img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Balkrishna Doshi’s story has meaning for us all

Simon Allford

Freshly returned from India, Simon Allford reports on a fascinating meeting with this year’s Royal Gold Medallist

Balkrishna Doshi
Balkrishna Doshi Credit: Vinay Panjwani

I recently spent a delightfully busy two days in a very hot Ahmedabad, presenting the Royal Gold Medal to Balkrishna Doshi. We will hold a global celebration of his remarkable career online in June and I encourage you to join us.

Doshi and his wife are both sprightly nonagenarians but, in the post Covid world it was agreed it was best they did not travel this time. The consequence was a uniquely different format (the institute mountain coming to the man) that was much appreciated by Doshi, his office, his extended family and the many inhabitants of the city who have celebrated his career for decades.

 Much is said of our global world but Doshi is a reminder that the layers of history that connect us all are as ancient as Indian civilisation. Doshi travelled by boat to London in the early 1950s. Like many great architects he is not a product of a formal education. His story is one of digs in the then unfashionable Ladbroke Grove; fish and chip suppers;  part-time courses  at North London Polytechnic and many hours in the RIBA Library studying books, drawings, photographs and the magnificent space – all washed down by tea with the Librarian. His experience is relevant to our discussions today as to how we make the architectural profession ever more accessible. The import of a welcoming and generous RIBA must also inform our plan to reinvent the Institute as a House of Architecture open to everyone, from school children to scholars.

 The connections and the relevance of Doshi’s story does not end there. He met Fry and Drew (Fry was awarded the Royal Gold Medal in 1964) who worked in London and India. He went to 35 Rue de Sevres and then Ahmedabad to work for Le Corbusier. He  was with Corb in Chandigarh in 1953 when the RIBA invited the great man to travel to London to receive the Gold Medal. He went to Japan to meet Tange (RGM 1972), Maki and others. When teaching at Penn, Philadelphia, he befriended a shy Louis Khan (RGM 1972) who was in such awe of his hero Le Corbusier that he resisted an invitation to meet him.  Doshi was so struck by Kahn’s talent and humility that, when he, Doshi,  won the competition for the Indian Institute of Management he offered Kahn the commission.

Aranya low cost housing, Indore, India.
Aranya low cost housing, Indore, India. Credit: John Panicker (c) Vastushilpa Foundation

Of course his recollections of connections made on his various travels tell you as much about Doshi as they do of those he met. He speaks of his two masters, Corb and Kahn, and of their generosity as mentors. He is clear that the study of history, and even more importantly life, are key to his architectural philosophy. I refrain from calling it ‘his architecture’. For Doshi is very  clear that while architecture  is explored  in his long established  office and constructed conceptually and literarily  from the history and materials of the sites in which they work, it is never ‘his’. 

 To Balkrishna Doshi, architectural practice is an inquiry, informed by history and lived experience. It is research into possibilities for the improvement of the human condition, a study into constructing an idea for a future suggested and encouraged, but not prescribed, by the work carried out by three generations of his family and a diaspora of talented young Indian architects. 

 His mentors informed his inquiry, but so has the Indian model of adoption and adaptation that creates the concept of the distinguished hybrid that has shaped the rich culture of the sub-continent. For Doshi architecture only comes into being when people move in, take over and extend and adapt that which he has helped initiate. While his architecture is configured of concrete, brick and timber it is actually constructed from generosity and a delight in providing a framework that is but the backdrop to the accommodation of the theatre of everyday life.

Who do you want to honour?

RIBA chartered members or fellows can now submit nominations for our 2023 Honorary Fellows, awarded annually to non-architects who have made significant contributions to architecture. Deadline is Friday 22 July 2022. Register here 

Join the RGM party

Join us in celebrating the life and work of Balkrishna Doshi on 15 June at 1.30pm at our 2022 Royal Gold Medal Ceremony. Register here

RGM is sponsored by Arper