‘I’m overwhelmed’ – Balkrishna Doshi, India’s most celebrated living architect, wins top UK honour

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “‘I’m overwhelmed’ – Balkrishna Doshi, India’s most celebrated living architect, wins top UK honour” was written by Oliver Wainwright, for The Guardian on Thursday 9th December 2021 16.28 UTC

The 2022 RIBA royal gold medal, the UK’s highest honour for architecture, has been won by Balkrishna Doshi, India’s most celebrated living architect. The 94-year-old, who worked with Le Corbusier on his designs for the city of Chandigarh, was instrumental in defining the architecture of post-independence India. His designs combined modernist principles with a deep understanding of local vernacular traditions.

Doshi’s 70-year career has seen more than 100 built projects, ranging from low-cost housing to administrative buildings and cultural facilities, each finely tuned to the local context and climate.

RIBA president Simon Allford praised his “delightfully purposeful” architecture: “In the 20th century, when technology facilitated many architects to build independently of local climate and tradition, Balkrishna Doshi remained closely connected with his hinterland: its climate, technologies new and old, and crafts.”

‘Architecture should reflect spiritual convictions’ … Tagore Memorial Hall, Ahmedebad, India.
‘Architecture should reflect spiritual convictions’ … Tagore Memorial Hall, Ahmedebad, India. Photograph: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Born in Pune, India, in 1927, into a family that had been involved in the furniture industry for two generations, Doshi studied architecture in Mumbai before travelling to Paris in 1951 to work for Le Corbusier, despite not speaking any French. He returned to India in 1954 to work on Le Corbusier’s plans for the new city of Chandigarh, as well as overseeing projects in Ahmedabad, including the celebrated Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan.

The influence of his mentor remains strong. “The news of this award brought back memories of my time working with Le Corbusier in 1953 when he had just received the news of getting the Royal Gold Medal,” said Doshi. “I vividly recollect his excitement to receive this honour from Her Majesty. He said to me metaphorically, ‘I wonder how big and heavy this medal will be.’ Today, six decades later, I feel truly overwhelmed to be bestowed with the same award as my guru.”

One of the last surviving connections to the great 20th-century modernists, Doshi also worked with Louis Kahn as an associate on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, and they continued to collaborate for more than a decade.

Crucially, his work brought a humanising presence to the sometimes alienating forms of 1960s modernism. He drew on the dense, tightly-knit street patterns of traditional Indian towns and informal squatter settlements, and wrote of the need for architecture to “reflect social lifestyles and spiritual convictions,” always referring to the “constant elements of Indian architecture: the village square, the bazaar, the courtyard”.

‘Learn, unlearn, relearn’ … Sangath, Doshi’s studio, in Ahmedabad, India.
‘Learn, unlearn, relearn’ … Sangath, Doshi’s studio, in Ahmedabad. Photograph: Vastushilpa Foundation

His own studio in Ahmedabad, built in 1981, stands as a condensed manifesto of these principles. Low, barrel-vaulted buildings rise out of a garden-like landscape, with terraces crossed by channels of water, reflecting pools and a shallow outdoor theatre for gatherings. The building’s name, Sangath, means “moving together through participation,” and Doshi describes it as “an ongoing school where one learns, unlearns and relearns”.

As always, climate is at the core. The buildings are half-buried in the ground, where they are better protected from heat, dust and monsoons, while the vaults are made of ceramic pipes, covered in concrete and broken white tiles, providing insulation from the sun while shedding water in the rainy season.

Doshi’s Aranya Low Cost Housing, built in Indore in 1989, won the Aga Khan award for architecture, and was praised for its integration of mixed-income groups. It accommodates more than 80,000 people in a complex of houses and courtyards, woven together in a dense maze, with the homes designed with extension and adaptability in mind. His Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore (1977-1992) was similarly inspired by maze-like Indian temple cities, organised as a complex of interlocking buildings and galleries, with overlapping shaded areas providing respite from the hot climate.

Going underground … the Amdavad ni Gufa gallery.
Going underground … the Amdavad Ni Gufa gallery. Photograph: View Pictures/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Taking a more organic turn in the 1990s, Doshi experimented with creating an underground cave-like complex for the Amdavad Ni Gufa gallery. Irregular tree-like columns support a roof of interconnecting domes, inspired by the shells of tortoises, clad in broken ceramic crockery. Daylight is brought in through snout-like openings, creating pools of changing light on the floor, conjuring a mystical atmosphere.

Teaching has also been a central part of Doshi’s practice. In the 1960s he founded his own design school, the Ahmedabad School of Architecture (now known as CEPT University), with open-air classrooms and a focus on learning from context, which he led for 50 years, and he has been a visiting professor at a number of universities around the world.

Adding to a catalogue of accolades, the gold medal comes nearly four years after Doshi was the first Indian architect to be awarded the Pritzker prize in 2018.

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