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The Genius, Heart and Humility of Indian Architect B.V. Doshi

I’m sitting in a busy suburban coffee-and-donut shop with the quiet, grandfatherly Indian architect, Jitendra Vaidya. When I started my life as an architecture intern in the late 90s, Jitendra was one of the most experienced technical designers I knew. Equally comfortable weighing the relative merits of various flashing details as he is discussing abstract design concepts, Jitendra is an old-school, universal architect. After more than half a century in a profession famous for grinding deadlines, Jitendra still maintains a joyful twinkle in his eye when he talks about architecture. So it’s no surprise that Jitendra is visibly animated today as he tells me about his teacher, the man who was just recognized as one of the world’s greatest living architects, B.V. Doshi.

 

For the Pritzker Prize—the profession’s highest honor—to be awarded to a 90-year-old academic urbanist who spent his long career primarily teaching architecture students and serving poor communities in India is a stunning development. To be fair, the caricature of Pritzker winners as arrogant, scarf- wrapped, Euro-American, Starchitects, is overblown and outdated. Recent winners such as Alejandro Aravena, Wang Shu, and Shigeru Ban, are connected in their mutual dedication to serving poor and displaced communities through innovative, culturally authentic designs. But even accepting this nuance, Doshi is fundamentally different from recent winners.  

 

For starters, Doshi’s work is not obviously sexy. It doesn’t feature complicated geometry or advanced technology. It’s not fashionable or current. Until the recent award announcement, there were no Doshi projects splashed across the architecture blogs and in design magazines. In a world where awards go to the most photogenic projects, Doshi’s work is the antithesis: it’s difficult to capture with a camera—it’s not “Instagramable.”  

 

Like most things in my life, my experience with Doshi’s architecture was an unplanned extension of my job. I spent a decade managing my firm’s Shanghai office and occasionally visiting India to collaborate with colleagues. On one memorable visit, we spent a day exploring the modernist wonderland that is the city of Ahmedabad. The day started as a pilgrimage to a couple of modern architecture holy sites which Doshi was critically responsible for bringing to life: Le Corbusier’s Mill Owner’s Association Building, and Louis Kahn’s Indian Institute of Management Campus—maybe my favorite two buildings by my favorite two architects. But, as much as I love those projects, the most memorable moments of the day came during our tour of Doshi’s own Institute of Indology, and his Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, where Doshi was the founding dean. At the Institute of Indology, my friend Nick and I were surrounded by laughing elementary school students, eager to see (and photobomb) our pictures of the building. At CEPT, we sat on the ground in the courtyard eating dosa with the university students. In photographs, both buildings appear to be “good-but-standard” examples of the type of high-Modern, concrete architecture typical of that decade. In person, however, these projects are serenely soulful: sensitively connected to their environment and welcoming towards communal activity. At the time, I sensed there was something important to learn from these projects. But then, I probably moved on to the next deadline, and years passed, Doshi faded to a nice memory. Then, last month, Doshi won the Pritzker and I called my old friend Jitendra.   

 

 

Fifty years: that’s how long Jitendra has been thinking about Doshi. Like all good fathers, he’s bored his kids with “glory days” stories of his time as an early CEPT student in 1965. So today I’ve opened the floodgates. Jitendra talks fast with frequent use of the words: “magical,” “surreal,” “spiritual.”  He tells me that he often reflects how lucky he was to be raised in Ahmedabad by open-minded parents, in the wake of India’s 1947 Independence, just at the moment Doshi returned from Europe. As he talks, I come to see why Doshi is not only the perfect pick for this year’s Pritzker, but also an antidote for much of what afflicts contemporary academic and professional architecture.  

 

Jitendra breaks his experience with Doshi into three distinct phases: the new student, the mature student, and the young employee. In the first phase, as a new student, Jitendra was entering into a school that was not only entirely experimental, it was essentially an act of faith. When Doshi founded the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad in 1962, it was an uncertified private program which would only later become the CEPT.  Jitendra and his classmates knew they weren’t going to graduate with an accepted diploma. In the certificate-driven Indian society, that meant simply that they would likely not be eligible for professional employment upon graduation. Yet, not only did Jitendra have to compete against students from around India for a position in the school, he insists that after a year in the program nobody worried about the diploma because, “we all knew that we would be successful in life.”  

 

In these early years, Jitendra’s life as a student was the platonic ideal of learning, with Doshi as the nurturing figure in the center, who not only taught a wide variety of classes from studio—pottery, carpentry, Indian dance—he also attracted the greatest living architects from around the world to teach at the school. Le Corbusier and Kahn were regular visitors, and students would regularly stroll over to the IIM to see the bricks go up on Kahn’s masterpiece. But what Jitendra remembers most from this period was Doshi’s innovative pedagogy for young students which was simultaneously totally hands-on and absolutely intellectual.  

 

For hands-on classes, Doshi would bring in teachers, like an elderly master-carpenter with no formal education, to demonstrate the collective wisdom of his craft. Students would experiment with commonly available materials like wood, brick, mud, reeds, and recycled industrial products. At the same time, Doshi introduced contemporary theory, like the work of Lewis Mumford, to contextualize student work.

 

Photo by Nick W. Cameron.

 

In the second phase, as a mature student, Jitendra was shepherded towards a commitment to community. Students would work directly in communities where people were living on less than ten dollars per month. They interviewed the residents, conducted surveys, monitored daily schedules, observed the use of domestic animals like donkeys, measured everything in the house, and documented the family structure and dynamics. Jitendra describes how at this time in India most people were living hand-to-mouth: the middle class was poor, and the poor had nothing. So they began to learn the meaning behind Doshi’s dictum, “give them the plinth and they will build the roof.” They developed models for “basic shelter,” which Doshi described as the minimum, minimum house that even the poorest person can build for around fifty dollars. They learned that you designed around lifestyle. They also learned the power of giving even the smallest amount of “ownership” to the very poor. Working in these communities was not odd or uncomfortable for Jitendra.  Even though he grew up in the middle class, he walked to school every day through what he could only describe as “slums.” He understood the rough structures built from available materials that required constant maintenance by the residents. But Doshi encouraged students not to see these as inferior or low-tech.At the same time, CEPT had advanced facilities like a wind tunnel, and a solar angle testing room. Doshi encouraged innovation at all levels of design regardless of cost or client.

 

After six years as a student, Jitendra moved to the third phase, working as a young employee in Doshi’s office for two years before moving to the US for graduate school (ironically British and American universities would accept a CEPT diploma long before they were certified in India). Jitendra found a fulfilling culmination of his studies in his work. Doshi was always extremely kind, gentle and generous to the young staff. His senior designers were not only brilliant, but also focused on nurturing and grooming the team. While there was a lot to learn, there was also continuity between what they studied at CEPT and what they did in the practice.  Jitendra’s team designed a very large housing project for workers in the gas industry. They saw how the concepts of “basic shelter” could create a community that residents loved. Doshi’s low-cost housing projects were high density, but low scale. Simple two or three story walk-up buildings that encouraged community life to happen at the street level. Doshi was early to identify the problems that cars would pose to communities, and carefully separated pedestrian and vehicular traffic, always giving priority to people.  He also focused on practical, inexpensive sustainability. This was in a context where people were not only too poor for air conditioning, they were too poor for insulation, and in a climate where a tin roof is a major problem for the residents. More than anything, Jitendra saw how, even in these extremely humble projects, Doshi maintained an artistic agenda. Something of the beauty in these projects gave an identity to the community, the new residents felt proud of their homes. This was Doshi’s fundamental lesson of ownership and identity.  

 

And then, with a recommendation from Doshi, Jitendra left India to study, practice, and start a family in America. Jitendra has stayed in touch with his mentor over the intervening decades. Over time, with the benefit of hindsight, Jitendra has developed something like a “unified theory of Doshi.”  He believes that most people misperceive Doshi as primarily either an architect or an urbanist. Jitendra believes that Doshi’s true brilliance lies in “four pillars”: institution builder, educator, communicator, and visionary.

 

Doshi’s exceptionalism as an institution builder and educator can be inferred through Jitendra’s own experience as a student. I’d challenge any current university professor or administrator to imagine what talents would be required to: dream up a new school, raise funding for land and construction, coordinate with government agencies, attract the world’s best teaching talent, invent a unique and culturally relevant pedagogy, convince students (and their parents) to risk an untested model, and to grow decade-by-decade into one of the country’s most renowned institutions. Doshi did this in his 30’s, while also teaching his own courses, and starting his professional practice. Hard to imagine.  

 

But the other two pillars of Doshi’s persona—communicator and visionary—are the qualities which are both totally undervalued and desperately needed in contemporary design culture.

 

Portrait by Ajit Solanka, via AP.

 

For Doshi, communication was strongly rooted in empathy and curiosity. Over and over in our discussion, Jitendra emphasized that Doshi was “so simple, so clear.”  He was equally happy giving a lecture to an international academic audience as he was talking with an experienced builder or sitting on a mud floor with a group of village grandmothers. In all cases he genuinely cared about the individual people in each situation. When visiting, Jitendra worried about wasting Doshi’s valuable time. But Doshi loved to chat, to find out how you were doing personally and professionally. Despite his thousands of contacts, he would remember what you discussed, things like the names of your children and their interests. This was the curiosity that sprung from Doshi’s bottomless empathy. At lectures, Doshi would always sit in the front, on the floor, taking careful notes in his journal like an eager student. But Jitendra noticed what his mentor did next, “we all take notes, but Doshi would go home and connect the dots.” This is Doshi’s power of communication, a power of listening and connecting across cultures, classes, theories, paradigms and disciplines.

 

The nature of Doshi’s communication style is so utterly thoughtful, respectful, and philosophical that it’s hard to even relate to the all-caps opinion diatribes that dominate contemporary design discussions on social media and online comments sections.  In that context, it’s easy to see how Jitendra and many other Doshi students see him as an almost spiritual leader within architecture.

 

This leads to Vision, the final, and perhaps most important lesson of Doshi and his Pritzker Prize, particularly for today’s young architects trying to craft an authentic career in a crowded profession. What I really wanted to learn from Jitendra is how Doshi became Doshi. At one moment he was a 30-year-old “foreign designer” working in the European and American studios of the “Great Masters,” and in the next moment he emerged as a fully-formed icon of the Modern Indian Architect. How does that happen?  Jitendra doesn’t know for sure, but he guesses that the transformation was fast and total, “like when Gandhi realized that he would stop wearing western suits.” Gandhi’s wardrobe change was anything but superficial; it was based on a radical redefining of self with implications from root to branch. Interestingly, Doshi’s transformation does not reject his foreign influences, rather he incorporates them into a new worldview of a cosmopolitan Indian architect who designs for local lifestyles and people using local materials and traditions. In his early 30’s Doshi had the vision to create sustainable, livable, low-cost communities for his people.  He did this within the context of his local culture without being trapped in the obvious provincial, nationalistic or nostalgic cul de sacs. He then spent the following half-century patiently communicating these ideas across cultural silos, building coalitions and institutions to move them forward, and training the generation to implement them…

 

That was it. I understood why Jitendra’s Unified Theory of Doshi is so vitally relevant to architecture today. We finished our coffees, chatted about children, and said our goodbyes. I walked back to my car thinking about my work.  

 

Photos of Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad, India, courtesy of the author. 

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