In Bangalore to address the students of Indian Institute of Management, legendary Architect B V Doshi strolls around the campus. As he pauses to make a point, he is framed by a flowering creeper, crests and hollows of green grass and thousands of trees.
It is simple to see in this snapshot, the sum of 60 years of an almost spiritual architectural practice. He designed this building and many others but most importantly, he shaped the way architecture is taught in India. He was the founder-director of the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad (1962-72), founder-director of the School of Planning (1972-79), founder-dean of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (1972-81), founder-member of the Visual Arts Centre, Ahmedabad and founder- director of the Kanoria Centre for Arts, Ahmedabad. There is a lot more to his life, however, than the Internet will yield. A security guard on a cycle stops him and says, “It has been many years. You will not recognize me without my uniform.” Doshi smiles in recognition and then there is another familiar face, and another.
The stories of his life swirl around us. As the film (Doshi-Architecture without adjectives) made by Premjit Ramachandran, showed us a few years ago, Doshi likes to walk the road not taken. He believes life gives us clues and if, we follow them, our destiny is revealed to us.
It was fated that he would go to France to work with Le Corbusier, subsist on olives and cheese for months and yet persevere.
The same need to learn took him to Louis Kahn, another master. But the most important lesson was this: “If you are rooted, you don’t want to be like any other tree, you are yourself.” Another lesson came when he touched the surface of Ganga, “It was so still that I could see the reflections of the mountains in it…and yet when I touched it, I felt a forceful current pass through me.”
He realized then what it was to harness all your energy and be still…till the moment you really need to unleash it. And that in a nutshell is his work. In conversation, the master holds forth on life and architecture.
On IIMB and meaning of architecture
What is architecture? What does it really mean? Is it a space we inhabit or we habit? When we ‘inhabit’ a space (consciously), architecture becomes the body to our soul. Then it is alive; it can talk to us. When I first saw this land, I noticed the gradations and the building followed. Nature teaches us everything we need to learn…it teaches us how to bloom, how to accept decay and how to regenerate. If we build to possess and control the environment, there is no synergy, no peace. Can you ‘see’ it (IIMB) as a building? It is not visible because nature has taken over so you see a wall here, a pillar there. It has scale and density but also porosity. I try to create a sense of unexpected wonder like a sudden breeze that you come upon. A space where light and shadows talk. This building can absorb, evolve with time. The pergolas and corridors refer to ancient temples…if you walk in the time worn corridors, you feel no compulsion to reach anywhere, the essentials get revealed, conflicts get resolved and we know who we are. That is the basic purpose of architecture…to make us aware of who we are. This is not a campus, it is a dwelling, and the students who leave must take with them a sense of deep-seated peace. Seeing a building is like meeting a person. You are impressed, and in a while you don’t see the face because the form disappears and only experience remains. This building is an experience. Today, we are trapped in form and are ignorant of substance. A place of education should have no doors; it should be open and welcoming.
The chaos within and around
Chaos is a state of mind. Chaos is looking outside without looking for a cause within. What is development? Growing tall buildings with glass when water and power are getting scarce and environment is not being conserved? We are no longer concerned with peace…we are not open to life; we are preoccupied with mental pursuits. The more we chase life, the more it runs away from us. Today, we think of time as a commodity to spend and earn from. For a yogi, the idea of time does not exist but we are chasing and being chased by time and we are not ourselves. Chaos persists when we try to escape it. But when we plunge into it, we see there is order. Our roads are considered chaotic but go deep in the frenzy and you will see vendors and cattle, traffic policemen and people all in a rhythm that makes sense. We need to understand that every journey is guided and if we understand that, the need to control it all will go.
Why imitate the West?
Today, we imitate an idea of success that is measurable and materialistic but harmony and change must be balanced. Money is not the answer. We have deep-rooted insecurities today, which are in turn fanned by the media. There is hopelessness today because there is fear, a sense of pervasive lack and the need to possess more and more. We live in a notionally scarce society. If we believe there is plenty for all, ample choices, skills that we all possess for our betterment, there will be no fear. Scratch anyone and you will find a heart. Did you see how during the Mumbai floods, everyone rallied for everyone else? That inclusiveness without distinction is the strength of our culture.
Memories of the Masters
Louis Kahn was like a yogi and Corbusier…I was his favorite student. Whenever I showed him my sketches, he would take away the obvious connections to make me see the mysterious, the subtle. He taught me that ambiguity is the essence of life and architecture. That in what is seemingly purposeless… you will find purpose. That creation is not based on stringent organization and sometimes springs from what is missing. He taught me that work is sacred and must have a sense of peace. I wrote a piece about both my gurus once and it was called A Yogi and an Acrobat. I also learnt that you couldn’t follow theorists because they have never built. Real work comes from experience. Rigid structures don’t work in life or architecture.
Learning from life
I don’t read a lot. I read a line and then ponder upon it. I observe a lot. I look at nature a lot. I think of mythology a lot, where I find a continuum of the narratives of generation, destruction and regeneration…that we also have in our existence. Nothing is forever but life at all times must be considered sacred. I believe in the notion of a temple within, in the ideas of sadachar (good demeanor), sadvichar (good thoughts), sanmati (good sense). I believe in the idea of Runanubandha…in karmic debts and relationships that come in our lives because of those debts. So I live in a lower key…I try to live simply. I have faith in destiny, in what my instincts tell me and I follow them, no matter what the cost. What I create, I recognize as not my doing. When I am myself, design does not happen but when I let go, the pen moves automatically. When creation is selfless and devoid of a sense of possessiveness, the forces come to your aid.
Blueprint for the future
Design is nothing but a humble understanding of materials, a natural instinct for solutions and respect for nature. Look at the huts in Kutch and our old towns that were simple and sustainable. The whole idea of sustainable living, compact towns with natural resources…why can’t we revert to it? I am not suggesting that we copy the past, but build in synergy, not isolation.
Reema Moudgil works for The New Indian Express, Bangalore, is the author of Perfect Eight, the editor of Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women, an artist, a former RJ and a mother. She dreams of a cottage of her own that opens to a garden and where she can write more books, paint, listen to music and just be silent with her cats.