At one point in the documentary Doshi, Balkrishna Doshi explains his influences saying, “ it’s like I’m eating the food by the best chefs, but I am digesting it. How you digest your food and make it part of your blood and body is up to you.” As one of the few Indian architects known and respected internationally, Doshi is often introduced as a man who trained in his craft under Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, a pronouncement that though accurate, tends to attribute his achievement to their personalities rather than his own talent. Shot in a candid, conversational style, the film overturns this presumption, showing us a highly original, creative human being who at age 84, is still as much in love with architecture as he is with life and learning.
A personal undertaking for architect Premjit Ramachandran with filmmaker Bijoy Ramachandran of 100 Hands, Doshi is a film about an architect, but it is also a film about a teacher and a father. Rather than show us bland shots of buildings, the camera follows him through their spaces as he narrates, reminisces and explains the process of creating them. We enter his home and discover how he made his philosophy an intricate part of his own life. The film becomes a round table discussion with him, his former students, contemporaries and even family members, all in the backdrop of his architecture. I could almost imagine myself sitting under a great big tree in the CEPT courtyard, drinking chai and listen to him talk.
By itself,the film is remarkable for the number of quotable quotes it throws at you and I found myself struggling to keep pace with them all. Ideas like “architecture is about transformation” can sound like glib proselytizing until one realises that these concepts are the result of a lifetime of distillation. Doshi’s ideas are not borrowed, but they come from an open minded – though deliberate – assimilation of influences. “Le Corbusier was like a guru to me,” he says. “And because he was my guru, I decided that I could not copy him.” He freely acknowledges his teachers and perhaps it is only appropriate that through the medium of this documentary, his students willingly acknowledge him as well.
Doshi began his career soon after independence. In the early 1950s Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for a modern, self reliant and confident Indian was the inspiration for a great many institutions and initiatives. The School of Architecture, together with ISRO, NID and IIM, made Ahmedabad a hotbed for innovation and experimentation with its founder Doshi and his counterparts at the vanguard. These institutions sought out a harmonised way forward for modern India, one that would combine Western tendencies with local sensibilities. A deep understanding of the past and a comfortable relationship with the present was the only way that India could invent a sustainable future for herself, was their belief. Explaining his philosophy, Doshi quotes Gandhi, “open the windows but see that your roof is not blown out, make sure that the foundations are strong.”
Combining his early work experience at Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris with his own research into native Indian architecture, he introduced a unique form of modernism to the country that remained sensitive to the Indian context of community and environment. He cites the temples of Madhurai as his learning grounds for lessons on rhythm and composition, just as he attributes his work ethic to Le Corbusier. As the founder Dean of Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) in Ahmedabad he influenced generations of architects in the country: whether as an institution builder, teacher or academician. His own practice, the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design pioneered work in affordable housing and city planning. Doshi was eventually awarded the Padma Shri in 1976 in recognition for his services to architecture.
Cut to the present day, and Doshi is disappointed by what he sees around him. It appears to him as though architecture has fallen into the hands of developers as architects themselves find it increasingly difficult to question the demands of anxious capitalism. “What can you give me, for how much money and in how much time?” – these, he says, are the concerns of a culture obsessed with products rather than process. Lamenting the lack of institutions and community spaces he wonders what the legacy of contemporary architecture will be. “Heritage is not just ancient monuments,” he says, “it is everything around us.” He was sitting at the inimitable monument of Sarkhej Roza outside Ahmedabad as he said this, but I felt a resonance with his ideas when I considered the glass and steel buildings one has to encounter on the highway that leads to this historic site.
As a young design student in Ahmedabad it was impossible not to encounter the ripples that Doshi has left in the creative mantle of the city: in every quest to understand space, volume and mass, I was directed to architecture that he had hand in building. Experiencing the CEPT campus, the Husain-Doshi Gufa, the IIM Ahmedabad campus and his studio Sangath became part of my education as a designer. I feel as though Doshi has been my teacher as well. If his buildings are demonstrations in the practice of design, then this film is a discourse in its philosophy. I would recommend it to anyone looking for an Indian way of doing, making, creating and building for there are few people who have so articulately done that very Indian thing that Doshi talks about: sampling the best of everything the world has to offer and making it your own.