gave it to me. When I opened it, it was the famous hallmark signature of Le Corbusier! Doshi had perfected the imitation scrawl and loved playing this prank.

His memoir ‘Paths Unchartered’ is one of the finest books on architecture. It encapsulates Doshi’s life journey from a small town to the galaxy of top global stars of architecture. The book has intimate vignettes from his life. When a newly-married Doshi introduced his wife to Corbusier at a party in Chandigarh, he gifted them one of his drawings, inside whose scroll was an envelope with money as the traditional Indian shagun and a handwritten note: “Here is a little grease to move the wheels of your happy married life. I hope you will have many occasions to break plates on each other’s heads! Yours with friendship, Le Corbusier.”

Full of humanism, empathy and connect to the end-user of projects, BV Doshi will remain the lodestar of Indian architecture.

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