Autobiography, July 2012 By Balkrishna Doshi. Ahmedabad: Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design, 2011, 439 p
This autobiography of the 85-year-old Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi recalls the similar, though much shorter, reminiscenses of his contemporaries in Project Japan, Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s recent book on the Metabolist architects (see previous review). Both books convey the distinctive character of their respective cultures—intuitive and random in India, methodical and highly organized in Japan. Both contribute to the understanding of an architecturally rich part of the 20th century
Without either the social or educational background of most successful architects, Doshi attributes the rich opportunities of his lifetime to the principles of Hinduism, among them “to find the universal through the personal microcosm.” Indeed, religion is the guiding principle of this architect's quasi-mystical meditation on life and work. One of Doshi’s goals is to incorporate local traditions within Modern architecture, and he includes among his gurus his grandfather, Dada (a furniture-maker), and a selection of Hindu gods, together with Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn.
The architect singles out for special attention Sangath, his own architectural office in Ahmedabad (designed in 1978 and completed in 1980), which incorporates hollow clay tiles in its barrel-vaulted construction. The project serves as a particularly successful example of his fusing of East and West, but is the only one in the book for which he provides structural details. (He promises a more strictly architectural publication in the future.) For him, its forms evoke ancient temples (his favorites are the famous Ajanta Caves and the rock-cut temples at Ellora), but surely it also recalls buildings by his “gurus,” especially Kahn's Kimbell Museum.
Doshi spent three years in Corbusier’s Paris office in the early 1950s, then moved back to India to supervise work on Corb's government complex at Chandigarh and, among others projects, the Millowners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad. He also worked with Kahn on the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Such collaborations were a key to Doshi’s own numerous achievements. In 1955, he established his own practice, named at Corb’s suggestion, Vastu-Shilpa (design of the total environment), to indicate his involvement in urban planning and product design as well as architecture. Seven years later, he created a foundation with the same name and a School of Architecture and Planning, helping to make Ahmedabad an architectural mecca.
Doshi’s greatest impact has been in low-cost housing and city planning, showing how to introduce a mix of different income levels and architectural forms. A good example of his work in these fields is an expandable housing project he designed for 315 families in Ahmedabad (1976).
The book’s design employs different font sizes to signal different topics: the architect’s narrative in an average-size type, and his philosophical musings in sizes that increase according to importance. Doshi’s architectural sketches alternate with figurative drawings, the latter often invading and overlapping with the text.
Some judicious editing and an index would have helped, but this book succeeds as a touching personal confession of an important architect.
Reviewed by Victoria Newhouse1
- 1. Victoria Newhouse is an architectural historian and the author of Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls, published by the Monacelli Press this year.