On the second floor at Wrightwood 659, Sangath, Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi’s design studio, is recreated at scale, the arched entrance receding into smaller arches, built to look like the real studio in perspective. As you walk into this immersive reproduction you hear Hindustani classical music, peppered with some chatter and traffic sounds. You are in Ahmedabad, India. If you wait a little while as I did, you can hear the sound of an auto-rickshaw and I smiled so wide. At that moment, I missed home a little less.
Inside Doshi’s buildings, I learned design, dance, and also how to write about the contemporary art scene in Ahmedabad. He once told me how he got to witness the birth of an art culture happen, and what a privilege it was for him to build spaces where meaning making happened. This installation was an example of what his design philosophy was. It’s sentimental design, characteristic of Doshi’s loose amorphous forms, breathable and flexible enough to shift meanings as time passes by. Inside the studio installation, one of the walls holds a two-by-three inch drawing of a roughly sketched six-pointed star. Each corner has an element pinned: man, resources, society, architecture, nature, and economy.
Balkrishna Doshi is the recipient of the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize. In India, he is widely revered as one of the architects who redefined modern Indian architecture and shaped new generations of architects. “Balkrishna Doshi: Architecture for the People” opened at Wrightwood 659 last week. Curated by Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, the director of the Vastushilpa Foundation, and Jolanthe Kugler, the curator at Vitra Design Museum in Germany, this show is an intimate look into the architect’s interrogation of elements—air, light, shadow, sound, and sand—and how they make the context within which design happens. Doshi works in the lineage of giants like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and even though his style is quite distinct, the principles and forms of modernism he absorbed from the two seep into his work. His grasp on local cultures and conditions of living is so sharp, from low-cost housing and academic institutions to urban planning projects. His buildings are places for living, they facilitate being alive in the country that the design is set in.
The show occupies all four floors of the gallery. It is divided into four themes: home and identity, creating a livable city, shaping an integrated education, and building academic institutions. There are giant tracing sheet plans and section drawings, wooden models made for clients, typed up notes, handwritten design ideas, some spilled tea stains, renderings in sketch pen and crayons, and miniature paintings.
The first-floor entrance holds a timeline peppered with sketches, awards, books, and published papers. I wish this show had opened in a non-COVID time—it’s prime for class trips for architecture students. There is an intimacy to this show. This great architect draws and plans with the same pens, same papers, same transparent sheet, the same template to draft a door and a window that are featured throughout the gallery. The exhibit is as much about the design process—the ideas, documentation, client roster and requirements followed by plans and sections, creative problem solving—as it is about the designs themselves. The curation of the show makes that easy to understand.
Doshi’s projects like the Sardar Sarovar dam project, which supplies water and electricity to four Indian states, the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai, a property which holds housing, banks, industrial buildings and also a concert venue, institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology, the Indian Institute of Management, even the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi become more transparent. These are some of the schools which have been declared Institutions of National Importance by the Indian government. Also featured are more well-known projects like the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University and the Doshi Hussain Gufa. In the timeline there is a 1994 picture of the two where a young Doshi’s hands are spread in mid clap while artist M.F. Husain, who was famously exiled from the country in 2006, gazes in pride at the structure. This was echoed in the exhibit’s recreated Gufa, next to which Doshi’s handwritten quote reads, “Buildings should evolve to express time.”
Doshi is of the generation that worked on India’s need for low-cost housing. The fourth floor of the show displays his designs, some of which challenge and include the environment and as a result, become fluid. He used climatically responsive materials and modular systems that give the people living there an active participatory role.
For me, it was complicated. My condition of viewership shifted between living, breathing, walking in between these buildings and now, understanding them through the process, by appointment in Chicago. While in the tiny recreated living room from Doshi’s residential Kamala house, a visitor said, “Man, we need more cows and camels in our drawings!”
More than that, I couldn’t get rid of this nagging lament. Knowing that Doshi has left CEPT and some of his work, celebrated in this show, has in real life been demolished by the new administration without his consent. His idea of CEPT, displayed in the show, is an interdisciplinary educational institution without doors. Now, these elevations have changed, three of these buildings have been replaced, with Hutheesing Art Center in conversation to be next in line. And more than anything else, “the people” in question in the exhibit’s title are not the same people anymore. India has become one of the countries that wants to hide its poor, not commission architects to build affordable housing. An entire generation of thought is now being replaced by construction companies and high-rise buildings.The thoughtfulness in design has been replaced by erasure, disregarding low-income housing as a project itself. Right now, knowing Doshi is necessary. And archiving this way of thinking provides a blueprint. v