The first thing that you notice about Sangath, Dr. Balakrishna Doshi’s office in Ahmedabad, is that it feels more like a community centre or a college campus than it does an architectural practice.
An improbable oasis of calm on the furiously busy Drive-In Road, Sangath is a leafy, green and surprisingly meditative compound, the thoughtfully landscaped grounds dotted with water features, benches, pieces of sculpture and clusters of people – employees? students? visitors? – sitting talking beneath the trees.
Clearly designed with Ahmedabad’s ferocious climate in mind, the complex is clad in glittering white tile fragments to reflect the sun and with half its height buried below ground level, all that is visible is a series of low, vaulted chambers. Windows and doors are small and deeply recessed, reducing the need for air-conditioning and oversized waterspouts channel rainwater into cascading tanks and into an underground reservoir, which helps keep the gardens green throughout the long dry season.
Hunting for the entrance, which is not immediately visible, I decide to eschew the broad, shallow staircase leading up to the landing between the vaults and follow a modest path towards a small door, tucked away somewhat counter-intuitively on the left had side of one of the vaults. As I pass from the intense sunlight down a few steps and through the low doorway into the refreshingly cool, dimly lit interior, I do wonder briefly whether I might have made a wrong turn. When I mention this to Dr. Doshi later in his neat little office, he smiles.
“But you did find your way, didn’t you?” he says, as we drink tea at a desk covered in blueprints and stacks of documentation. “I let you decide which way to walk, allowed you to meander a bit and then you find that small, low door. It isn’t what you expected but for me, is architecture is all about discovery.”
Compared to the austere, concrete bunker-like confines of some of Doshi’s other buildings in Ahmedabad, like Gujarat University’s Institute of Indology and Centre for Environmental Planning or the towering State Bank of India in Lal Darvaja for example, Sangath comes as quite a surprise. If there is one thing you learn quickly about Balakrishna Doshi, it is just how different his buildings can be from one another.
Take the Premabhai Hall, in central Ahmadabad. Built in 1972, it loudly proclaims its Brave New Worldism. A defiant statement in concrete that stands head and shoulders above its surroundings, it gives no quarter either to the crumbling remains of the 15th century Bhadra Fort next door or the equally ornate and mouldering clusters of traditional courtyard merchant houses that surround it. The Hall is an effrontery so bold that it takes away the breath even as it brings a smile to the lips.
Then compare it to the sinuous, asymmetrical domed caverns of the subterranean Husain-Doshi Gallery, with its mythological motifs, chameleon-skin domes and bulbous skylight ‘eyes’. The conceptual gulf between the two structures is so vast that even considering the twenty years that separates them, it is hard to believe both were designed by the same architect.
Doshi’s career spans sixty years, so a little evolution is to be expected but tracing its arc, it can feel as though having begun his professional life a fervent Modernist, trained for six years at Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris, halfway through his life, Doshi abruptly traded the rational for the fairy-tale, the International for the local and became, in effect, a completely different architect.
Some accounts of his career take exactly that line, roughly dividing Doshi’s life’s work into three distinct phases: the Modernist phase (1960’s/70’s), the indigenous models phase (1980’s/90’s) and the primal, mystical phase (1990’s/present day).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Doshi sees things quite differently. He says that his work should be viewed as a continuum, part of his ongoing attempt to synthesize East and West, Modernity and Tradition, the Developed and the Developing worlds.
As such, Doshi can be placed alongside Sri Lanka’s Jeffrey Bawa, Egypt’s Hassan Fathy and Jordan’s Rassem Badran, architects thoroughly grounded in Modernism, all of whom spent their lives exploring ways of adapting their dogma to local materials and needs.
In Doshi’s case, the tendency was present from the very start. Credited for having introduced the striking, partially detached double roof to Corbusier’s design for the High Court in Chandigarh, Doshi’s roof, inspired by trips to Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akhbar’s abandoned 16th century capital near Delhi, serves as both sunscreen and wind tunnel and is the most successfully adapted of all Chandigarh’s buildings to the local climate.
That he developed this design whilst working under the direct influence of one of the greatest proponents of Modernism, a man who was quite happy to resolve climate control through mechanical means, shows that Doshi was already aware that the ‘one size fits all’ approach didn’t suit India. It is this awareness of the need to adapt, he says, that explains any lack of identifiable ‘style’.
“Each (commission) demands a new approach. The world is constantly evolving, time is passing, even I am not the same architect I was (on the project) before, so why always come up with the same response?” Doshi says, with what sounds like just the faintest hint of rebuke for the ‘iconic’ tendencies of today’s starchitects “If you are in tune with your project and the purpose for which it is being built, then you drop your ego and ask yourself what it really is that you must do. Then the building emerges. No style, no period, pure experience.”
In ‘The Complete Architecture of Balakrishna Doshi”, James Steele, associate professor of architecture at the University of Southern California, suggests that rather than seeing it as a break with Modernism, Doshi’s later work is actually a continuation of early Western Modernism, of what Steele calls “a harking back to the period when the debate between craft and mechanisation had not yet been decisively won by the latter”.
While this description fits, there is more at work than a simple preference for the human over the mechanical. Thanks to a cosmopolitan eye, Doshi often sees similarities where others simply see difference. Take his account of his first visit to the Villa Savoye. While he writes that he found the experience overwhelming, he also says that his most abiding impression was not that he was seeing something radically new but rather that he was seeing something that resembled places he knew very well.
As he has written elsewhere, Savoye’s ramps made him think of temple staircases and its pilotis reminded him of the columns holding up the houses in the old city of Pune, his hometown. It seemed to Doshi that were he to replace the wooden walls and ornately carved pillars of Pune with the glass walls and pilotis of Savoye, he would have an early Indian approximation of Modernism. After all, he says, they too are “flexible houses, with columns in the middle, courtyards and two walls that are load bearing”.
This eye for similarities is perhaps why Doshi encourages architects who come to Sangath not only to visit Ahmedabad’s obvious attractions - Louis Kahn’s campus for the Indian Institute of Management and Corbusier’s Villa Shodan and Mill Owner’s Association - but also to make time for the 15th Century Jumma Mosque, built using parts of an old Hindu temple, the Dada Hari Vav stepped well on its western edge and the ornately carved 16th Century Sidi Sayed Mosque, that now sits in a busy roundabout near his bank in Lal Darvaja.
If it seems odd that historical buildings could hold much relevance for a man who likes to say that all of his buildings have been influenced, however indirectly, by his friend and former mentor Corbusier, Doshi would say that his openness to multiple sources is the inevitable result of the balancing act that living in a country like India requires.
“You cross the street here and you have to be fully aware of the cattle, the pedestrians and the hawkers as well as the bikes, trucks, buses and cars. We live simultaneously in many centuries,” he says, as I notice the office shrine holding a photo of Corbusier alongside a statue and a lithograph of Indian gods, behind him. “This country is like blotting paper, our strength, our vitality is born out of heterogeneity, we are open to everything. We absorb everything.”
He says that the unwillingness of Modernism to acknowledge the past, as well what he terms its “obsession” with building mega-structures has disfigured the movement’s promise.
“Contemporary architecture has become formal, theoretical, more about one-upmanship. Perhaps it is more technologically advanced but it is far from being human. It has become a product. Great buildings should also be touchable.”
Secure in his reputation, Balakrishna Doshi, the man who called Corbusier and Kahn his friends, now finds himself in the enviable position of being able to work only on what pleases him. These days, apart from ensuring his buildings are ‘touchable’, what pleases him most is his mission to make his adopted hometown the most liveable city in India.
“A truly sustainable city is a city where the least human energy and time is spent in getting things done. Then people have time for reflection and can once again act like human beings, not the robots they have been forced to become,” says the man who lives, works and teaches in the 4 kilometres that separate his home and Gujarat University. “Cities should not keep expanding. They should concentrate.”
He pauses briefly to take a call, pushing a sheaf of designs across the table to keep me occupied.
“With a few modifications and slight upgrades, a little surgery here and there, Ahmedabad could become the ideal city. This is what I shall be proposing to the government.”
Originally published in Wallpaper*