A Modernism for India


First-time visitors to India are often struck by the abrupt contrasts in the built environment. A realm of older, urban-fabric chaos—one that works extremely well in the manner that pedestrian-oriented cities do anywhere—will suddenly give way to a realm of more recent dysfunctional sprawl. Traditional urban forms in India show an adaptive response to climate and to centuries of patterns of use. But the country’s newer, road-emphasizing development applies 20th-century models of Western planning—models that we in the West have ourselves come to lament. Such urban growth patterns have unintended, undesirable consequences even in places where nearly everyone can afford a car; they can be disastrous in places like India where many people cannot. And it’s not just the road patterns that are ill suited to the country’s needs. Disregard for local circumstances also characterizes much 20th-century Indian architecture—resulting in climate-controlled structures indistinguishable in style from buildings you might see in the United States, Scandinavia, China, or Africa.

B.V. Doshi has worked for more than half a century to realign contemporary design and architecture to the needs of India.

Realigning contemporary design and architecture to the needs of India has been a major theme in the life’s work of B.V. Doshi. He is the winner of this year’s Pritzker Prize, often described as the Nobel Prize of architecture. It is invariably awarded to architects of great talent, most of whom are very well known. The Pritzker family fortune that funds the award was derived in large part from the Hyatt hotel chain, and the honorees tend to be the sort of starchitects whose name recognition resembles that of the chain—and whose commissions are about as widespread as its locations. Most require a map of several continents, if not the full world, to encompass their work.

By contrast, all of 91-year-old Doshi’s built works are in India. Sure, India is the seventh-largest country by geographic area and the second-most populous, but Doshi’s focus on his homeland is still radically narrow by the standards of today’s jet-set architects. When, directly after his Pritzker Prize acceptance lecture, he was asked in a Q&A whether he regretted “not having built in other countries,” his reply was a simple “No.”

The intriguing wrinkle about this dedicated regionalist is his connection to two Brahmins of international modernism. Doshi’s first employment was at Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris, where he worked on that architect’s planned city of Chandigarh, India. Doshi subsequently forged a close relationship with Louis Kahn as well. The influence of Le Corbusier and Kahn is plain in Doshi’s work, and he is given to invoking them in conversation; he has likened Le Corbusier to an acrobat and Kahn to a yogi—not a bad balance of muses.

Doshi has been reckoned among the first rank of Indian architects for half a century, and he figures prominently in almost any account of “critical regionalism”—the adapting of modernism to better engage with local climate and building traditions, prioritizing the multisensory lived experience of buildings. Critical regionalism arose in reaction to the tendency of the modernist International Style to indulge in visually impressive, intellectualized experiments with space. Doshi wrote about the wastefulness and surprising monotony of this tendency in a 1960 essay:

Rapid technological and scientific developments have led to a total rejection of age-old ways, substituting in their place a rootless expression of mere industrial functionalism. This has given us an art and architecture that is more or less uniform throughout the world. Non-affective and materialist expression over the last few decades has awakened many people who feel uprooted; they are trying to understand the cause and reason for abandoning the ideas of the past.

It would be a cartoonish overstatement to claim that every modernist is dismissive of the user’s experience and of local building exigencies. Many modernists are intimately concerned with both, as can be seen in Le Corbusier’s and Kahn’s work in India. And Doshi’s path was hardly a simple turn to traditionalism. His work fits comfortably within the modern idiom.

Still, even if there is something of a tendency to exaggerate the conflict between the requirements of modernism and of building in tropical climates, it is important to contextualize modernism’s status in India. During the Raj, the British in India were given mainly to putting native trappings on European-type buildings (the Indo-Saracenic style). Doshi praises Edwin Lutyens—the English architect who did important work in New Delhi early in the 20th century—but is largely dismissive of the built work of the colonial era, describing it as a “gap” in the historical continuum, “a sort of hybrid thing which does not possess the great qualities of either Indian or European architecture.”

Doshi photographed in March 2018 at Kamala House (built 1963, extended 1986), his home in Ahmedabad, named after his wife.

Modernism may have been an import but it wasn’t exactly an imposition: The founding generation in India after independence was eager to embrace it. Some of the particular post-independence projects were unfortunate, yet it’s less the buildings themselves than the orientation around the automobile that makes post-independence planning so bad. Lutyens’s New Delhi was already not especially pedestrian-friendly; subsequent plans (inspired by the Ford Foundation) for the city’s expansion were much worse.

Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi was born in Pune in 1927, into a family with two generations in furniture and carpentry. In his Pritzker lecture he recalled his youth living in his grandparents’ home with 15 to 20 family members: “My memory of the house was not static; it was an amorphous place. And I thought even houses change, trees transform, and everything is transformed”—a principle that would go on to inform his sense of design. He had an early gift for art and was introduced to architecture by a teacher. In 1947—the year of India’s independence from Britain and its partition from Pakistan—Doshi started formally studying architecture in Mumbai.

His career began with the era’s most emblematic modern effort. Chandigarh was created to serve as a capital for Punjab, a state in northern India, after Punjab was divided in the partition and its historic capital, Lahore, became part of Pakistan. In 1950, the Nehru government, unhappy with other plans it had been offered, reached out to the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and invited him to propose a grand modernist scheme for the new city. Construction quickly got underway, and Le Corbusier placed his cousin in India to oversee the work sites; conversely, he hired Doshi to help him in Paris, where they worked together for four years. Photos from the time show Doshi, slender and bespectacled and looking not very different from how he still does, huddling earnestly with the modernist master.

Chandigarh is rigorously gridded, organized around four-lane roads on which today’s motorized traffic proceeds far more effectively than in most Indian cities. These roads are unusually terrifying, even by the parlous standards of India. (This author still bears a motorbike-inflicted scar on his hand.) The city is not the modernist dystopia one might imagine—it is no Brasilia—as the sectors created by the big avenues are generally pedestrian-friendly and feature many excellent buildings. Several of Chandigarh’s most notable and impressive structures were designed by Le Corbusier himself, and while they employed some methods less than ideal for Indian building circumstances he did make considerable efforts to adapt them to the locale.

In addition to Chandigarh, Doshi assisted Le Corbusier in the early 1950s on buildings in another Indian city, Ahmedabad. Doshi soon established his own practice there, and the city became his adopted hometown. A day’s drive north of Mumbai, Ahmedabad doesn’t figure prominently on most tourist itineraries despite its huge population. (As of the 2011 census, Ahmedabad had more than 5.6 million people, making it India’s fifth-biggest city.) Known as the “Manchester of India” for its textile boom years, by the mid-20th century it had become home to a business elite inclined toward modernism. Le Corbusier was commissioned to design a museum, a building for the local mill-owners’ association, and several homes there. In 1962, Louis Kahn was commissioned (at Doshi’s recommendation) to design the Indian Institute of Management in the city. Doshi himself has built his largest concentration of structures in Ahmedabad, including his office building, Sangath (Sanskrit for “moving together”), which was constructed between 1978 and 1980.

Doshi (right) worked with Le Corbusier on the massive Chandigarh project.

A recent visit to Sangath required navigating a metropolis clogged with traffic—currently worsened and, one hopes, soon reduced by a metro system under construction along the very street Sangath is on. Many of the buildings on the street are tall and anonymous; Sangath is low-scale and distinctive. Once inside the white wall that surrounds the building, you are routed through a bucolic garden and around a fountain and statuary. A series of half-circle vaults—some open-air, some with rooms beneath them—are suggestive of Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, although the arrangement is much more pleasant and organic, and has been compared to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. The building’s entryway isn’t at all obvious; some exploration reveals a semi-concealed stairway beneath ground level.

I met with Doshi in a ground-floor conference room, indirectly lit—a hallmark of his work—and markedly cooler than the 106-degree air outside. He does not look his 91 years; he might be mistaken for 70 and seems to radiate the vigor of eternal experiment, ready with laughter and wry remarks. As we talked, Doshi unfailingly turned practical questions in humanist directions, starting with my experience of arriving at Sangath:

I like to give a sudden surprise. You came here and you saw the gate and you didn’t know where to walk. You turn right and then you come in. These are my techniques of creating sudden surprises. You see, human beings are constantly thinking and worrying. I would like to break that and give them relief.

Doshi kept returning to this theme of providing relief and comfort. His emphasis on the human experience and his wariness of architectural experiment extend even to a preference for traditional drafting over computer modeling: “If you draw with your hand your whole body is involved, but when you are only commanding something you are not fully involved. That leads to detachment—it’s like becoming numb.”

Yet the most important thing about a structure is not how it comes to the drawing board but its fitness in a given place and its suitability for a way of living. Architecture, Doshi notes, intrinsically involves practical questions and quantifiable solutions that, with effort, can be applied in different locations. But “how is it matching?” How is construction suited to local circumstance? “My buildings everywhere are connected to local material, local technology, local craftsmanship, local climate.” He gives his modernist mentor some credit for this. “The thing that I learned from Corbusier,” he says, was the importance of nature, broadly understood: “Nature doesn’t mean outside you, nature means the whole world around you so I work with that. ... I work with that energy, I work with that consciousness, and I work with what is around.”

Kamala House, Doshi’s home in Ahmedabad.

In his Pritzker lecture, Doshi spoke about finding inspiration in traditional Hindu temples when designing his own house in Ahmedabad:

When [one] enters there, there are different notions of spaces; the open space, the semi-covered space, then an enclosed place, then slowly a dark space. All those spaces change moods and finally you come to the inner sanctum where there is hardly any natural light but there is that silence and then there is that dimly lit kerosene or oil lamp.

Doshi has a virtuosic ability to create such variable spaces, with the character of rooms shifting as the light, air flow, and temperature change.

While the variation of interior light is considered during the planning of any half-decently designed building, in much of the world temperatures inside buildings are designed not to vary. In temperate and colder climates, the most important task of construction is generally enclosure. A distinction between indoors and out is the rule, so that every room possesses essentially the same climate while the world outside changes as it will. In some places it’s necessary to hermetically seal buildings against their climates; in others, doing so is an overreaction that forecloses on the possibility of more nuanced treatments.

In Ahmedabad, as in much of India, the primary requirement for buildings is the ability to handle extremes of heat and seasonal rain. Enclosure can be a barrier to natural shade and cooling. And just as there are countless ways to enclose a structure, there are countless ways not to do so.

Ahmedabad beyond Sangath offers examples of most of Doshi’s range of work, spanning decades, uses, and degrees of complexity—from the simple and modest to the grand and complicated. Some of his buildings are made of brick, like the stately, vaulted low-cost and middle-class housing he has designed.

Other Doshi buildings are in characteristically modernist concrete. He cites his experience at Chandigarh and Le Corbusier’s use of concrete there: “If you were using steel it would not be fluid. So all these forms and the kind of structures that he did—it would never have happened” without concrete. Sometimes, Doshi (drawing inspiration from Japanese architect Kenzo Tange) uses concrete in ways that resemble wood; sometimes he uses concrete in ways that earlier builders would have used stone. The attraction of concrete is chiefly in the diversity of ways it can be used—and, counterintuitively, in its intrinsically local nature, since, as Doshi stresses, it is always mixed either on site or nearby. “The moment it is fluid you are free to do what you want to do.”

Premabhai Hall (1976), one of Doshi’s two Brutalist theaters in Ahmedabad, has been closed since 1997.

The two Brutalist concrete theaters that Doshi and engineer Mahendra Raj built in Ahmedabad are strikingly different from one another. Premabhai Hall, completed in 1976, announces its function with a hulking brow cantilevered forward; it has been closed since 1997. Tagore Memorial Hall, completed in 1971, is still in use. Its boxy exterior, with massive folds in one wall, conceals its purpose.

The Gandhi Labour Institute, designed by Doshi in the 1980s, has a series of vaults in stone, brick, and concrete reminiscent of Sangath. The vaulted roof is a perfect climatic structural expedient in India, a means of catching the heat of the sun a distance from the lived space of a room and permitting a layer of breeze. It also affords the chance for varieties of indirect lighting.

The architecture school at CEPT University in Ahmedabad.

In the 1960s, Doshi founded the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology—now CEPT University—and over the decades erected its several buildings. The university’s architecture school is a brick-and-concrete structure, exceptionally open and virtually doorless, raised over a plaza. It is nestled between hillocks and a principal quadrangle.

Some of Doshi’s buildings seem more modern, some more traditional, but most are recognizably both; squinting at his modernism reveals a vernacular lineage and peering closely at his traditionalism reveals its contemporary innovations. He classifies his own work differently, along a continuum from “straight” buildings (generally his older works) to “plastic” buildings (his later works). An example of a straight building would be his Institute of Indology, a short walk south of CEPT University. Completed in 1962, it looks at first like it could sit at almost any 1960s university—an example of imposing, geometric concrete monumentalism. On second glance, however, it is highly permeable: A lower level is shielded from the elements but the remainder is deceptively airy and open.

The inside of Amdavad ni Gufa (1994), Doshi’s cave-like art gallery in Ahmedabad, has undulating ferro-cement walls and pillars that look as if they were naturally formed.

Tucked between the university and the institute is Doshi’s most fantastical work, the Amdavad ni Gufa, a subterranean gallery designed in collaboration with the Indian artist M.F. Husain. From the outside it looks like a collection of domes bulging from the ground; its curving inside is a painted cave, complete with artful stalagmite-like pillars. Doshi calls it “completely plastic” and compares its design and construction to “making a sculpture, a mixed sculpture, a spatial sculpture that you have to [give] life and ventilation and space.”

Architecture necessarily involves measurable qualities, from how to support a structure to how to ensure that it is efficient and suited for its purpose. But with the Gufa, Doshi wanted something different. “Gufa is an unmeasurable experience,” he says. Making it “unmeasurable was my challenge to myself.”

Among Doshi’s many projects outside Ahmedabad are several housing developments, such as the Aranya complex near Indore, Vidhyadhar Nagar near Jaipur, and a number of smaller efforts—all attempts, in part, to combat urban planners’ obsession with the automobile. Even as a disciple of Le Corbusier he criticized Chandigarh as inadequately dense beyond its first planned sector and overly reliant on the automobile. “It’s a whole question of scale,” he told me. “We are not talking about the human scale anymore. When you make all these driveways, large highways, you create structures,” then “speed, the meaning of time, the meaning of energy, the meaning of personal use, relationships change.”

A section of Aranya Low-Cost Housing, a community designed by Doshi in Indore and built in 1989. The full complex houses more than 80,000 people in some 6,500 residences.

Doshi’s housing developments have prioritized density and walkability while still allowing ample freedom for residents to alter their dwellings—modifying and expanding as they wish. This is surprising given many marquee modernists’ control-freak reputations. While Doshi unquestionably builds extremely deliberate features into his work, he is receptive to and even encouraging of ways that users might adapt his designs. “My attitude to life and relation with the world around is inclusive and not exclusive,” he explained. “I learn a lot from nature and in nature the natural law is to empower what the seed is about. ... What is inherent in the seed must blossom.”

Doshi’s quest, as he sees it, has been to make a living architecture. This is what has pushed him to try new things—not planned-out formalized experimentation but a kind of evolutionary growth. “Not one project is identical. I am not the same every day. I am changing. My buildings are changing. I give my life to my work.”

Doshi has argued against the visual fixation of much modernism, which often prizes the perfect view over lived experience. But his own highest priority has hardly been the creation of comfortable cocoons. As he wrote in the 1980s in his essay “Between Notion and Reality,”

Supreme among architectural experiences are ones which occur along routes of movement and in spaces that could be characterized as pause or ambiguous plural spaces. These spaces activate the human psyche and induce it to sink toward the center, the mythical world of human’s primordial being.

The entrance to the school of architecture (1966) at CEPT University offers a choice of stairways—to give the visitor a moment of discretion, Doshi says.

The uncertainties induced by his buildings can be puzzling—as when I had to search for the door to his office—but also enriching. At the CEPT architecture school, the main entrance features a choice of two stairways—designed that way purely to provide the visitor a moment of discretion. Such distinctively Doshian spaces of repose and choices of navigation remind us of who we are:

Is an architect a human? Does the architect have a human spirit? Or has he a technological spirit? Is he fascinated by the human spirit of sensitivities or is he thinking about the adventurous things which have nothing to do with feelings? ... We are living in a technological world. We are fascinated by it but when it comes to living we need to know how to balance both and that balance has to be a project.

An unabashed modernist whose work invokes traditional forms, Doshi embraces a humanist philosophy of architecture that stretches beyond the atomistic question of situating a single building in a void and addresses broader problems of urban form—never losing sight of the fact that urban form should adapt to the human form and its patterns of life, not the reverse. “I’ve written ‘what touches life, lasts.’ And that’s all I do as an architect.”

Asked finally what he was currently working on, he replied “Silence” and laughed.