Balkrishna Doshi, first Indian architect to win a Pritzker, dies at 95

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Balkrishna Doshi, first Indian architect to win a Pritzker, dies at 95
An undated photo provided Iwan Baan shows the architect Balkrishna Doshi. Doshi, who helped bring modernism to his native India, at first collaborating with Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn and then developing his own approach to building for his country's climates and cultures, died on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, at his home in Ahmedabad, India, which he designed and named Kamala House, after his wife. He was 95. (Iwan Baan via The New York Times)

by Fred A. Bernstein

NEW YORK, NY.- Balkrishna Doshi, an architect who helped bring modernism to his native India, at first collaborating with Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn and then developing his own approach to building in his country, died Tuesday at his home in Ahmedabad, India, which he designed and named Kamala House, after his wife. He was 95.

The death was confirmed by his granddaughter Khushnu Hoof.

In 2018, Doshi — who was known professionally as B.V. Doshi but was called just Doshi by nearly everyone — became the first Indian architect to receive the Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s highest honor. It was the latest in a long string of awards, conferred in India and abroad, that cited his achievements as both a designer and an educator. Although he never finished architecture school himself, he founded a school of architecture in Ahmedabad, and taught there for nearly half a century.

Doshi said his real education had taken place in the Paris studio of the illustrious Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier. He went to work there in 1951 after hearing that Le Corbusier had accepted several commissions in India. Doshi spent about three years in Paris working on the High Court and the Governor’s Palace, parts of Le Corbusier’s vast new capital complex in Chandigarh, and three projects in Ahmedabad: the Mill Owners’ Association building, a museum of history and culture, and a private residence.

The main lesson he learned from Le Corbusier, he said during a 2018 interview for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, is that there was no one right way to do a building. For that reason, he said, “I think it was my luck that I did not complete a formal school of architecture.”

He settled in Ahmedabad in 1954 to supervise construction of Le Corbusier’s buildings there. He recalled facing shortages of materials, of skilled labor and of funds.

But interest in Le Corbusier’s work brought such leading architects and designers as Kenzo Tange and Buckminster Fuller to Ahmedabad, giving Doshi a wealth of connections abroad.

With the Le Corbusier projects winding down, he established his own firm in Ahmedabad in 1956 and called it Vastushilpa, which means environmental design.

In 1958, Doshi spent three weeks teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, the first of many university stints in North America and Europe. During one lecture tour, in 1960, he visited the Philadelphia office of Kahn, one of the world’s great modernist architects. The next year, when he was offered the chance to design the new Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, he recommended Kahn for the job and signed on as his associate architect. The result was a series of monumental masonry buildings, their facades cut into shapes derived from vernacular Indian architecture.

A decade later, Doshi designed a second Indian Institute of Management campus, this one in Bangalore. Its deliberately mazelike construction let visitors feel as if they were both indoors and outdoors at the same time, and it used courtyards and extensive plantings to mediate the hot climate.

In 1962, Doshi founded the architecture school at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, now known as CEPT University. He also designed the school’s campus, built from locally made brick. Its layout ensured that different departments overlapped in ways that facilitated accidental interactions, which Doshi believed were essential to education.

His goal during those years, he said, was to throw off the yoke of established Western schools and find an Indian way of doing things. “We did not want to imitate someone else’s approach,” he said in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art interview. “We wanted to find our own identity.”

His own buildings were never exemplars of a particular style; rather, they developed organically as he explored available materials, local customs and climate.

“I think of my buildings as my friends, my family,” Doshi said. “I have a conversation with them, and that’s how I create niches and staircases and openings and gardens.” In the end, he said, “my buildings are not pure and clear but designed to anticipate changes.”

In 1981 he completed his studio, a cluster of rectangular rooms under semicircular vaults that held clear references to the work of Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto and Antoni Gaudi.

Rajagopalan Palamadai, a Bangalore-based architect who studied at CEPT in the 1970s, said: “Like Doshi, Doshi’s buildings have humility. A humility borne out of a desire to merge architecture with nature and culture.”

As a young man, Doshi vowed to use his skills to help the poorest of the poor, and he did. Many of his most important works were public housing developments, designed to create community. His Aranya Low Cost Housing project in Indore consists of over 6,500 residences, ranging from one-room units to spacious homes, all to accommodate a cross-section of society.

The Pritzker jury noted that in laying out such communities Doshi had considered sun angles, prevailing winds and the orientation of adjacent settlements. “The entire planning of the community, the scale, the creation of public, semipublic and private spaces are a testament to his understanding of how cities work,” the jury said, adding that he exhibited a “deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people.”

Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi was born Aug. 26, 1927, in Pune, southwest of Mumbai. He was the fourth child of Vithaldas Gokuldas Doshi and Radha (Shah) Doshi. His mother died when he was 10 months old, and he spent his childhood in the home of his paternal grandfather, who owned a furniture-making workshop where his father worked.

His grandfather’s house was home to multiple generations. Living with dozens of relatives, Doshi said, “you learn humility, you learn cooperation, you learn compassion.”

The house itself was constantly being enlarged, which taught him that “a building is a growing organism,” he said. The Indian tradition of altering buildings to meet new needs “poses a problem for architects who don’t want their buildings to be changed,” he said.

When he was 11, Doshi suffered serious damage to his right leg in a fire. Doctors were able to avoid amputation, but he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

He entered architecture school in Mumbai in 1947, the year India declared independence, and stayed there until 1950. Then, without a degree, he traveled to London to study at the Royal Institute of British Architects. He never enrolled, deciding instead to move to Paris to work with Le Corbusier.

Remaining in Ahmedabad after completing Le Corbusier’s projects, he married Kamala Parikh in 1955; she belongs to the Jain religion, and it took years for Doshi’s Hindu family to accept their interfaith marriage.

In addition to her and his granddaughter Hoof, he is survived by three daughters, Tejal Panthaki, Radhika Kathpalia and Maneesha Akkitham; four other grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters. Hoof runs the Vastushilpa Foundation, which conserves, researches and exhibits Doshi’s work.

Doshi was revered in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted his passing.

Iwan Baan, a photographer who shot many of Doshi’s works, called him “the most approachable architect I know.”

“Even very poor people in his public housing projects knew him and knew all about him,” he said, “which is exceptional.”

Palamadai, his former student, remembered the time Doshi asked him to describe one of his designs as if Doshi were blind. “That required me to consider every detail of the building,” Palamadai said. “It was a brilliant tool.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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