Monday, October 19, 2009

Building Design, London

Directed by Premjit Ramachandran
100 Hands
4 Stars

Doshi, directed by Bangalore-based film-maker Premjit Ramachandran, captures the intense energy and enigma behind the seminal Indian architect, now 82. Gripping interviews with Balkrishna Doshi, his former students, practitioners (including Graham Morrison of Allies & Morrison) and family members deal with critical questions on working as an architect within the Indian context.

Doshi has made an immense contribution to contemporary practice and polemic in India, which has been well documented in two monographs and countless publications. What is different about the film is that it is also about the philosophical underpinnings that inform the stuff of life, where architecture has a small but significant place.

Doshi looks with almost mystical wonder at the sequence of events that has led to where he is today. He stumbled into studying architecture at the suggestion of a schoolteacher. Later he travelled to London in 1951 to find himself participating in the activities of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). There he was offered his first job with Le Corbusier in Paris, who was designing Chandigarh at the time.

“Corbusier had a profound impact on Doshi”, says Ramachandran, “but he has always sought to interpret Corbusier’s modernism through local conditions of site, climate and available technology.”

Apart from the practice of architecture, his most significant achievements include setting up two important institutions in Ahmedabad, Gujarat: the Centre for Environment, Planning & Technology (CEPT) in 1962, one of India’s best architecture schools; and the Vastu Shilpa Foundation in 1972, which conducts pioneering research into sustainability, traditional Indian settlements and available technology. He was also responsible for inviting Louis Kahn to design a campus for the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad.

The conversations explore the ideological foundations that ground his work. Sustainability, which is fundamental to his thinking, is practised in a holistic way ingeniously working with not only local climate, topography, availability of materials and skills — as seen at Sangath, his studio — but also in the adaptive quality of the built environment. Here the ability for incremental growth means that communities can thrive over generations without losing architectural quality — as seen at the LIC housing project in Ahmedabad.

This aspect, completely alien to UK nimbyism, is also not easily found in the works of Doshi’s contemporaries in India. His fascination with how people behave in public space, including memories of his own childhood “always wanting to be outside, playing” gave spatial order to the campus for CEPT and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. It was here that he set up the right conditions for social interaction between students.

“His ability to at once tackle architecture as both a modern structured and rigorous artefact as well as an intangible, archaic and philosophical idea made the work seem more rooted than his contemporaries,” says Bijoy Ramachandran, who conceived and researched the film.

The film ends with Doshi at Sarkhej, an ambitious 15th century “heritage” complex in Gujarat, asking larger questions on the role of the professional in making a socially relevant architecture, where communities can rejoice in the public realm. Submissiveness to the developer is not a problem restricted to India only, and so his question gains an international significance: “What, ideologically, is our contemporary heritage?”

The film’s only missed opportunity is that it fails to acknowledge the team behind the name. Some of the testimonies are reminiscent of those in My Architect, the film about Louis Kahn, where mesmerised individuals fervently eulogise the film’s subject, which viewers may find difficult. Despite this, the critical content, delectable cinematography and musical score leave you inspired.