Discussion 26 – B.V.Doshi’s works

B.V.Doshi is one of the most revered architects’ of modern India. In a career spanning many decades, he has helped define an Indian vocabulary, especially in the post-independence era when the country was searching for an identity. Along with his immense contribution towards the built-space, equally relevant is his contribution as an educator, a philosopher and theoretician, inspiring countless generations of young architects. It is in this backdrop that we had a presentation of 3 of Doshi’s works – the Sangath, the Gufa and the CEPT. A lot of people wondered initially what was the purpose of having a presentation on such a ‘common’ and familiar topic like Doshi was. But the real surprise was the documentary, which had Doshi himself explaining his works and taking us through the spaces and the narratives, thus revealing fascinating accounts on how the designs evolved and also giving an insight into Doshi the person.

The first work that was put up was the Sangath, Doshi’s own studio. Doshi starts off by explaining the stories and the process behind the evolution of the design. Sangath is one of the most interesting architectural studios in the country, a space which really shows Doshi’s design values and influences. The partly sunken studio space has given rise to numerous landmark spaces, serving as a setting for numerous designs which have changed the face of architecture in India.

Questions of public and private, open and enclosed, form versus formlessness – all form part of the issues which were addressed in the design solution for the studio. While explaining the evolution of the design, Doshi mentions how the process is more exciting than the final product. This set off an interesting debate following the presentation, with Arun starting off saying that that need not be the case always and that the end product was equally important. Roshan too joined in, expressing that it need not be the process alone that matters and that most often, the final outcome was really important. Ar.Tony put things in perspective, when he said that for the designer the process was more interesting, while for the end user and the layman who might not be able to relate to the process, often the end product was all that mattered.

One of Doshi’s key strengths was to explain things in a beautiful manner, often weaving stories around them to make the narrative more interesting and captivating. This is very true whenever he talks, always bringing in anecdotes and stories from his experiences, often to substantiate and elaborate the conversations. Some of his stories are sometimes a bit too fascinating at times, but one probable reason could have been that Doshi worked in a time when the country had newly gained independence, when majority of the people were illiterate, when the conditions for architecture were not the most conducive and so to counter that, he had to resort to such a narrative style that was very imaginative and one which could be assimilated & identified easily by the ordinary people.

Doshi’s immense interest in our culture and his keen observation is revealed when he gives the example of the turban as one of the most contextually suited piece of clothing, apart from its primary function, being used to serve as a sheet to lie down on, or even used to draw water from a well. This was further substantiated in the discussion that followed with Ar.Tony mentioning how in places like Rajasthan, people wore bright colours to stand out in the monotonous desert landscape, while in a tropical context like Kerala with lots of vegetation, people preferred to wear white.

The second space that was analysed was that of Guha, where Doshi collaborated with M.F.Hussain to create a gallery space for Hussain’s paintings. Doshi explains the evolution of the design, telling how a long time previously Hussain had asked how the houses were so hot and how Doshi almost in jest tells him that a building can also be underground. This conversation was revived years later when Hussain wanted to build a gallery space for himself in Ahmedabad, with Doshi suggesting that the design should be a ‘gufa’ built underground. Hussain agrees to this, but Doshi further challenges him saying that the space will be unlike any gallery that has been built and that Hussain would have to really innovate to exhibit his works there. Thus was born Gufa.

The curvaceous form of the space which is half submerged into the ground is one of the most different forms that one would encounter anywhere. The finishing for the roof bulbous roof structure is done with china mosaic and locally available saucers, with Hussain saab painting a large black cobra intertwined over the roof. The underground gallery space has no straight walls and is almost totally an organic form. Here, as Doshi had challenged, Hussain comes up with an ingenious approach of converting the ceiling of the spaces into a large canvas, painting directly onto the concrete.

The presentation soon went on to CEPT which is one of Doshi’s most important contributions to architecture. One of the main success of Doshi was that he was successful in creating an institution like CEPT, which owes its beauty more to the culture that has been created, which is really the vibrant soul of the campus. This, more than anything else makes the school stand out from the rest and embodies the true spirit of how architectural education should be in a country like India. Here, even Doshi’s architecture for the campus takes a backdrop. It merely becomes the setting on which ideas are exchanged, discussions are carried out, things contemplated over, where interactions, which are such an important part of any campus, takes place. That is why Doshi the visionary must be so much appreciated, as he has helped in educating generation of architects in the ‘CEPT way’, who are spread across all regions, making a change to the face of architecture in the country and even abroad.

Doshi’s strong conviction that architecture is not a standalone entity but one which encompasses all aspects of life and culture, has rubbed off on the system of education in the school also. His interest in the allied arts, in culture, in people and their ways of life, in philosophy, in research, in lost tradition, in our rich history, all form an integral part of learning in CEPT and helps in grooming well rounded architects who are empathetic to our people, history and context.

Doshi recounts the influence that his 2 masters Corbusier & Lois Kahn had on him in evolving the spaces. He takes the best from both of them – Corbusier’s delineation of spaces and character and Kahn’s clarity of structural thought. This by no means imply that Doshi merely copied from his masters. As Neelkanth Chhaya, the director of CEPT states, Doshi though influenced by both the masters, evolves a deeply personal vocabulary, one which was the result of Doshi’s constant travelling, sketching and observations.

For most of us present, the architecture of CEPT was also timeless, in the way spaces are defined and most often, not defined, to be used in a variety of ways that the students deemed appropriate. The open spaces in the ground floor, the large studios with their huge north lights, intimate balconies, the linear axis of the entrance steps, the informal seating spaces, the microcosm of the canteen…all seemed just perfect. As Ar.Tony mentioned, the landscape and nature being omnipresent, plays a very important role in setting the tone of the space. Sujith mentioned an interesting anecdote where Doshi used to tell how he used to plant hundreds of neem saplings in the barren campus while it was being constructed, which has resulted in the lush green campus of today.

There was a bit of a debate whether Doshi has really practiced what he has preached, with Roshan posing the question to the new trainees who have joined our office. Most of them felt that Doshi’s works speak for themselves and that he has indeed given justice to all his theories and narratives.

Perhaps the most important aspect that we young architects gained out of this was Doshi’s passion for life, his love and empathy for his fellow human beings and his constant search for meaning in his wonderful journey of architecture, where someone who is above 80 years still travels, exploring & learning newer things and one who still maintains a sketchbook and still keeps sketching!

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