Sustainability, adaptation and inclusivity are in Balkrishna Doshi’s DNA. We interviewed the 93-year-old architect in 2019, for What I've Learned.

BALKRISHNA DOSHI: ‘When I was eight years old, my grandfather’s workshop was next door to our extended family home of around 20 people, young and old, uncles and aunts. I saw a lot of timber, like wooden planks, coming into the workshop, and slowly the wood would start forming itself into long and short pieces of different shapes and sizes. It gradually became some kind of structure – a chair, a stool, a bed, a cupboard. I realized this assembly from raw material was "transformation", a word that became very important to me as my grandfather’s house constantly changed. Somebody would get married or have more children. A room would be added. The house would change shape or new furniture would appear.'

'When I started thinking about architecture, I thought preservation was an area to keep in mind. I wanted to remember how a raw material can assume a character or a form that makes it useful. Architecture is not just a product but a living organism. In our family, an excess of food would not be thrown away but fed to the cattle. So in my work I found a way to create a cyclical order of sustainability, where even waste can be consumed at the right time for the right purpose.’

Architecture is not just a product but a living organism

‘In 1945 I witnessed the end of the Second World War, soon followed by India’s independence in 1947. The stride for independence already existed, though. There were riots and clashes with the police; people burned imported clothes. It was at architecture school that I first saw the need for India to find its own resources and identity, a realization that became more apparent when I began working with Le Corbusier in 1951. He was trying to find a new vocabulary for his work in India. His efforts forged a connection between us; when one goes to a new place and culture, it’s not easy to discover a new identity and to find another means of expression and the freedom to break with convention.'

'It was quite funny, because Le Corbusier hardly spoke English, and he knew that I did not speak French. He also saw me as a novice in terms of learning about architecture. Often as I worked on a drawing or a project – such as the Mill Owners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad, my first job – he would ask me to get up and let him sit on my stool, where he drew and explained as he drew. Speaking to me slowly in English, he’d say: This is the way you work; it will help you improve. The climate is like this, the breeze comes from this side and people walk up this staircase. He described how people move, react and gather and how air blows. He taught me about movement, about how places become tangible and about variations – why turning a wall around prompts people to move in another direction. I learned why organic architecture should be based on climate and structural purpose. While he was doing this, he asked me about India: Tell me, what kind of climate do you have? Do you have a bird like this? Do you think the trees would blow and bend when the wind comes?

‘A few years later I met Louis Kahn while I was teaching in Philadelphia. I asked him to design the Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. We agreed that I would work on the project and see it through. As well as movement, he talked about structure, climate, the behaviour of materials and the articulation of heights. He explained the importance of a veranda and a brick arch. He showed me how to create a courtyard and how to analyse the behaviour of students. His drawings showed how architecture can become more expressive and unique in its identity of structure and experience, which became important for me to know.’

‘When I set up my own practice, Sangath, I applied the principles of sustainability learned from my grandfather’s house – how to work with the climate to avoid the sun, to allow more breeze to enter a building and to harvest rainwater. I gave myself a challenge: absolute sustainability in terms of climate control by using minimal air-conditioning, ventilation and cooling systems. I developed a traditional way of building but with a double cavity wall sandwiched between two thin curved concrete slabs. On my various construction sites, I picked up stones and discarded bathroom tiles from factories. I used the white glazed mosaic tiles, which reflect heat, for the cavity walls. Thin windows and doors provided cross-ventilation, and in all my experiments I used everything available that was suitable for all types of low-cost housing.’

Doshi completed the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore campus in 1983, a project which intertwines built and natural environments.

‘From the mid-1950s, migrants moving from the villages to the cities were given small plots of land. Government policy was to provide a brick plinth, 30 m long and about 50 cm high, as well as a water pan, a toilet and a kitchen platform equipped with electricity. Migrants had no security, no money and no jobs, but the moment you offered them facilities and an identity, they had a sense of belonging and a change of heart. They started to think: If I work hard and earn some money, I can make a tent, slowly put up walls and a sheet-metal roof, and gradually start building a house.'

'This is the process we demonstrated in 1989 with Aranya Low-Cost Housing in Indore. We made 60 experimental houses, built in different sequences, with various kinds of construction levels and additions – some with plinths and toilets, others with kitchens and stairs; some with concrete walls and others with windows. Staircases were either inside or outside. Sometimes a wall would be removed to make room for a shop. A building that wasn’t finite gave migrants the impetus needed to arrange the space as they liked. Even after 20 years, these buildings look like they’re growing. They’ve been enriched by sublets and extensions, and by the way occupants have educated their children and enjoyed prosperity. More than that, the houses were allocated without restrictions pertaining to region or language: migrants from diverse places, speaking different languages, were accepted. Over time, regional, cultural and caste distinctions became homogenized. Everybody became a cooperative collaborative and added his or her personal characteristics to the mix. Some people built a ground floor plus two storeys by inventing ways to integrate staircases of different sizes, despite legal deterrents. The main lesson I learned from the migrants is that minimal just means bare.’

When designing for a large number of people, you want to ensure that they’re well, comfortable and able to find their own identity

‘When designing for a large number of people, you want to ensure that they’re well, comfortable and able to find their own identity. For communities and clusters of people, you need public places that can be used for multipurpose functions – such as climate control and orientation – while providing pedestrian scales for the different kinds of use. In designing the Vidhyadhar Nagar Masterplan in Jaipur in 1984, I applied the various scales I’d come across in traditional cities. The project included minimal walking and water-harvesting.’

The 1963 Kamala House is located in Ahmedabad. Doshi, uniquely for that time, positioned the garden in the rear of the residence as opposed to the front, to ensure greater privacy.

‘Whatever we build, it must be human – a celebration of current lifestyles. Second: we aim for new technologies, new ways of building and different approaches to architecture or to the way it’s expressed – a significant diversity of aspirations. Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II [ruler of the kingdom of Amber (later called Jaipur) from 1699 until his death in 1743] said that life should be a paradise on earth for all people. I believe communities should thrive; be self-sustaining; offer employment, education and a good health system; and afford opportunities for residents to express their skills. These are traditional and normally permanent benefits. From Le Corbusier I learned that a good house is a house for human beings. It’s a place for work and for movement. It includes time and space for cultivating body, mind and spirit – and forms the basis of a plan.’

‘My partners [led by Rajeev Kathpalia] are doing a nice project, the Smriti Van Earthquake Memorial in Bhuj, for those who died in the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. It’s a self-sustaining, reverential monument intended to create connections among surrounding communities and to be totally integrated into the ecosystem – land, water, sky, air and material. [A plantation of trees will honour the earthquake’s 13,805 casualties, whose names will be enshrined in the memorial.] Those who passed away will always be remembered, and we – as well as visitors – will feel that we belong to the place.’

'Even after 20 years, these buildings look like they’re growing,' Doshi says of the structures comprising the Aranya Housing Project.

‘If we don’t smile and shake hands, what can we do in a world in which technology is moving so fast, further and further, and sweeping us along with it? It seems we’re connected only through virtual vision and sound. When you meet someone, see the smile on their face and shake hands, isn’t that experience better than anything else?’

This interview was originally featured in Frame 128. Get your copy here.