A tribute to Balkrishna Doshi, who has won the 2018 Pritzker Prize, the Nobel equivalent in architecture.
I define architecture as a living organism. It is a place where you live and celebrate life. … ‘I hope my work is received in the spirit it is offered. My name is Balkrishna Doshi.
The first sentence is what Doshi says in the video released by the 2018 Pritzker Architecture Prize announcement and the second is the concluding line at the end. These two lines virtually represent the human qualities of his designs and the humility with which he accepted the equivalent of Nobel prize in architecture. At the age of 90, he can put every other youngster to shame, be it being approachable by a fresher or in being able to cite fresh learnings every time one meets him, who rightfully claims he is still learning.
Most Indians might not have heard of Balkrishna Doshi, since architecture is still taking baby steps in our nation with million other priorities. However, considering how difficult it is to create meaningful buildings in our country, it is commendable that Doshi could rise above our socio-political limitations, to make India proud by being the first Indian to get this highest honour. Yet, the international calling has come rather delayed, with Euro-American architects winning majority of the last 44 Pritzker awards, where creating great architecture is easier.
Of course, the western contexts are familiar to Doshi. After studying at JJ School of Architecture, Bombay he boards a ship to the U.K. in 1947, from there to Paris to work with the master architect Corbusier. When Corbusier was commissioned to design Chandigarh, Doshi returns in 1954 to be his local architect. He also assisted Louis Kahn of the U.S., besides teaching there during the late 1950s. This western exposure made him look for deeper eastern meanings in the way we live.
Doshi has been cited for his low cost social housing in the prize, with many foreign media highlighting it. However, he deserves the award for the diverse roles he played just when India was in post-independence growth years – academics through School of Architecture, Ahmedabad; architecture through his firm Vastu-Shilpa; documentation and designs through Vastu Shilpa Foundation; and lecturing across the nations reaching out ideas to people.
What is special about this award is Doshi has been quintessentially an Indian architect, having never designed any major buildings abroad. Also, he does not follow the modernist approaches learnt from Corbusier and Kahn, instead synthesising the modern with the Indian contexts. In choosing such an architect, the Pritzker awards has made a slight departure from the modernist international architects whom they typically select.
Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad by Louis Kahn is an international design with an Indian appeal, but IIM Bangalore by Doshi is an Indian design with an international appeal. It virtually defines how institutes of national significance should be built. His design studio Sangath has been listed among the 125 best works of architecture designed since 1891. Notable among his projects are Aranya low cost housing; Institute of Indology; CEPT University; Premabai Hall; Tagore Memorial Hall; Vidhyadhar Nagar new town plan; Bima Nagar housing; and Hussain Doshi Gufa.
Words of the critique Alexandra Lange are worth quoting here: “As architecture has taken a social turn, the Pritzker jury has worked to find laureates that fit both their aesthetic sensibilities and an awakened sense of political responsibility. Doshi fulfils that brief to the letter, while (in a welcome gesture) increasing the prize’s geographic inclusiveness.”
Pritzker jury citation sums him up meaningfully: “Doshi has created an equilibrium and peace among all the components — material and immaterial — which result in a whole that is much more than the sum of the parts.” Still looking for the immaterial and the intangible, Doshi continues to work even now.
Few architects can imagine building new visions, educate generations of students, inspire architects across the nation, investigate into Indian contexts and advice multitudes of initiatives. Doshi appears to have achieved them all with ease.
Of course, we may also acknowledge all those who teamed up with Doshi in this journey of multi-tasking, which again tells much about Doshi as a leader and not a lone traveller, a category many creative architects get trapped into. And everyone knows, he is not going to stop, bound to travel far from here.
Doshi has created an equilibrium and peace among all the components — material and immaterial — which result in a whole that is much more than the sum of the parts.”
The real textbook of green architecture does not lie inside the walls of libraries, but outside those walls, in what surrounds all of us.
In these days of climate change, if we ask any young person how to face the crisis, they are bound to respond suggesting living with nature as an ultimate solution. Net zero buildings will only minimise energy usage, green architecture saves on few resources only, carbon footprint theory will help in consuming less and greenhouse gas emission data may help us change our technologies. Each one of them is only a partial solution, unlike the holistic theory of living with nature.
Given this position, can we re-learn from nature, the way our ancestors might have done many millenniums ago when they moved on to become settlers from being nomadic? Specific to buildings, can we analyse forms and formations by nature to list out the design criteria implicit in them?
Principles of the universe have been shaping everything in nature right from the beginning, so it should be possible to learn from the way nature designs. Possibly, the real textbook of green architecture does not lie inside the walls of libraries, but outside those walls, in what surrounds all of us.
Let us take coconut, as an illustration, trying to read into the design logic employed by nature. The thick external husk provides the cushioning needed when the nut falls from great heights, while the hard shell inside avoids any possible breakages. Outermost fibrous skin ensures the least damage to the husk itself, while the husk reduces dehydration of the soft kernel with water until it becomes a sapling.
Coconuts are round and oval in shape to let the nut roll over, which helps in minimising impact pressure and also the propagation of the seed across distances. Considering that coconut trees traditionally grew along riversides and seashores, before they were formally cultivated by people wherever possible, the nuts could also float along the water flow.
Coconut tree has less foliage compared to many other shorter trees, yet has to capture sun energy. As such, growing taller above other obstacles becomes mandatory. But then, the tree may fall against high winds commonly seen near water bodies, hence the highly fibrous swaying trunk and porous leaf. The height enables the nuts to fall farther away from the tree bottom, improving the possibility of propagation.
We can notice how a single design element caters to multiple needs like the husk ensuring safety, water retention, rolling on the ground and floating on water. The way nature can synthesise diverse criteria to evolve one singular and judicious species called coconut tree is simply amazing!
Can we compare architecture by nature with architecture by humans? Yes, it is possible to analyse how natural forms evolve with design logic, without even knowing of high theories like bio-mimicry. Students in schools of architecture at MES, Kuttipuram or KSSA, Bangalore have already proven it. It is time everyone involved in construction sector starts doing it.
Buildings and other infrastructure in hill stations should not mar the beauty and ambience of the locale.
If we ask people “Do you like hill stations like Ooty or Wayanad?” everyone will say yes. Then if we follow it up asking “Do you think hill stations like to have people coming over there?”, not everyone will be equally affirmative. After all, we have spoiled the terrain with roads, exploited the views with buildings, littered the landscape with garbage and contaminated the sources of water.
Could these be the only reasons why hill stations dislike humans? After all, aesthetics goes beyond facilities and services, getting expressed in every one of our individual and collective actions. Here lies the tragedy – we go outdoors to relax in the lap of nature and we spoil that very natural settings with our constructions. Most of the buildings in hill stations make neither green sense nor hill sense.
The reference to hills is only anecdotal, for the issue is with our design approaches which negates anything natural. After all, before humans became designers and builders, nature has been designing, building and creating forms. None of them appear to be out of context; there are no ugly rivers; no terrible looking trees; no stones which appear nonsense or no unattractive animals. What are the principles of beauty found in these elements of nature and have we studied them to adapt in any way in our modern human constructs?
Of course, there is a major difference – natural forms grow in their context, while human needs are built up out of context. Buildings do not grow that way to become big from a miniature model kept at the centre of the site. Act of one-time construction differentiates us from nature, which follows slow evolution.
However, can we find ideas towards sustainable architecture in nature? If so, can they be universal or do we need to search them out in every region? How does nature ensures minimalism in its objects where nothing appears unnecessary in any and every part of the object? Can there be design parameters to be learnt from all such phenomena?
There surely are specific criteria behind everything around us, but we have lost the impulse to read them. During the early civilizations, people lived with nature, hence understood and adapted them. Human constructions blended with natural creations, hence there was harmony of different kinds. Architecture of the locality evolved from the landscape of that locality, both complementing each other. Now, times have changed. Even if we were to discover how nature designs, we may find it difficult to follow them in our designs.
The fact that designing with nature is sustainable goes undebated, but are people and designers willing to seek that path in these days where modern architecture is ruling the world? We need to seek answers to such difficult questions
The management of a rural school decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.
Let us deeply observe the kind of talk we are engaged with nowadays. Too often it could be revolved around changing values, shifting aspirations and a new age. Of course, they appear to be the need of the hour, the harbinger of a greater future. May be they are, yet it would be wise to check what we are leaving behind and were they worth discontinuing.
The case of Janatha Higher Primary School, Adyanadka, located in the village Kepu in coastal Karnataka can be a case in point. Started by the visionaries of the village in 1922, the school will hit a century soon, one among the few for any rural schools in Karnataka. The time ahead is ideally the time to celebrate, but sadly it appeared different, with the challenge of survival.
Reducing public donations, unviable rural fee structure, lack of government support, rejection of Kannada medium schools and dwindling admissions created a bleak future for the school, none of them of its own doing but caused by our changing times. Gandhiji if alive today, would have lamented the way our villages are being deserted, yet the lure of cities cannot be arrested by merely quoting Gandhiji.
Given this, the management run by local people took a bold step – not to let the school face a slow death, but to revive it by making it on par with urban schools by introducing the English medium, while continuing the Kannada medium to compliment the new. This meant a new building is needed, an opportunity to create a new image.
Visions are fine, if supported by finances. Attempts to seek donations and funds did not go far, with priorities of people with money also having changed. Undeterred, the management decided to introduce the ideas of Laurie Baker, both to save on costs and get a new architectural vision.
The site edging a vertical drop in the levels demanded RCC column frame structure, but it helped in creating large obstruction-free classrooms. Nominal laterite foundations support the non-load bearing walls. The same laterite stone is used for the walls too, which are left un-plastered. A few interior walls were painted with natural brick colour to create the classroom ambience, the rest were finished with simple groove pointing.
The RCC roof was designed using the filler block concept popularised by Baker. To make them free of intermediate beams, thick flat slab design was adopted with 3 layers of cheap, zero quality Mangalore tiles as the filler material. Round clay blocks made up for the verandah pillars with simple cement concrete for the flooring. Interlocking stabilised mud blocks create the few partitions, traditional Mangalore tiles on steel truss covers the first floor, displacement ventilation is ensured by voids below ceiling and windows go up to roof providing ample daylight.
No fancy stuff
No fancy elevation, no false modernism and no pretensions of copying the new urban images.
It is a simple building built the way schools were built in the region for decades, minimalistic in construction with nothing unwanted about it. Yet, a team of educated professionals came together to make it, keeping their career expectations and ego aside, not contributing to an architectural image, but ensuring that an appropriate, practical and contextual school happens.
While fund raising is still being attempted, classes have started in the new school wing with first floor construction on going. The village school is defying dis-continuation as the village is shaping as a small town, hoping to cross a century of service and survival, staying green, cost effective, eco-friendly and retaining its vernacular roots.
Reluctance to use bamboo is rooted in the absence of design standards and unpredictable performances.
Where do we source design ideas from? Today it is common to check the internet, books and may be a few buildings around us, generally creating buildings with a modern appearance.
Countering these trends, though occasionally, we get to see newly built traditional structures. They are contemporary, yet are traditional as a cultural expression. In many ways they perform better, functionally and climatically. The Nagaland style tourist facility under construction at Puri beach is a proof for both.
Naga bamboo is straighter than the local, besides being stronger thanks to its thicker outer shell and smaller central hole. It has nodes at shorter intervals with strong diaphragms. These average 5-inch diameter culms are being used for all structural purposes, while the rest of non-load bearing members are from Orissa itself.
Selection of bamboo is the most important, with every culm treated to reduce sap content. Lengths with signs of cracks are used for slicing and splitting, Split bamboo is commonly used as walling material, weaving it between the vertical bamboo frame to gain strength and reduce porosity.
Subsequently, mud mixed with hay or grass, stabilised soil cement mix or regular mortar can be applied on the surface. This kind of walling is also called as wattle and daub method.
The floor base has to take live and dead loads, so it is made of thin bamboos laid in close proximity with floor joist members, at 2 feet spacing. The final floor finish could be with mud grass mix topped with cow dung, wooden planks, cement oxides or even layer of local thin stones. The ceiling too may have the interwoven split bamboo appearance, but factory finished bamboo matts are now available as a ceiling finish.
Roofing is among the more critical decisions in bamboo architecture. While the support system could be same as for floor, the final roof has to be appropriate.
Due to the possible unevenness of bamboo, direct placement of interlocking Mangalore tile is difficult.
So, thatch, metal sheets, ferro-cement and such others can be tried. It’s better to keep the roof angle steep, for both structural stability and faster rain runoff. In Puri, they are using local paddy straw which has shorter life, but it’s economical and easily replaceable.
Being wider at the base and thin at the top, round bamboo can be tricky in achieving uniform sizes and well secured joints. It is vulnerable to cracking and splitting, which of course, can be managed by experts. They would also know how to avoid getting harmed by split edges, sharp tips, peeling of skin and such others.
However, professional reluctance in using bamboo does not come from issues like the above. It is rooted in the absence of design standards and unpredictable performances, dependent upon species and location. But if we see how bamboo has lived with us for generations, it’s our duty to give it due regard.
The master architect was convinced that designs are for people and had to suit the local climate.A tribute during his birth centenary year.
This Green Sense weekly column started exactly 7 years ago, acknowledging Laurie Baker as one of the influences on this writer. It is an occasion today to remember this master architect on his birth centenary year, a person who instilled a sense of cost, culture and climate in the local architecture he advocated. Decades after he stopped designing, many architects continue to design the way he did; but many more vouch how he continues to inspire them to explore alternatives to the predictable and questionable mainstream approaches.
What matters today is not his mere biography, but his beliefs which he professed and practised with no compromise. Even for the rich, he advocated cost effectiveness; he was convinced that designs are for people and his designs had to above all suit the local climate.
During the post-independence era, especially the decades of 1970 to 1990, many modern masters of Indian architecture emerged. Most of them either studied abroad or were influenced by the profession of architecture as practised in the west. In total contrast, Baker stepped out of the mainstream to design for India and in India, though his own origins were from the west. With no desire to chase prestigious projects and awards, he designed for people – nearly 3,500 houses in a lifespan of 50 years which appears almost unbelievable.
The ‘Gandhi of Architecture’ was actually influenced by Gandhiji, and looked upon social causes as his professional achievements. Even his public buildings stand as a testimony to his philosophy of minimalism in materials; low on cost; eco-friendly in performance; judicious in structures; and efficient in functional spaces. If we look back in today’s times of sustainability talks, climate crisis and environmental degradation, Baker appears to have been far ahead of his times.
Incidentally, Vineet Radhakrishnan has looked back at Baker, making a biographical full-length film about his life and works titled “Uncommon Sense”. In the making for a few years, it got released for public viewing only some months ago, yet has received critical acclaim, including being listed in Archdaily’s list of must-see films. The fact that Vineet is Baker’s grandson adds a different dimension to the film, besides it being a documentary on Baker’s architecture.
The film looks at many of his projects, but more importantly captures the man in his thoughts and words, which gives it an academic flavour. Architects and many non-architects who knew him well speak about Baker, proving how he did not restrict himself to his buildings, but provoked thoughts in whoever he met.
Why does Laurie Baker continue to be relevant today? Architectural critics know that design elements die, styles change, new materials emerge, and technology evolves. So, the physical does not last long. The philosophies last longer, but they face the danger of dilution once the founder of the philosophy goes.
Laurie Baker continues to be relevant, beyond the physical and the philosophical. Once Shiv Vishwanathan termed U.R. Ananthamurthy as a phenomenon and if one were to borrow that term, Laurie Baker is a phenomenon.
Natural materials can empower the designer to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception.
It is not unusual to come across designers and architects who are not supportive of working with natural materials. Of course they vouch by the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, are aware that natural materials have lower embodied energy, yet prefer manufactured materials.
This unsustainable approach comes not from an ignorance of the environmental crisis we are presently facing, but from a belief that natural materials do not offer adequate design variations. Quantitatively speaking, this position can be accepted since number of natural materials are less than produced ones. However, the opinion that design potentials reduce is a matter of debate, considering the diversity of traditional architecture we have across the world, which continue to be a greater source for ideas and larger tourist attraction than anything of modernity. Local architecture with natural materials continues to score over any modern idea in terms of perfection, performance and even permanence.
Once recent example is the architectural installation at Kochi Biennale, designed by architect Tony Joseph, from Calicut.
It is both an artistic expression as well as an auditorium for daily events. Built largely with natural materials such as mud, arecanut, jute and coloured fabric, it also juxtaposes with steel trusses with sheets as wall panel and roof.
The structure proves how well it engages with its general location within Fort Kochi and specifically with the briefing from the now famous Kochi Biennale 2016.
Natural materials can empower the designer to engage with regional contexts, thereby be able to create ideas rooted in tradition, yet retain the freedom to interpret modernity in form and perception. The auditorium employs the age-old technique of creating stepped seats using arecanut poles which is enclosed in the hall by textured and patterned rammed earth walls. Steel structure raises from within this enclosing wall to take the metal roof, the internal ceiling concealed by coloured fabrics hung with lighting from behind in varied hues.
As one among the more talked about built installations at the Biennale, this pavilion uses very few natural materials, yet creates a balanced hybridity not commonly seen around. The wall with mud, wood and sheet in a sequence has a more appealing narrative than a mere plastered wall. The steel and arecanut poles as supports for the roof and the gallery respectively, contrast curiously with each other. Internally, the fine texture of the roof fabric hangs just above the rough texture of the wall.
Given all this, why are the natural materials losing out against manufactured materials? It may not be only because modern materials have greater potential in some respects, but also because we are forgetting certain design fundamentals which would enable us to mix and match the local material to create excellence. Design has to do more with designing than a blind application of a technology or a material.
When we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default.
It is surprising to realise how every one of us, in our own way, is directly or indirectly involved with getting buildings done during our lifetime. It is one activity that most of us cannot escape, which at macro scale may mean commissioning a project or at micro level, just advising a friend about a design option.
In the implementation team we have innumerable architects, engineers, builders, consultants, suppliers, site team and such others, involved in the building construction industry. Our annual output in terms of built-up areas, spread across villages and all towns, is beyond calculation.
It is equally surprising to realise how most of us do not think much before we act. Most of our design and construction are based on a routine practice, endlessly repeated with minor variations therein. Naturally, deep thinking on design parameters like culture and climate are a rarity, resulting in the same faceless buildings being erected across India. While we have large number of practising professionals, paradoxically we appear to have a small number of thinking professionals, which could be the reason behind many non-descript buildings.
This is where thinking architects like A.G. Krishna Menon and K.T. Ravindran become important. Both have a pan-India perspective about how we are approaching designs today and the imminent need to be context specific in our design interventions.
These two senior architects may not be listed as eco-architects of today, possibly ignored by the younger generation.
However, through their selective designs, public talks, academic involvement, explorative seminars and freelance publications, they have inspired a large number of professionals, paving the way for thinking about architecture.
Ravindran’s emphasis on the vernacular and Menon’s observations of the traditional settlements highlight the importance of culture-specific designs. Incidentally, when we build with cultural sensibility, our buildings embody ecological sensitivity as well, by default. These architects with their analytical mind will not summarily dismiss modern architecture, but would suggest ways to blend tradition with modernity. Modern designs can also have green sense, be local and be sustainable.
To that end, one needs to study the design options, their implications and finally choose the most appropriate.
Learning from history
History is too often brushed aside as a matter of past, but architects like Menon and Ravindran, show how we can learn from history. After all, historic buildings have been green buildings not only in India, but everywhere. What we can learn from them and apply in designs today can make our future generations safer.
This process of learning cannot be complete if we study buildings in isolation; we also need to look at how buildings come together creating urban design, heritage zones and religious cities. Such rich contexts have created a lifestyle which in turn has created the contexts. Thus by recreating each other, context and culture have stayed true to a region – its geology, geography, flora, fauna and climate. By their thought process, these architects have proved that to achieve a green future, we need to iteratively study all facets of house, neighbourhood, city, culture, climate and of course living itself.
Many of their designs are based on theories and in turn, they have evolved theories based on designs. Where theory and design inform each other without contradicting positions, there we can find the path to eco-friendly possibilities.
Disciplined design expressions by Shankar Kanade complement non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by K. Jaisim in their eco-friendly architecture.
Design challenges do not lie in walking an established path, but in charting it in the first place amidst opposition by mainstream ideas. The greatness of Shankar Kanade and Navanath Kanade of Shilpa Sindoor and K. Jaisim of Fountainhead, both with firms located in South Bengaluru, lies in charting such new paths.
By 1970s and early 80s many architects had proven the benefits of practical and aesthetic designs, hence the city had carved a niche for good buildings, be they houses, industries or institutions. Going beyond mere functionality, Shankar Kanade brought the spirit of architectonic thoughts from Ahmedabad, ably joined by his younger brother Navanath who returned from the U.S. Jaisim, being influenced by philosopher Ayn Rand, followed exploratory architecture from a perspective very different from the others.
They started building with bricks, stone, hollow clay blocks and such other natural materials left exposed, without plastering or painting them. Thus the walls too became expressive, within which the voids like windows, ventilators and perforated jaali openings were carefully located to get the desired air and light.
Introducing skylights to bring in daylight, in a variety of forms and locations, became a hallmark of their architecture. They both realised that we need indoor air and light without creating glare or heat.
These professionals were not blindly following western architecture, but were creating a new approach by rooting it in the elements and forces of nature.
For a commoner, works of Kanades and Jaisim may appear different, but theoretically they have many comparisons. Their personal innovation creates the variety and their deep respect for the context creates the commonalties between them. Disciplined design expressions and grammar by Shankar compliments non-formal sculpturesque forms and surfaces by Jaisim in their architecture being what is called as eco-friendly today.
Too often we have heard the rhetoric that traditional Indian architecture has always been green and sustainable. While it is true, even the works of many modern architects have been so too, which do not warrant air conditioners, mass concreting, glass facades or aluminium-coated panels as elevation cladding. Kanades and Jaisim are undebatable examples. What the two firms did in the 80s paved the way for 90s when scores of younger firms in Bengaluru focused on eco-friendly buildings.
Tenants reject many rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house.
Who has not heard of love at first sight or may be, experienced it? Much has been written about the idea of the first look – from the first glimpse of sun rise at the edge of ocean to the psychology of impulsive buying soon after seeing a dress or a handicraft. Human mind is structured to form opinions at the very instant it perceives something, often at extremes like ‘for it or against it’. As such, it is important to design products for positive appreciation at the very first look.
Architecture is no different to the theory of initial impacts and immediate acceptance. Real estate agents can narrate cases of tenants rejecting rental houses simply because they did not like it as they walked into the house. Many architects have the gift of garb to convince a potential building owner, yet once built if the structure does not appeal right from the entrance, the clients feel let down.
There is a term called ‘sense of entry’ – though often used in architecture, it is a simple word that suggests how we perceive a building as we enter it. Walking into a 5-star hotel is not the same as entering an art gallery or going into a coffee house with friends. If we feel good as we enter, there are greater chances that we would like the interiors too, for the outside can suggest what could be in store inside.
The elevation of the building is an interface between outside and inside, hence virtually dictates how the building merges with nature. Some designers believe their creations should appear distinct from the outside. While theoretically we can accept it, practical problems creep when every building looks different, creating visual clutter.
People believing in context, collective appeal, urban aesthetics, green sense and such others argue for the elevation to merge with nature around. Besides vegetation, rocks and soil are among the most common materials we see around us, which take the form of size stones and clay products to get applied to construction. Being a direct product of nature, they do not degrade much due to rain and sun, lowering the life cycle costs across decades. There is a certain harmony created with the outside view, irrespective of it being a single building or a group. With multitude of natural materials available today, this approach offers many permutations and combinations in elevation making.
Sense of entry and perception of the interior are becoming more important than ever, as increasing number of buildings are adorning a green façade. Not all of them are really green or eco-friendly buildings, but look like one. In these days of the fake and the real, theories can come in handy to choose the real.