BV Doshi | Atul Dodiya visits the Pritzker Prize winner at his residence in Ahmedabad
Over Sunday lunch at the architect's personal residence, the two friends talk about the similarities between their mediums. The text takes the forms of Kamala House
Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, 1977-1992 | Ample greenery offsets the concrete and stone architecture of this prestigious business school | Photographer: Iwan Baan
Atul Dodiya (AD): Given that India is a poor country and a large part of the population doesn't have a basic home to live in, does it, in this context, make sense to talk about things like architecture, art and design?
BV Doshi (BVD): Actually, there are multiple questions you are asking here, because there is a difference between a 'shelter' and a 'home'. So all these people, labourers and others, they work with a small canvas; that is a shelter, that's not a home. But if you go to villages, they use brick and mud and they build houses. So those are homes. They are not really considered as architecture or design, but there is an inherent grace about them—there is scale, proportion, a relation between outside and inside, and they are built using mostly local materials. This has always existed.
AD: But what about slums? There are always slums.
BVD: This is a problem in growing cities, where there is an earlier settlement, and little or no free space available. So when outsiders come, they start adding houses. It becomes a slum because there are no services available to them. Because of this crowding, an aesthetic sense doesn't form. Ownership of land is a big problem in India. Who owns the land? Today, most of the land is owned by ministers, so there is a scarcity. If you take the Aranya housing project that we did, 4,000 families of migrants were allocated a basic plot with a concrete plinth, a service core and a room. The moment you give people ownership, the confidence that "Now it is my place", they start to work hard to make it a home—not a house, a home. If you go there today, you will find that there are now three-storey houses, two-storey houses, and not only that, they are all together. So a slum did not happen here because here everyone was given a place—slums happen when you don't give people a place of their own. The basic difference is empowerment. What we did was empower the people.
AD: I was brought up in a chawl in [Mumbai], which, in Gujarati, we called a 'chaali'. The house was very small, and we were seven siblings, so we used to sleep in the veranda because it was cooler. I recently discovered that the passage from the first room to the last room is for walking, and that's why it's called chaali, from the Gujarati word 'chaal', which means 'to walk'.
BVD: But there, you see children playing in the mornings, women gossiping, and you can look into the core of the open space, so it is really a semi-public, semi-private place. You can go into your room and disappear, or you can step out and witness everything; it's really a theatre, a beautiful Indian theatre.
AD: So when I come to your house, two things strike me: the first is the filtered light of the space, and the second is the peacocks. Tell us something about the peacocks.
BVD: Well, without the peacocks, this house doesn't exist for us. The peacocks come because there is water, there are rocks and trees and gardens. A strange thing happened almost a year ago. The door was partly open and a peahen came in, as if she was just looking around. My wife gave her something to eat, and then she began to come every day. Which brings me to a question: what is it that attracts things? For example, in your paintings, what is that element that becomes the focus of your canvas? How do you get that? How do you really know what is main and what is substructure?
AD: Well, sometimes I decide that it's going to be a grey show, or a black-and-white show, and I get excited about it, but once you start, the canvas starts dictating how things should go, and then there is a struggle. I've learnt now, after having given up the struggle many times, to allow process to take over. I realize afterwards that this is the way it should be.
BVD: This is exactly what goes on in an architect's mind. So really, architecture and design are very much like a canvas that we are painting, the only difference is that the canvas for an architect is not restricted to what is within the frame; our canvas is without boundaries.
AD: Between the great Egyptian pyramids, and say, the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao by Frank Gehry, time-wise, there is a vast difference, but we are moved by both of them. Is it that there is a kind of timelessness to this architecture? What would you say we are moved by?
BVD: I think this whole sense of wonder you feel is what makes these great. There are no answers possible in that moment—it is like when lightning strikes. You cannot measure it, you cannot explain it. You cannot ascribe a relationship to it, because there are no parallels. You are made to feel tiny when you see a Richard Serra even though those sheets may be no higher than this lintel. It has nothing to do with scale.
AD: I consider architecture as an art form, like cinema, and believe it needs a producer, or a patron, a client; it's an expensive medium. But then, because architecture is also functional, there is a demand from the client, and a list of requirements. I often wonder about how you resolve this contradiction between a client's demands and your freedom as an artist. Or is it not a problem at all?
BVD: Actually, it's very interesting because a client who comes to build a house, he has a dream. Now usually, a dream is something that an artist has in his own mind; for an architect, the dream comes from another source, through a side door—the client. The client only has an idea of what he wants. It is up to the architect—who has to be an artist, a painter, a sculptor, and a technician—to now guide the client towards the answers. But if the architect himself doesn't have a dream, he can't really give the client what he needs, but doesn't know he needs. So the way I see it is that I am doing this for myself.
AD: I have often seen a small sketchbook and two pens in your pocket, and I also know that you draw. Do you keep the sketchbook to capture fleeting ideas?
BVD: Always. Actually, what I do is, I don't write what I have heard, but what I thought I heard. What happens is, for example, we are talking now, and I have a diary, and I'm looking at you, and then I get a flash, and then I see AD, and I might get the idea that unless maybe one has aspirations, one cannot achieve what one wants to achieve. This could be my writing looking at you. The diary actually gives me a chance to write what is silently going on in my mind and my body.
AD: Oh, it's like what Kazuo Ishiguro said: "As a writer, I am more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened."
BVD: I tell you, we are born with many karmas, so there is a whole lot of imagery in our subconscious. But we never really have a chance to express it because we're busy, but there are moments in between when our eyes say something, or our hearts, or the situation says something, and suddenly there is a connection to a faraway place. That faraway place goes away in a flash, so that is when you have to write. I remember seeing Corbusier driving one day in Paris. Suddenly he stopped and switched off his car. The cars behind his had to suddenly stop too, and people started shouting, and the police came. In all this, he took out his diary, wrote one line, and when that was over, he started shouting at them. What he said about that incident was that there are moments when grace descends.
AD: That's beautiful. Like the American painter Philip Guston once said, "I think whoever creates knows that there is a third hand working." I strongly believe in this, and often experience that when I am struggling with a painting, I suddenly encounter a surprising solution. There is a tremendous amount of joy in those moments and I'm not able to define how they happen.
BVD: Actually, this happens to me on every project. I start somewhere, go somewhere, six months go by, the buildings become something else, and by that time, you're completely exhausted, and you don't know what to do. You're nervous and frustrated. I'll be telling the person working with me, "Do this, do that, make this model, that model," and then finally, one day I'll go there, and I will find a very simple answer, and it will resolve everything! Like, I had told [MF] Husain I would give him caves, so I did one model with caves, and circles, and columns, but it was not working. So then I was talking to an engineer, and he said, "You know, you can't do what you want to do because you need a fluid material. You can't do this with brick." So I probed him further, and he said, "You know, like soap bubbles." On his advice, I decided to use a flexible material—ferro-cement—and that's how the Gufa happened.
AD: Your drawings and sketches are so loose and spontaneous, like a maze of abstractions. So how does a solid thing like architecture come from these wiggly lines?
BVD: I have seen Corbusier and Kahn draw with charcoal and the best thing about charcoal is that you can hold it very lightly and draw. It's a very light line, so you can rub it away and do a second line, and then you smudge it. When that happens, your ideas begin to change from line to space, from form to an image. That is why one should never draw with hard lines. You have to hold your pen like it is floating. It is almost sacred, like a prayer, and you are asking the paper what it wants to say. So you are not dictating—the paper and the pen are telling the story.
AD: Your studio is called Sangath—the most beautiful name for an architecture studio. What is the relationship with your assistants and colleagues and how do you work?
BVD: I'll tell you. I liked Corbusier's office because there were different kinds of people there—Japanese, Panamanians, Mexican, Columbians, and even some Swiss. And what a space like that gave you was exposure to a lot of different points of view. So the lessons I learned there were about freedom, diversity, choice, and an absolute openness to learning and searching. I think that these are the kinds of things I wanted. If you can have an office where there is an orchestration of minds, and hearts, and creativity that is Sangath to me. Sangath is like a marriage, where you go on a journey together and discover new things.
AD: While designing an institution like CEPT, which is an institution for architecture, how does the subject of education correlate with the design of the building?
BVD: The first question to ask when designing an institution of education is: do you need to educate anybody, or will they absorb the learning from their environment? I think it makes sense to give them what they will learn from. So from a wasteland, you give them rolling grounds; where there are dry places, you give them a forest of trees—this way, they begin to learn about spaces, about seasons, about gardens, about wetlands. They begin to become sensitive and aware of the earth and the land. Slowly, they absorb all this and begin to appreciate this wonderful life. And once the student absorbs this, would he not like to make a beautiful life? A life where there is joy? I believe education should be without boundaries, without doors. A space for learning should be like a second home, so that's what I did. I gave it a very simple structure and lots of natural light. On the beams, I embedded dimensions to give students an understanding of scale. I was doing what I would do here if I was a student, and if I was a teacher. Basically, I offered the students my understanding of what architecture is, and of what life is. I think architecture tells you about more than just buildings—I think it tells you the story of life itself.