Compared to other visual arts like painting and sculpture, architecture rarely makes it into the gallery. Its confused position as either art or engineering—and often neither—only encourages the ambivalence. 1 A new exhibition at the NGMA on the life work of one of India’s most significant architects, Ahmedabad-based BV Doshi has changed that.
Gautam Bhatia met BV Doshi briefly and discussed the show, the city and architecture.
Q: Your exhibition is entitled ‘Celebrating Habitat’. What is there to celebrate in Indian architecture? 2
Doshi: There is a lot to celebrate. Celebration is part of Indian life. If you look at Indian history and culture, we are full of celebrations, celebrating on holidays, dancing, singing, eating, gathering on the street, under trees, in temples, during festivals, where else does it happen? Of course now it happens less and less, because the city has just become an opportunity for commercial transaction. Malls are a substitute for public space, the streets have become roads—cars and concrete occupy every place. There are marriage halls, banquet halls, conference halls. Earlier courtyards, balconies, terraces, verandahs, were really the places of Indian habitat. When I talk about celebration I mean these places we have forgotten as a society.
Q: But is that a failure of the architect?3 Or have the dynamics of life changed?
Doshi: This may be a failure of our educational system, but more than that it’s related to private perception—how you want to live, what you value.4 Look at European towns, even today every balcony has plants and trees; even hostile environments are touched by nature. For me celebrating habitat means that we must start with ourselves, our own homes, our workplaces, our streets, and make them afresh. Buildings are critical instruments to celebrating life.
Q: How does the placement of architecture in the gallery help that objective? Are you saying that people on the street miss the artistic thrust of architecture? 5
Doshi: Anything that enhances the quality of life, which amplifies our senses, needs to be valued. People should be made aware of it. So when you bring architecture into the gallery it is not a commercial venture or an exhibition of products. But it becomes a way of reestablishing your connection with buildings. What you might miss on the street becomes special when placed in a gallery. The exhibition is not about me or my work, but it is basically connected to the vision that I have of what a home or a village or a city can be.
Q: A unique feature of the show is the sudden moments of theater that appear throughout, as if you are playing with miniaturization, size, monumentalism. Most architects see building as still-life, do you see it as theatre? 6
Doshi: My exhibition is designed as a form of theatre, but it speaks silently, communicates without sound; it actually touches you subtly because it talks about light and volume, about the elements that constitute a building, about painting and sculpture; but only indirectly. Everything we do actually is connected to our understanding of life.
Q: In your work you seem to have moved away from the modernist vision into more lyrical and fluid geometries. 7 Is that a conscious denial of modernism and your years with Le Corbusier, or it there a more personal vision at work now?
Doshi: I don’t think or design in a self-conscious theoretical way. For me Corbusier was playing a game in Chandigarh. Through his buildings he made everybody aware of the sun, the rain and temperature, and ground and sky – as if connecting the body, mind and spirit, through space. Because of him I discovered that creating an awareness of natural phenomena is the real virtue of good architecture. Buildings aren’t designed for classifications—modern, postmodern, deconstruction—in real life we don’t live like that. 8
Q: Are you saying that real life is no longer visible now, with repeating high rises, walled parks, and gated communities? 9 Can we as architects blame the public for being uncaring participants in our work?
Doshi:People are today under constant pressure of finance, employment, maintaining living standards, consciousness of status; they are unable to think for themselves. The thrust of globalization makes people think that the sun only rises from the west. Whatever they do is right and what we do is wrong. We have been a country of varied cultures and mixes: our belief system reflects in our education, in our culture, dress, behavior, food … so we actually know how to evolve our ways. That is the way professionals, especially architects, must always be creating new interpretations of life and then I think we would be truly contemporary. 10
Q:11If you look at the Gurgaons and the Whitefields,12 there is a dreary sameness to buildings. They could be anywhere—Bangalore, Dubai, Rio. Why is there such an Indian unwillingness to be neither truthful to the settings, nor wholly experimental?
Doshi: Such architecture is pure imitation, pure mechanical, pure commercial; it’s quickly produced and sold to people who are dumb, deaf and almost dead. When a man goes to a place he must first feel relaxed, he must feel joy, feel happy and tranquil. He must say, my God I don’t want to leave this place. His life slows down, he begins to discover himself; his sight and hearing and smell becomes acute and he can hear the birds, and the music; even his space changes. 13
Our old buildings created those sensations—the courts, the verandahs, the internal gardens—they held a silence that made you aware that you were somewhere special; they made you special. That’s what celebration is.
- 1. Bhatia: Architecture's claim to its premier position as the mother of the arts has been in doubt since the builder and engineer have been given top billing for most construction in India, … the city and architecture.
- 2. Q: Your exhibition is entitled ‘celebrating habitat’. What is there to celebrate in Indian architecture?
Doshi: I think there is a lot to celebrate; it depends on how you look at it. Celebration is part of Indian life and if you look at Indian history and culture, we are full of celebrations—constantly on holidays, dancing and singing, eating, gathering.
Where does it happen? Actually it happens everywhere. It happens on the street, on the platform along the street, it happens in the courtyard, on the terrace, it happens in the public spaces, it happens under trees, it happens in temples. But it happens less and less in where commercial transaction takes place. Originally, [there were celebrations] also in academic areas but they have also disappeared.
With malls coming in [celebratory] spaces have gone away. So, even the public spaces have dissappeared—streets have become roads, open spaces have not been created, so that also has gone away. Houses [once had] platforms and balconies and narrowness or whatever the tightness or intimacy, those also have gone in multistoried buildings and we don’t provide that in flats or terraces or even outside spaces any longer. Either a car, or some activity or something commercial occupies everything and so celebration now only takes place in very limited spaces.
They are also created [afresh] now. We have marriage halls we have hotel banquet halls; we have this hall and that hall. So we now go into those places, which is exactly the opposite of what it was before. Earlier times a courtyard, a balcony, a terrace, a verandah, a platform and those streets, which were not only used, but they were closed very often for functions. They were really the places of Indian habitat. And when I am talking about what is a celebration of habitat, I am talking of this area that which we have now gradually forgotten as a society and even as professionals we have reduced it to the mere mono-functional. We are not even thinking about it. So the public realm is much less now than it was before, even in our concepts it is nonfunctional and does not occupy our memory.
- 3. Q: Is this something to do with the fact that architects have stopped engaging with the public realm, the public has stopped thinking about a public realm, everything is privatized or is transactional only and that reflects in the way the cities are planned by our planners and demanded by our politicians to grant political favours?
Doshi: Before it was a participatory, because even a vastushastri, or a carpenter or sthapati or a Mahajan community or leadership talked about these places talked about this as the first buildings of the campus. A town hall that means a dharamshala, or a place, which is made around the temple and a school, so, it was really public participatory created by the leaders who were thinking about places to live. They had a vision, they had an idea that life can not be just commercial, life can not be just workable, but life has to have its own quality. Then the best life comes, not only that it comes out, but also real community relationships, social relationship, the activities are really important as cohesion because that is where the values are, that is where relationships happen.
That is where social, cultural and economic transactions take place. So, I think all that interdependence, which was there in the community in the clustering, in the behaviour, has now gone away.
Second architects have never been taught about this. Because, where do they come from? They come from urban areas; they come from nuclear families, where there is always a commercial understanding that you should make the building, not the space in between buildings. So, architects are not thinking about this, the real habitat, the open space or the public space.
- 4. Q: But is that also a failure of a planner or the way that planning has been taught and the dynamics of change, or the dynamics of life itself not incorporated?
Doshi: It is the failure of our educational system because we are now considering that everything which can be measured, everything which has economic value is of great significance but everything which is not measurable, but which is really the crux, you know, of life.
For example, breathing is not a value unless you are really talking about health but without breathing it doesn’t happen. So, like air, what is the meaning of air, what is the meaning of monsoon, what is the meaning of spring now all that has gone away? We only see these things in the movies.
So, trees have disappeared, ponds have disappeared, the public spaces have gone away, the gardens have gone away. I mean, look at the way even European towns are even today, every balcony has plants, they will put trees. Why we are not having all this? So, what I think is when you talk about habitat, for me celebrating habitat means that we must start with our design course, architectural education course, saying that we are going to celebrate life and buildings are only an instrument of celebrating life. If we start talking like this then you will look at activities in a very different way. They will not be merely economical or functional.
- 5. Rajeev Kathpalia: How does the placement of architecture in the gallery help the profession? Are you saying that people on the street miss the artistic thrust of architecture?
Doshi: Today—first of all —Architecture is not two dimensional, neither it is of one sense, neither it tells you about the story of only measured that this is ‘A’ building or this is ‘B’ building, so it doesn’t talk about classification.
Architecture really implies that wherever we habit, and if it glorifies the habit, it is architecture.
So, first of all, we have to define what is architecture. What I am saying is whichever enhances the quality of life, which enhances all our senses and all our values for which we live, or for which we are imagining to live, should be really architecture. So, when you bring it in the gallery, it is not a commercial venture where you display who is one after the other in a chronological way or a branded way, you know, like in a mall.
So, exhibition of architecture is not an exhibition of a product. Exhibition of architecture is an exhibition of process. The process is what: coming back to the celebration again. The process is, first, the kind of space in which you move and when you move what kind of things do you see and when you see them, do you want to go in, do you want to experience them, do you want to get excited and come back and go back again.
It is not even a gallery where there is a festival or an Essel town. You know, a town for children, where you go in a sequence and do something here or there, a mela it is not a mela. It is actually a combination of saying that you are getting a public realm, which is missing, in which you are representing building as if you know that they were there. So, in short, what I said earlier comes back here. I was trying to create what celebrates architecture’s primary function of what should be seen in the gallery, so the missing part is the space in today's life. So, one is the space—variety of spaces—another is the element that constitutes the spaces, third one is that the each space has its own value and its own character. Fourth: within each space there are major and minor spaces that excite you for a different thing.
Indirectly what I was thinking is that you are explaining people about buildings without talking about buildings. You are talking about the experience and you are talking about the experience that goes in, in which you will see a variety that I had design, so actually putting this exhibition in the gallery in the form of celebration.
What I have tried to suggest does not emphasize what I am doing but I am saying that there is this diversity of which I am thinking about. My exhibition is not about my work or myself only, but it is basically connected to the vision that I have of what a village or a town or a city can be.
- 6. Q: A unique features of the show is the sudden moment of the theatre that appear throughout, as if you are playing with miniaturization, size, monumentalism.
Most architects see building as still-life. Do you see it as a theatre?
Doshi: That is what I just mentioned. I think my exhibition is a place where you go for theatre or a show. It is silent, but communicates a lot. It actually touches your body, the core, because it talks about light, it talks about volume, it talks about way of making, it talks about the elements that constitute a building. Or it talks about painting, it talks about sculptures and it talks indirectly about saying that everything we do actually is connected to many aspects of our understanding of life. Whether you take water tank, it could be just a stick and a balloon on top. But a water tank can also be very close to glorious and, actually, my exhibition is very much like the Indian rituals in which you evoke and invoke. You create a situation by which you say: “This is an offering to a place.”
In fact, in this particular installation, you can see a havan and puja and marriages. All this is possible there because, actually, the element that we make for our celebrations—like wedding puja, havan, ganeshutsav—you can do this in places like this and what it houses, what it does is, I suggest that a building is not a type. Building can be used in many ways and for many functions. What does it mean? It means that it is not designed for only a particular function but it is really created to speak beyond its function. There is something more. I have tried to expand the definition of the function and I have removed the border.
Fluidity, I talk about fluidity, I talk about intermix. I talk about playing by chance.
- 7. Q: In your own work you seem to have moved away from the severity of the modernist vision into more lyrical and fluid geometries. Is that a conscious denial of the modernism's severity and your years with Le Corbusier, or is there a more personal vision at work?
Doshi: To me those words never existed, whether it is modern or not, because I have never thought that Corbusier was only modern. I thought Corbusier was all the time playing a game. Otherwise, his recent building, the last buildings, would never be like this. Even the buildings in India that he made, I think they don’t fit into anything. So, he was one person who taught me something, saying that: “Look you celebrate. You not only celebrate but you make everybody aware about the sun, about light, about rain, about temperature, about walking, about going through the landscape through.” Corbusier actually said this to me, meaning that he was making you aware about all your body, mind and spirits, through making of a form or making of a space or constructing something. For me, Corbusier never gave me style, never put me in a fixed time, to me that was very important because when I came to India, I found these elements existing in the places that I had lived, so for me it was very easy to flow into this because that is where my formal education ended. And I became very naturally working towards requirements of a client but those requirements became minor and life became major, form became major, the concerns for climate became major, the temperature became major, so I was finding out that exerting the natural phenomenon is really the virtue of good, easy architecture where it is not really designed for the...
You tell me in the history when did this word came of architecture until renaissance. I mean, the word was never there the way we are defining it. In fact, the more and more we are analysing and the more we are compartmentalizing, the more we are classifying. Modern, postmodern, deconstruction, construction—all these were not there. In life we don’t live like this.
- 8. Q: So, in some ways, what you are also saying is: when people look at your face of so-called modern influence, it was a connection to your life anyways.
Doshi: Those were the techniques. I learnt the techniques and I learnt the tool and I learnt another way of looking at the plasticity of things.
- 9. Q: This civic apathy is linked the way we design our cities—the boundaries around the buildings, walled parks, gated communities. Doesn’t this alter the ordinary person's relationship with architecture? Can we as architects blame the public for being uncaring participants in our work?
Doshi: I think what has happened is … Luckily, in my case it did not happen because I live my way. But slowly a common man is under constant pressure: one is time, second is economy, third is the kind of work that he wants to do and that he has to do, fourth is the facilities or the living standards that he wants to achieve, five the social structuring that is there where people talk about prestige, people talk about values, and I think all these things have created a completely different situation in our life today.
We have become straight-jacketed, we have become very defined in our places. I mean, our body is so beautifully designed but our clothing is all the time, they’re talking about something else, which is very close to a product. It has happened that we have accepted that we are no more those joyous childlike human beings, where a dancer can play the ballet. The ballet you have to go and see. Actually, no folk art or classical art was inside a room. It was part of our life: the gestures, the way we sit, the way we walk, the way we dance, the way we make things. So, eyes had something, ears had something, body had something, language had something and look at our calligraphy. Look at our dance movements, look at the colors that we use. Look at the way Indians dress. All those were obvious natural [word indistinguishable].
Should not architecture be representing the same way but we are not talking about it. What has happened to our cities that have become mechanical? They are so well defined that we have nothing to do. So, actually, we have to reverse the order when we talk of a smart city. I think the smart city must be such that every human being is becoming aware of his potentials and his highest sensibilities and not really that he becomes a robot who has been mechanically controlled by some other person and for some other purpose. And I think this is where we have to look at the cities now. I mean, metropolis is one part, but why is it that we want to go to a hill station, why we want to go to isolated places? It is an escape. We are looking continuously for escape but we are bombarded with conditions and their architect, planner, government, social—everybody is connected because it says that we have to achieve this much in this much quantity, this much price, this much weight and in this much time.
Life is not like this. I don’t think the number is the issue here. Population increases: no problem. I think the problem is our thinking. Our thinking must change radically and we must humanize things. We must humanize, we must glorify and we must say that whatever we will do, we will do to celebrate life.
- 10. Q: Is this also because the way we are taught architectural practice, the students are taught architectural practice is the conventional western way of compartmentalization. Is that the reason that perhaps some of that is taking place?
Doshi: I think obviously because there is no way, see we are taught because first of all who wants to pioneer a new school. Shantiniketan was one example and CEPT was another example where we started talking about creating new things. Creation is a very important thing, creativity cannot be defined, creativity will also have choice, opinions, accidents, failures but creativity will always be bubbly. And I think when you teach something oriented to production then creativity takes, of course, a back seat.
- 11. Bhatia: I think [the] question you answered—more or less—about the smart cities, so I will go to the last question
- 12. Q: If you look at the Gurgaons and the Whitefields of the suburbs, there is a dreary sameness to the glassiness and gleam of the buildings. They could be anywhere—in Banglore, Dubai, Rio. Why is there such an Indian unwillingness to be either truthful to the settings, or wholly experimental?
Doshi: I don't know weather it is truthful or experimental. I think it is pure imitation, pure mechanical and pure commercial. I don’t think there is any intention of doing something that will take time, energy and virtue. On the contrary, it has to be made in the minimum time and in the fastest way so that it can be produced and it can be given to people who are completely dumb, deaf and almost dead. And I think that is what we are doing. We are really creating cities for this robotic life, creating people with no energy. That’s why you will have more hospitals; you will have more psychotherapy centers. The human being, I call you know there is something called biology of architecture.
- 13. Q: Would you like to talk a little bit about the biology of architecture?
Doshi: I think the biology of architecture, it is like saying that “architecture” is an entity that has life of its own, but related to something like biology in terms of the plants and people and animals and everything. We are connected to something else.
Actually, we are connected to total cosmic field and that is how we should talk about the biology of architecture. It is really with a highest level of fluidity, with an undercurrent of human access and human joy. I think when a man goes to a place, he must first feel relaxed, he must feel joy, he must feel happy, he must feel tranquil. He must say: “My god, I don’t want to go away from here.” He slows down his life, he begins to discover himself and he begins to discover not only himself but also his eyes and ears and everything becomes acute and he can then hear the bird, he can then hear the music. Even his space changes, his walk changes. That’s what happens to us when we go early morning to the seashore or when you go to the Himalayas and walk alone. And I think that’s what is the biology of architecture. All our ancient building created those spaces, those courts, those verandahs, those overhangs and the internal courtyard, and there was that silence. And that silence made you aware that you are somebody. You are yourself and that’s where real life begins, the learning begins, and that’s where you feel happy and satisfied and even though you may not be having firecrackers, but you are celebrating your own existence. That’s what celebration is.
The other issue which we overlooked is our not necessarily the thrust for globalization, but it is a thrust over looking towards the west. As if the sun only rises from the west. So, whatever they do is right and what we do is wrong. This is our idea. And I think this is one of the major things that have happened and, as a result, even though when we have heritage spaces, they are getting easily demolished and replaced. We lose even what we have and we borrow what doesn’t suit us at all. I don't mean to say economic progress, I don’t mean to say social or cultural health, I am not talking about that at all. We have been a country of absorbing cultures. It is not necessary that we look at an outside culture as if it is an alien. We are heterogeneous, yet homogenous culture, so we actually know how to intermix and evolve our way. But then, that was the time when our foundations were very strong. What I mean our foundation: our belief system and that also you know reflect in our education, in our culture, in our dress, in our behaviour, in our food. That whatever we have, we say: “No, I think that is not good, that is old.” Actually, we never have any literature, any publications, any movies or anything. You talk about that we don’t have ways to really know what we have. So, one of the things, perhaps, that we should do is to let us not reject anything outside but let us also propagate and do research work on what we have.
And I think if we do that, we will get lot more and we might go beyond. I think that is the way professionals, especially the architectural schools, must do. Combine, create, mix and create our own new ways of interpreting life. Then, I think, we would be equally contemporary.