There are two distinct methodological schools in the study of architecture. According to the first school, the work of a man is often discussed, analyzed and studied as the manifestation of a general will or the ‘Zeitgeist', the distinctive spirit of the age. Thus, those aspects of a man's work which reveal an interpretation of issues, a way of approaching them and their resolution into a particular expression become of interest in exploring a general will. Nearly all the important works in the field of architectural in the last hundred years or so have been written within this methodological framework, a legacy of Hegel. He suggested that the relationship between art and culture is the 'relationship of expression' by which the aim of art is 'the sensuous representation' of its cultural and social milieu.
The second school of thought does away with the implicitly causal 'relationship of expression' between architecture and culture and takes the view that it is a 'functional relationship'. It sees architecture as a mode of knowledge, a way to conceptualize and internalize the external world. In others it is seen as a system by which the external world, both animate as well as the consisting of things as well as relationships, and with all its multitude of information, is classified into comprehensible categories and made knowledgeable. Criteria for this classification are possibly the culturally (and in its broadest politically) accepted norms and It any given time. Thus, an architect acts as an agent who internalizes the dominant ideologies and values of a society, and through his architecture concretizes them.
William Curtis belongs to the former school of thought, which has been the more established and accepted approach to the study of architecture. Curtis's intentions become clear in the very subtitle of the book, 'An Architecture for India'. The author is keen on exploring, through Doshi's work, the general phenomena that characterize the architecture of the Indian subcontinent in the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, in the very first paragraph, he proclaims that it is his aim to place the architect in the historical perspective and that Doshi's architecture is in response to and an expression of "the demand of the searing climate and the needs of an ancient civilization undergoing dramatic change."
The book is structured into three main parts. The first part, titled 'Introduction: Modern Architecture and Indian Tradition', traces the development of Doshi's vocabulary from the early influences of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn to his more recent, mature projects. This section and the postscript 'The Future of Indian Architecture' contain the author's critical analysis. The other two parts of the book are devoted to Doshi's own work and writings respectively, and the author's personal bias towards certain projects is evident in the organization and presentation of the material. After considerable research on Doshi's notes, diaries, lectures, articles and other sources, Curtis has been able to extract the architect's thoughts on various issues, grouping them thematically. The themes cut across chronology and indicate that Doshi has been preoccupied with certain issues for a long time.
Although the first part of the book focuses on certain issues and concerns that have preoccupied Doshi, the title of the section 'Modem Architecture and Indian Tradition' is somewhat misleading, for it suggests, and promises a far broader canvas than is presented. Needless to say, an architectural culture in contemporary India is emerging as a resolution of tension between the modern idiom and Indian traditions. It represents the collective endeavour of many architects among whom Doshi has an undisputed place. It would have been interesting if Curtis had attempted to locate Doshi within this larger canvas, and by doing so he would also have fulfilled his promise to place Doshi in a historical perspective.
As it is, this section is rather loosely organized around a number of themes in a more or less biographical sequence. In a simple and lucid manner Curtis tells the story of Doshi's transformation from his early dependence on Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn to a more confident handling of a set of generic elements which have come a to constitute his personal style. Those who have closely worked with Doshi know him as a highly articulate architect, conscious of his own intentions. If Doshi has been able to evolve a personal language in tune with his surroundings, it may have less to do with the inevitable play of historical forces around him than with the aspirations and concerns of society which have given shape to an image of a world built on a different set of values. This necessarily has to be a deliberate and willful act.
An interesting point that Curtis makes is that since Doshi was never part of the mainstream of the International Style, its decline in the late fifties did not affect him in any significant way. This is largely true of most Indian architects around that time. The task of articulating an Indian architectural identity, (if this is possible or even desirable given the vastness and the plurality of the subcontinent), was less a question of rejecting the International Style than a far more demanding task of (a) reinterpreting the traditional sensibilities, forms and rhythms within the framework of a contemporary lifestyle, and (b) redefining modernity against the background of certain timeless values of the Indian tradition. The emergence of an architectural culture of contemporary India must be viewed against this dilemma. Doshi's more recent projects such as Sangath and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, show that he has been sensitive to this concern and has by and large succeeded in evolving a personal vocabulary. This ensures a renewed coherency of the architectural object and also responds to the ethical dimensions.
It is disappointing that the analysis is limited to the corporeal form in all cases, while ethical intentions codified in the spatial form of the plan are never interpreted. Introducing the work of the second part Curtis indicates in his preface that "gradually one is able to see common themes emerge." Apparently, these common themes consist of "protective vaults, shaded courts, grassy platforms, meandering routes, water gardens and shaded sources of light." But there is probably another, more profound and fundamental level of architectural meaning of spatial organization which, if codified in the plan form, reveals the values of an architect concretized in the built form. These values transcend the brief of a client, a formal synthesis, or the immediate exigencies of cost or technology of construction and in a more fundamental sense, express man's relationship with his fellow men and with nature. One would expect the critic to deconstruct the plan and lay bare the ideas and values that inform and guide architecture.
For instance, the plan of Doshi's own house is structured through a simple orthogonal grid consisting of two dimensions, a and b. Within this rational order, Doshi has been able to generate a complex spatial order which Curtis has described well. But a good description is not a substitute for analysis. The point is that it is a Palladian plan - abstract, rational and independent of the circumstances of its location. It has its own logic, derived from the rational but arbitrary formal paradigms of pure forms and composition inherited from the 'Quatrocento' and the 'Enlightenment'.
Two other contemporary projects, the institute of Indology and the first scheme of the Premabhai Hall belie a similar compositional attitude, which denies any role to the site and its peculiarities. The building does not 'gather', to use Heidegger's expression, the spirit of the place and make it explicit. This is architecture as an object rather than a place and recalls the cultural strategies of earlier alien eras when the classic and Cartesian monument became the representation and, by extension, the projection of values which were absent from the traditional Indian cities.
It must have been during those dozen or so years that it took Doshi to realize Premabhai Hall, that he seems to have come to terms with a different spatial conception. The final version, is not one of his best works, though it does recognize and, acknowledge, albeit tentatively, the presence of the city around it. This recognition of the city is evident in Doshi's subsequent scheme for the redevelopment of the Bhadra Square in front of the building. It is a recognition of the reciprocity between the individual and the community.
Indian cities show a highly developed sense of urban space. Rejecting the freedom of the individual at the cost of the public domain, Indian builders have preferred a reciprocity between the private and the public whereby the validity of the former depend upon its ability to shape the latter.
Similarly the vault, seen in its plan-form, reveals that it too is not ideologically neutral. A number of vaults placed parallel to each other with their arched ends making up the facade, express the primacy of the a individual as each spatial unit is independently read. The capacity of such a plan-form to shape a public space is at best limited to small-scale housing projects. On the other hand, if extended along its axis, the vault is a tubular space which can turn a comer, or turn upon itself, and in the process define a space potentially for public appearance. Doshi's more recent projects such as the Gandhi Labour Institute and Sangath reveal this possibility of the vault.
Thus, there is a dramatic difference between these later projects and the earlier ones. In the words of physicist, David Bohm, it is a "difference that makes a difference". If nothing else, it reveals a new awareness for architecture, for a 'place' always demands an encounter with a natural site or an existing environment. Only a confluence of a human program on the one side and the natural character of a site on the other side can eventually produce a place. Doshi's recent projects contain this promise and one hopes that in the years to come these promises will be fulfilled.
And finally, a few words about the 'Postscript'. It is the one avoidable part of the book as the author is trying to generalize about the direction that Indian architecture should take in a book focusing on a single architect. As it is, his twelve-point program does not draw any clues from Doshi's work (which forms the main body of the book) and the chapter remains a rather disjointed appendage. One wishes that a critic of Curtis's caliber should have avoided the temptation to sermonize about what Indian architects should do. Under the circumstances, it is only the naive who will attempt to hazard such advice hoping that it will serve as a blueprint.