Ashraf: You have talked about your experiences with Le Corbusier and Kahn many times before. It is still an incredible story. I would like to return to that a little bit, to the nature of the encounters with these two architects.
Doshi: Well, I worked with Le Corbusier first. I don’t know why but I was fascinated by the kind of work he did by always trying to break the rule. This resulted into very lyrical, very Mediterranean moving, flowing spaces.
I was unaware of his ways of working and thinking before I joined, but I learnt it over time. When I visited Acropolis for the first time after working in Corbusier’s office for four years I still couldn’t understand why the Acropolis was so significant to him. You see, I was a novice in this. Gradually, over time there is something called an inner sensibility that begins to come out and slowly you begin to discover what you see and experience through different buildings and spaces in terms of juxtapositions, counterpoints, the strength of rhythms, surfaces and beyond.
Then in 1958 when I got the Graham Fellowship, a friend took me to Kahn’s office for the first time. Never had I seen such a humble man. He came out, met me, and showed me the slides of Richards Medical Building and the model of Salk Institute.
The Richards Medical Centre stood out as something completely different from what one saw of a tower with sketches depicting the towers rising, stacks rising, the glances of the trees from the glass and the geometry with minimum columns. I was fascinated by his ways of working.
That evening Kahn invited us for dinner. I remember him borrowing money from his secretary. How strange, a busy man like he suddenly meets a me – a stranger, takes time to look at my work and invites me to dinner. I showed him the housing that I had done after leaving Corbusier’s office and the ATIRA housing for Vikram Sarabhai. After looking at the drawings he spoke to me about the primitive expression and said, ‘How do you do this? This has a really strong vocabulary.’ Until then I had never realized how certain way of terminating a building could create such an impression.
Soon after that I was teaching at Washington University, and in 1960 when I went to Philadelphia to give a lecture, I met Kahn again. Later I was invited to teach in Philadelphia in 1961 for several weeks. This is when I met him frequently.
My introduction to Kahn was gradual. I was introduced to him as a young architect from India, but more so for my work with Corbusier. He was always asking me about Corbusier, India and work.
Later when I got the commission to do the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, the first person I thought of was Kahn. Here was a man as good as Corbusier. I wanted him to work on this project so that I could get a chance to learn something from him.
Thereafter you know the story about how I worked with him from 1962 till the night before his unexpected departure in March 1974.
I have seen him all through these years. He was someone who came from Europe had a hard life and a late beginning in his career. He talked about the Depression and how one had to live on almost nothing – not even shoe string budget. He was a lover of classical architecture – Hadrian, Parthenon but more so of the Roman architecture with its strong expression in brick and majestic qualities of space. Often he spoke about the hard shadows and those revealing volumes, surfaces and rhythms.
You should have seen him trying to recreate another similar world for our time. When he talked about an opening, he would purposefully try to search for the fundamental way of making an opening either a triangle or a circle or a square, very similar to the ancient basic architectural forms. Over time I learned how he would reach the limits of definition. For example, when I was designing the school of architecture in 1962, he told me that I should try to design in such a way that nobody has a chance to rectify it. He said that when you make an angle you should make it in a way that there is no way you can say why not 29 degrees or 31 degrees. So it was that kind of precision that he was looking for and therefore it is not the precision of the angle but the precision of the opening itself.
He would always ask,
So how does one define an opening? It could be 5’, 7’ or even 6’6”. It is not modular. It was the other law that was governing his structure and joining it at the right place and defining the limit. Therefore where the sky was is where the opening was!
He was always looking for the suitable opening, one that has an appropriate beginning and an appropriate end. I believe it is very important to know how one begins anything and how one ends it. Which raises other questions, ‘what is the size? What is the dimension? How does one decide the dimension of a room?’ The room has to be of such a kind that you know that it cannot be more or less – this is what I learnt from Kahn while working with him on IIM in Philadelphia and in Ahmedabad.
Ashraf: Which leads me to Dhaka. Both Corbusier and Kahn worked on assembly projects. With your own experience at Chandigarh, how do you see the project at Dhaka?
Doshi: Coming to Dhaka, couple of things has always struck me there...
I had asked Kahn about the Assembly building right after he came back from Chandigarh.
He said, ‘I can’t describe it.’
I asked him what did he mean? And to that he replied,
“I am yet to see somebody who knows how to materialize dreams. Now I know there is a man called Corbusier.”
He added, “First time I found how he really materializes a dream. It is fairly difficult first to dream and then to put it to practice, to draw, and then finally to build and experience that dream.”
So, what it implies is that Kahn was also thinking about a dream for Dhaka, but a contrast. Chandigarh had its big backdrop, the Himalayas. Dhaka was an absolutely flat plain, teeming mass, with no skyline.
At that time, the only thing that came to my mind was the desert landscape of Isfahan. Last year when I was in Samarkand I realized that in a desert climate like that, the dome, the octagon, and the mass, of the building that sits with absoluteness on the ground should gives a sense of timelessness. The relation of these buildings from the ground to the sky their scales give us a sense of rooting. No - one can miss it from any place and as I saw Samarkand I felt that Kahn’s Assembly building has some remote connection to that because of the octagon, because of the openings, because of the skyline. So the struggle about how does one bring that quality of the dome, that quality of the sheen of the mosaic, in contemporary terms, and transfer it in concrete is amazing. Kahn knew how to do this so he used white marble strips at intervals in the exposed concrete walls. The translucent quality of marble with its combination of both the hard and the soft gave away to the heavy mass of concrete like butter in between the surfaces that heightens sensuality. As a result the heaviness of the imposing surfaces melt away due to these little white marble strips.
In addition, the triangular openings coming straight down and the circular openings which come back from Ahmedabad and other places create another drama, but the circular openings in a square surface is much more powerful than a square opening within a square surface unless it is made in diagonals. In this case the circle also wants to defy that boundary of the square columns besides the circle also tries to expand like ripples in the water. So there is the dynamics of the container and the contained revealing their multiple dimensions.
I can sense in the geometry of Kahn the connections between his own architectural search plus the Islamic tradition of geometry that he wanted to incorporate and make this rotation work as if they are moving continuously inside. It is like search for creating a building within a building, which is churning all the time. This churning is quite different from the juxtaposition of Corbusier in which buildings confront physically, and dimension-wise. He has isolated the two assemblies because he was playing the game with forest of columns and buildings that are eccentric.
I wonder how does one go back to such a notion. I think what happens is that when you try to justify such geometries and movements one cannot explain what lead to such creations.
Kahn on the other hand justifies it by positioning the elements and rotating them to achieve this movement of the rotunda and the building within. For example, the face, which is outside, is fixed and the face, which is inside, is dynamic evoking discourses and debates. Almost like the churning of the ocean. This is really what the Assembly is about.
[Kahn comes from a] classical, materialistic thinking where Violation is not permitted. Corbusier believed in creating violations, expressing a rule in-between. A dancer in a different type of dance or play.
You would not find similar expression the moment you stick to a geometry, which you cannot break, but the moment you say I have no rigid geometry, you have no problems of breaking.
This is where the whole difference begins to happen between Kahn and Corbusier. Kahn wanted to break that geometry but the problem was having started that geometry; he was finding ways to see that the geometry does not exist. A very tough job, but that is what he was challenging himself with. I think his whole mind was saying that I have to make the laws, and I have to see how far I can go so that out of those laws I can get the eternal truth that is transparent.
Ashraf: How do you make rules transparent?
I think rules should have a very benign attitude. But when the rules are transparent and truthful, they have no limits and become universal. I think this is what his [Kahn] search was before he left, before he disappeared.
He used to come to the house everyday when he was here. We used to have dinner together everyday, almost in isolation, three or four people, only our family, and he talked. He said that if Corbusier were alive today he gradually would have made a building as simple as possible all his lyricism would have gradually reached the level of the Parthenon, but in a much simpler way.
Though Kahn was talking about Corbusier, I think he was talking about himself. And, to me, this is what Kahn was trying to do at Kimbell. For him to work in the West was different from working in India and Bangladesh where Patience and Virtuosity to deal with constantly changing conditions is required.
His other buildings in Dhaka – hospitals, staff quarters, and all that – are very close to the vocabulary in Ahmedabad. The other thing that is amazing about Dhaka is the podium, the steps. Having done this building, and having decided that it will have a plinth, and to democratize it he added those large steps and created a public plaza.
When Aldo van Eyck came here the first time in the 1960s, he saw the Chandigarh Assembly and the Mill-Owners’ Building; he mentioned that Corbusier is a great democratic man, because he makes the Assembly only 30 cms. above the ground so that anybody can walk in without any hesitation. He didn’t create steps, he doesn’t make podiums so that you have to look up and the viceroy or the parliamentarians look down. This is Aldo’s interpretation of Corbusier, which I think is very correct. Now here is Kahn who should have done this building absolutely on the ground but raises it to one side, with this huge flight of steps going up. Almost awe-inspiring, like the Mughal buildings which have podiums. But then the scale of the steps and the kind of plaza has that feeling of largeness so that vast number of people can access to celebrate without inhibition. The moment you go in, the moment you are inside, you find that the level begin to become very simple and easy. But perhaps this is one area that he would have resolved very differently if Bangladesh was free at that time. Perhaps, I don’t know. Because when he began the scheme, it was with Ayub Khan. Even though it is in Bangladesh, it is supposed to be the “second capital of Pakistan.” Whether he thought like this or not, I don’t know. I can’t say either way. But this question has always created a little doubt in me. Did Kahn think of merging this building, though big in size, with the masses? I think this building has not merged as other buildings have.
Ashraf: I wonder about Aldo Van Eyck’s interpretation. The Assembly at Dhaka also scales down in other ways, at various levels. At the plaza level, at the building volume level, the concrete assembly and the brick walls, and the way the whole thing is staggered. From any vantage point, you can see the Assembly not in isolation, as the Assembly in Chandigarh.
Doshi: I don’t know. When you look at the plaza here, when you look at the entry here at IIM, when you look at the relationships, you do not feel you are away from the place. The building is not distanced.
Ashraf: I think, in Dhaka, Kahn wanted to create a distance and relationships. There’s a play between creating a distance and then overcoming it.
Doshi: That could be interpreted in many ways. But when you say democratic assembly, people’s representatives are there, so people are there directly or indirectly.
Ashraf: It is curious that Kahn had never used the term democracy. He thought of assembly.
Doshi: Kahn had not described this point, neither he thought it that way. This issue is very significant for me, but leave aside whatever it is, I think once you go there, once you are inside the building, once you look at the spaces, the kind of offices which are located all around, the way you enter and go around, it’s a maze but very beautifully articulated. He also did was not question certain issues, for example, the mosque, the angle, he took it that way. Corbusier would have reinterpreted it. Kahn is also capable of reinterpretation but the moment was not right. The time that Kahn did this job, and the way the foundations were dug, it was already managed from Islamabad, if I am not mistaken. Therefore, in a Muslim religionist country, he did not want to raise those questions.
Ashraf: But the mosque is a very vital issue to understand the overall configuration of the Assembly. As you know, initially, the prayer hall was not attached to the Assembly. It was a free form, a large-scale structure. Kahn had been studying and working on the mosque for a long time. There were a number of reactions in Dhaka at that time. He was using the mosque as a buffer between the Chief Justice and the parliamentarians. You know the story of the Chief Justice snatching the pencil from Kahn remarking, I don’t want to be with those rogues.
Doshi: If it was a democracy the situation would have been different because there would be a direct access and the people won’t be rogues because the [condition of the] ruler and the ruled won’t be there.
Ashraf: Absolutely. I see that. Had it been not only a democratic government but also say the government of Sheikh Mujib, it would not have wanted the mosque there at all.
Doshi: Not only that. Sheikh Mujib would have said, look, give me a Bangla assembly so that I can have an access to people, and let people come to me or I can go to them. This is where the difference is. Pandit Nehru telling Corbusier, look, I want to shake hands with my people, I am part of the masses. The moment you say that you come out of the assembly, then you are part of the masses. But if a military ruler come to India and says, no, I cannot be there. The British made the Parliament building and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, where you have to climb up, you are not easily accessible. What I am saying is if Kahn were there today, it would have been a very different expression because he would have really looked at people in a different way, not in terms of the relationship of the ruler and the ruled.
Corbusier’s access to Nehru or anybody was with absolute freedom on the other hand had to deal with a dictator where he had to deal and design differently.
In these constraints, the only thing anybody could do was to make varied patterns of all pervading light penetration illuminating the beautiful flow of spaces. This is how Kahn’s architecture takes hold and becomes significant.
His buildings around the Assembly built over time are very beautiful because they are silent, easy and accessible. He tried to compensate [the Assembly] with the surrounding buildings that he made in brick – the housing, the hostels, and everything else. The other thing that he was experimenting with was a vocabulary that never existed before, and this is the genius of an architect. How does one create a new experience and how does one invent the language of architecture? Like Corbusier, Kahn was trying to invent his own language.
Towards the end he was always talking about the freedom of the material to the spiritual, the Buddhahood, the enlightenment...While travelling he came across Chitrakatha – Indian children storybooks at the airport. One of these books was on Buddha, his life-story it talked about whole idea of penance, simplicity, questioning of the issue of life and death, questioning what is the human endeavor and how would he achieve that in his life.
He was also fascinated by Arabian Nights, Lou was the man who enjoyed talking about stories, a man who read and told stories, a man who could tell you his dreams through words so that they can materialize in front of your eyes. A man who knew so much rhythm naturally and gradually reached this yogic stage. This is where I say he is a yogi because it is not the culture of the West, it was the Estonian, the eastern block culture which came back to him, which began to ask him the question, OK, Lou, what else, are you looking for truth, have you found it? Are you looking for which truth in buildings? Can you say what the building is about?
So he always talked about the building, the psyche, what the material wanted to say. But what he was really implying was what is Kahn, what is that he has to do, how does he really behave. In life, he was very simple. I went with him once to buy a shawl for his wife, Esther, and there were some little dots, mango motifs. He said, “No, no, I want plain with one little border.”
From food habits to buying things, he knew what was superfluous and what cannot be taken. It was the Shaker tradition, the Quakers, and the same thing continued in his work because he was always saying, let me see how far can I go, how simple I can be.
Once when I was in Philadelphia he was doing this competition in Florida and met Eero Saarinen and while discussing, and Eero asked, “Lou, if you have to make a building, how many materials would you use?” So Lou said, “I don’t know, maybe concrete, maybe something else, maybe gray and white. What do you think?” And Eero said, “I would try to use one, at the most two.” It was something which Lou knew but he remembered again. Minimalism is something else, and that is what you see here.
Ashraf: There is another story, something which Stanley Tigerman tells. He is supposedly the last architect Kahn met on his way to New York and and to his death. They met at Heathrow. Tigerman was coming to Dhaka. You were saying how in the later stage Kahn was thinking about what he is to be. He is sort of assessing himself in a certain way. Tigerman says somewhat the same thing. They were talking for a couple of hours while they were waiting at the airport. One thing that seemed to bother Kahn was about Muzharul Islam. He was asking Tigerman, why did Muzharul Islam leave architecture for politics? Kahn seemed very disturbed about that, and was saying I could never do that. Probably Kahn was asking, how does someone ultimately relate to society, to a larger whole?
Doshi: His trips to India and Bangladesh must have given him another message. That message is very simple. This is a question probably raised in everybody’s mind. There is something in the air. And, that is, what is the purpose? What do you leave behind? Kahn was never fascinated by money either, so the question of money is not there. So if not money, what else? The question that is left is eternity - timelessness. What cannot be questioned will stay. What cannot be altered will stay. What is natural, what will naturally flow, will stay. What is inherent will stay. And therefore the Upanishads talks about the air, the water, the sky, and then the soul, the moving soul, the non-local mind. This will stay, and that is all pervading. And that is what Lou was always talking about, the psyche.
I think he was looking for those things always, because, as he says, if he has to find the architectural expression of a brick wall, what is the difference between his brick wall and somebody else’s brick wall? Then he is talking about the slice of light, which comes and just touches that. That means what kind of little vibration the bricks must give or the joints must give, the little projections must give, so that the bricks begin to sparkle and smile. So he was talking about that little slice, that light, that breeze which comes with a fragrance. You don’t know where the breeze is, and you can’t hold the fragrance either. It is only the sensation that is left, and I think good architects are looking for those sensations. I think that is what Kahn does. He always talked about Silence, he talked about the ruins. To him, finally, it was that meditative silence: How does one make a building, which exists and yet doesn’t want to say anything, and yet says everything everybody wants to know.
So, the buildings in Dhaka stand there. If you look at them in the evenings, if you look at them in the early mornings, it is almost as eternal as the rocks of the Himalayas. He makes the statement that, I have no Himalayas around but my buildings, but my buildings will stay there as long as this sun rises, because it is so simple from the outside, from the distance. How do you then make that opening unless you make a circle, that opening from where you see very simple things? If there were small holes, it won’t be the same. They had to be big enough to make them look infinite. The power is in the scale in which he makes the apertures and the box.
I think from that point of view the base – the high plinth is very important for him. You should go in the early morning and walk around the houses, go around, and then you see this base which is almost like a banyan tree that comes up with the roots coming out and covering the whole ground, as if it is all-pervading. It is stretching its arms at the ground level, and the ground level stretches far beyond because all the houses are at the same height, so that everything becomes a part of that landscape and the society.
Ashraf: I was struck by the way of his model making. The buildings always seemed to rise from the clay base. They are not boxes thrown from the top to the ground.
Doshi: Yes, it was like a mesa, it was very much like a stupa. I would say Dhaka is like a stupa, as in Sanchi.
Ashraf: Before he even starts thinking about the Assembly, there was something else which was intriguing him, that he has talked about in various places. He asked himself two questions: one, how do buildings take their place on this land, and, the other thing, how are buildings to be grouped together. Also, he begins to talk of a new way of thinking architecture, what he called “an architecture of the land.” He was saying that for Bangladesh the primary thing to think about is an architecture of the land. In that context, I think about how the buildings seem to be land sculpted.
Doshi: All studies with the diagonals, the triangles, then the geometry really become part of the land, part of the wall. The land and the wall do not change. You see, Wright made a wall and then made the roof in such a way that the whole wall continued in his studio as a shell with an inclined wall that brings the roofline right up to the wainscot so the whole building really hugs the ground. Kahn was trying to reverse this order.
Ashraf: Here can we also discuss the importance of water? Before Dhaka, I don’t see any significant presence of water in Kahn’s work.
Doshi: In Dhaka, it is the whole question. You are on the plains, and the water is going to be there anyway. So the Dhaka landscape cannot be without the Ganges, without the rivers around. And so, the flooding, the delta has to be there. It is not only the reflecting element but also water that is part of Bangladeshi culture. The whole of Bangladesh is made of lakes and rivers. To me, it is a country, which is floating.
Ashraf: I am curious to know what places he went to in Ahmedabad or elsewhere in India?
Doshi: Kahn visited the Jain temple at Ranakpur, about 90 miles from Udaipur and the Delwara temple at Mt. Abu. The Delwara temple is made of exquisitely carved marble almost translucent whereas Ranakpur is a solitary temple with axis situated in a valley very geometrical with a raised plinth and huge number of columns. In this temple one can see gods from anywhere.
On this return I asked him which temple did he like. He said, “Ranakpur.”
I asked him why?
To that he replied saying, “Abu is very decorative.”
“Which one did you like?” he asked me.
I replied, “The Abu temple, where the marble has been totally transformed into wax. You talk about marble as marble, we in India talk about dematerializing things. When you can spiritualize a matter it is quite different. This body which is material has to be spiritualized and that is the message of this temple.”
Kahn said, “I didn’t know that but I still prefer the other one.”
This is really where you asked me a question yesterday, how do I see Kahn as an Indian architect? Well, there are only few great architects who came to the sub-continent, Lutyens, Corbusier, and then Kahn. There are not many like them because people like them are not born everyday. But what one is looking for is, what is it that one can do so that the material really moves, the material begins to become something else. Can we learn about ourselves as a vehicle of the spirit moving, and can we infuse this vehicle into these bricks and concrete and stones, so that the material also melts away in the process, and just emerges, as it should be?
And as I told you last night, I invited you here only because here is one building which I tried to do. You can say that partly it is an influence of Gaudi, partly it is from other places, I don’t know where, but I feel what one is trying to do here is really to infuse things so that finally you don’t know but only experience. And I think in this building you get that “Silence.” So what I have learned from Kahn is this search for Silence, what I learned from Corbusier is the lyricism, what I learned from Wright is the point of hugging the ground, and what I learned from Gaudi is the great quality of flowing inward and outward spaces.
And so what I am doing really is trying to find these, because that’s the only way I can not only pay my respects to them but I can learn. Slowly, I am trying to learn the Silence, the act of Silence through the ruins of Kahn, going below ground, going above ground, relating the surfaces.
And then one is still trying to say that in the content of their work that if you still want to get this, then there are these paradoxes in India, in Bangladesh, where different cultures stay together, different religions stay together, you find a mosque and a temple next to one another, you find a big palace and a haveli and shacks together. People are well dressed and people with no clothes. There is a car and there is a buffalo on the road. There is a cycle-rickshaw and there is a jet plane. These are all contradictions that we have accepted. We know that without the disparity true existence doesn’t work. There is no existence without disparity. It is only we who see in a short span that this is disparity. Actually it is the same process, you see only one end, and you see the other one, but it all depends upon the suitability of one and the other.
It is like an insect... the fly has only one hour of life and the mountains have thousands of years of life. So we consider temporary and permanent. It is not there at all. It is all permanent and all temporary because we also go away. So these are relative terms, and I think if we can learn these from such people that they knew this relativity and felt them, and that’s why you will find all the great architectural works of the world, including the work of today’s masters, you will find there are a lot of things, the experiences are very similar, it touches us the same way as we can smell the fragrance of a flower or look at the mountains or go to the sea. That is because this kind of continuous phenomenon is there, that is what is beautiful. This has been a great lesson for me to work with these masters, including Bucky Fuller whom I met several times.
I am finding that there is a thread. They want to find out, what will last? What will disappear? How can you make things without a strain? The most important thing is, is there a strain in that building? Is there a strain in that triangle which hits the opening, and therefore the opening looks as if it is very natural? In a circle, there is no strain, in a square, there is no strain.
Ashraf: It seems to me, if I am not mistaken, that you are looking at these major figures, especially in discussing Kahn, that he is moving in a continuum, almost autonomous from, specific experiences related to [coming to] India and Bangladesh.
Doshi: Yes, yes... because they are made to sense, smell and feel. They don’t feel superficially, they feel deeply within themselves. Actually, they are themselves. The whole reason of their being, of what they are, is because they know themselves, and they work from within their own self. They are very alive within, we are very alive outside. To them, the body has no meaning because their presence is inside. That’s why they are yogis.
And that’s why they cannot communicate in a normal way, because they are only manifestations of [what they are doing on this earth]. It is an urge, which tells them to do this. It is a manifestation – like a spring from within and they become instruments. That’s what Kahn and Corbusier talked about, and that’s what Bucky talked to me about: that we are only instruments. And that’s what our yogis talk about. It’s not man conquering this, man doing this, and man doing that. [That’s how normal people talk]. That’s why humility comes very naturally to them. You can see one doesn’t seek publicity, one doesn’t want things, one doesn’t copy... why? Because one is looking within, and he knows everything will be available to him in the long run. To them, the game continues.
Ashraf: Which makes us realize that there are certain things within the Indian tradition, which are in correspondence with this particular idea, from the Vedic to Rabindranath Tagore. Is this a fortunate coincidence to have these architects work here?
Doshi: Very much so. I have always felt that they were god sent. Why else would the two greatest masters come to India and design their best works here? Maybe the answer to this question is that in India we are very receptive and open. We received them with open hands. It indeed was a true bond of love. Money was never discussed neither by them nor by us. It was this love that connected them to the soil, the plants, the fruits, and the climate and of course the people. They really got submerged in India.