It is the belief system in our lifestyle and resources which is going to guide architectural trends in the future. 

April 24th, 2013
Beyond mere aesthetics, architecture is about life

As a part of the series of conversations with the pioneers in the field of post-Independent Indian architecture, we present before you the thoughts, views, concepts and ideologies of veteran architect, educationist and thinker B V Doshi, whose contributions in the field have led to the evolution of an architectural discourse in the country.

Balakrishna Vittaldas Doshi is a pioneering architect, a teacher and an influential architectural thinker of modern India. His architecture is a judicious blend of tradition and modernism, and his life is almost parallel to the growth of modern architecture in India. A great educationist, he has been instrumental in establishing the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT), one of the pioneering schools of architecture in India, and was the first dean of this school.

B.V Doshi

B.V Doshi

Prof Doshi’s works and his philosophy have been widely discussed and published in journals and magazines all over the world. Some of his major works include the ATIRA Low-Cost Housing, Institute of Indology, and Gandhi Labour Institute (all in Ahmedabad), Aranya Low-Cost Housing (Indore), Hussain-Doshi Gufa (Ahmedabad), NIFT (New Delhi), IIMs (Bangalore and Lucknow), Bharath Diamond Bource (Mumbai) and others. He has been honored with several international and national awards, including the Padma Shri by the Government of India, for his distinguished contributions both as a professional and as an academician. An architect with a strong social bend and a believer of freedom, equity, and social justice, Prof Doshi reveals his mind on some of these aspects in this interview.

Having grown alongside the modern architecture of India, how do you look at the transformation of Indian architecture since Independence?

There are two distinct phases to discuss here. The post-Independence till the liberalisation and after liberalisation to globalization – two very different scenarios…

The post-Independence period was a kind of searching for identity and devising means for finding solutions due to scarcity. Obviously, sustainability issues like using the right materials and local technology, conserving energy, and developing all the things that are required in terms of comfort conditions – these formed the need of the day. The profession responded to this. Another aspect was the identity factor – who you were and where you came from.

All the work that happened during that period by all the people who worked, was, in fact responding to this search for identity, for architecture which was appropriate. Architecture all over the country followed certain forms based on society, climate, technology and materials distinct to the region. So regionalism rooted from this. In general, the architecture belonging to this phase was of low key, and was connected more to the social norms and lifestyle. The class difference was not much visible in the architecture of those times.

The next phase is dominated by an influx of outside technologies, materials, large-scale production and commercialisation. The media and global interconnectivity added another dimension to the aspirations of the people. The opportunities also increased, and people wanted to build what they saw in Singapore, Shanghai, or New York, believing that they were the best.

The market-driven developers turned to generating pseudo-vernacular models that copied the elements (read mimicry) without understanding the essence. In fact, a dilution of our identity was the result of this pretention. So we can see that the present-day architecture is more of a result of the commercial, consumerist global mindset.

CEPT is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The school has established its name as a premier institute and research centre in the fields of architecture and planning. What prompted you to start a school of architecture and what were your goals?

I did my schooling in Bombay, the JJ School of Architecture, following which I left India to pursue my higher studies in the US. I first went to Washington in 1958, and later, moved to MIT. From then onwards, I used to visit different universities in the US for teaching. There I found a fantastic exposure in terms of libraries, alternative choices, freedom and exposure to the new world as well as the old world. My frequent visits to Europe and the US, and my association with several universities as a teacher made me realise how much I missed the real university education in terms of exposure, facilities and a desire to grow beyond the limits. I wished to have dialogues and debates and also wanted to understand myself through these debates. All these factors made me think of opening a new school in my country. My objective was to create a place where better opportunities and competition were available. I am really thankful to Kasturi Lal Bhai and Ahmedabad Education Society for supporting and nurturing this idea, which, I feel, otherwise, might not have happened anywhere else at that time. Ahmedabad has always supported entrepreneurship and new ideas, and has been facilitating architectural thinking. That was the reason why the school was established here, and, naturally, it flourished, owing to the support of the citizens and professionals.

CEPT believes in value-based education, because the promoters of education themselves believe that, at the Institute, the fundamentals of all that is taught and the exposure are at par with the best in the world. Our visiting faculty and our lectures and programmes outside are very different and we are also globally exposed. Besides, we are lucky to have such a nice campus.

As an academician and an active teacher, how do you see the architectural education scenario in India?

From the 1960s till the 1980s, there were only a few schools, and only genuinely interested candidates used to join them. Moreover, the teachers, too, were genuinely interested. Only the best would join the schools both as teachers and as students. The sole aim was to acquire knowledge. The school education was rooted in whatever beliefs they had, but the scenario is entirely different now. Today, there are over 250 schools in the country, and all of them are aimed at supplying professional expertise to the market. The education has shifted its base from values and beliefs to market needs.

The present aim is employment-oriented, that is, to give the students tools to make money or to survive. There is a change in the mindset of people who come in, whether they are students, teachers, parents, or the institution builders. The profession is market-driven and is considered to be a lucrative one. The educational institution has become an alternative business. This attitude has really transformed the education scenario, but then this is the truth, anywhere in India.

What, in your opinion, are the principles and value systems that are going to guide this profession in future?

The belief system – I think it matters a lot. I would say that, in life, only the belief system is bound to work in the long run, irrespective of whatever your feelings are, because it is the belief system which finally pushes you forward.

“I think architecture is a matter of transformation – transformation of all adverse situations into favorable conditions.” With reference to this quote of yours, how does architecture serve as a catalyst in such a transformation?

Positive-rooted transformation creates both physical and spiritual enlightenment. This enlightens one about one’s real self, and I think this is where the subconscious affects the person’s inner feelings. When this affects his behaviour, his attitude to life gets changed totally. All my work was based on this belief. I can cite the CEPT campus itself as an example for this. Usually, in life, we forget that we are living in nature and that our deep-rooted susceptibilities are tied up with natural phenomena. Take, for instance, the rains, winter days, early mornings, or evenings. The space along with the environment and its relationship with the nature moulds and is reflected in one’s character. Rootedness with the nature is very essential. This also heightens the sensibilities.

Do you have something to say about ‘contemporary architecture’ in relation to the field that is practised in India?

Is architecture contemporary or temporary –I wonder.

Do you believe that regionalism does matter in architectural design?

First of all, there are no ‘isms’ in architecture, because I feel architecture is not a dead thing – on the contrary, architecture is life itself. This is what I believe. The windows, the walls, the staircases, the verandahs… they all ‘speak’ in relation to the climate and function. So it’s a living organism, where architecture as a human activity is a detailed dialogue.

India is known for its richness and diversity in terms of architectural history and tradition. Is there a specific site or a structure in the country that you like the most?

There is much to learn from the past. There are many places which I feel like re-visiting, such as Pos of Ahmedabad, the monumental fort of Jaisalmer, the temples of Kerala, etc. The Vadakkunnathan temple in Thrissur, and especially the ‘koothambalam’, is unmatchable in its simplicity, proportion, scale, and detailing. I have always felt that the classical traditional architecture of our country has a lot of commonality with the Japanese wooden architecture. They do share a lot like quality of light, horizontality, the roof, materials used, techniques employed, and so on. I believe that all buildings that are more than a hundred years old have great value, in terms of not only aesthetics but also the social understanding of life. You can find that communication, behaviour pattern, cultural needs and rituals – all of these are interconnected.

Could you share some of your memorable experiences as an architect while dealing with public projects and social spaces?

AranyaAranya housing and LIC housing were quite experimental in nature. The entire project was a dialogue. There was total cooperation from the users, the common people. The housing project was considered as a living entity where incremental growth and personal changes were allowed and integrated as a part of the scheme. These projects are live examples where the organic growth, which is invariably a part of any growing mechanism, is gelled with the designed space, and the function extends to the spaces in and around, to make it a live architectural experience.

India is known for its traditional pluralistic urban spaces. The contemporary urban development is such that it is creating a large number of individualistic, segregated spaces. How do you look at this?

I think there are many layers to this question. Tradition, lifestyle, community feeling, culture and religion have all influenced the spaces of the past. At present, an architect is not very much concerned about these aspects, or, rather, I would put it this way – that he is not trained. Architectural education must have social anthropology as a core subject, and understanding of behavioural sciences should be a part of the education system. Architecture is not mere aesthetics; it is much more than aesthetics. Nowadays, we find that architects are designing products in the process of which they are not involved – this is where we go wrong.

You have always taken architecture to a larger canvas, integrating it with other branches of social sciences. The general concern is that design deals with only the affluent class and always remains aloof from the common people. Can you suggest a way to take architecture to the masses?

That is a mistake. You are speaking about the present status. It wasn’t so previously. Nowadays, architecture is not discussed widely in the public domain. Somehow, the subject has often been treated aloof from other branches of social relevance. This attitude should change. Schools should integrate this as a part of their curriculum. Why are most of the architectural schools located in the metros and larger cities? Can’t we have good schools in smaller towns? Why aren’t we producing barefoot architects? How many architects are going to the villages to work as Laurie Baker did? Baker’s life is a great example for everybody – his devotion, dedication, belief and practice.

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