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Balkrishna Doshi – Pritzker Prize winner dies at 95

Topos Magazine

Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi died today, January 24, 2023, in Gujarat at the age of 95. In early 2018, he became the first architect of Indian origin to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. In the summer of 2022, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded him the Royal Gold Medal.

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Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi (born in 1927 in Pune, Maharashtra) died today, January 24, 2023, in Gujarat at the age of 95. In early 2018, he became the first architect of Indian origin to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. By that time, he was looking back on a seven decade long career as an architect, urban planner and university professor, starting in 1951 at Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris and working in the 1960s with and for Louis I. Kahn.

What makes his work special is his combination of Western architectural modernism with the culture and context of India. Doshi’s approach is to architecturally interpret ethical and spiritual sensibilities in a contemporary way. The results are sustainable structures with a regional identity that express both: a way of life and a zest for life. In the summer of 2022, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) awarded him the Royal Gold Medal. Read more about Balkrishna Doshi and his projects here.

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Modern Teachers, Local Adaption

Born in Pune, India, in the year of 1927, Doshi studied architecture and worked at Le Corbusier’s studio in Paris from 1951 on. Returning to India, he was a part of Le Corbusier’s projects in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. In the 1960s, he worked for Louis I. Kahn at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Doshi’s early buildings, with their solid concrete forms, are strongly reminiscent of Corbusier’s and Kahn’s work. His over 100 projects aim to reconcile modernity and tradition, taking context and culture , utilization and climate, space and material into account. The results are outstanding private and public buildings, including many educational institutions. Among his projects is the campus of the university CEPT (“Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology”), which he co-founded  as a school of architecture 40 years ago.

From the 1950s, Doshi pioneered low-cost housing in India. He received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Aranya Low Cost Housing in Indore, built in 1989. The housing complex is crisscrossed by narrow alleys and is spatially loosened up by inner courtyards. The design interprets traditional Indian cities in a modern way, recalling their characteristic elements: Village square and bazaar, alleys and courtyards. In the Aranya complex, the 80,000 residents can make their own additions and modifications to the apartments.

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Sangath

His own studio in Ahmedabad, built in 1980, carries the name “Sangath” – the Sanskrit meaning of “to accompany” or “to move communally” or to denote something that is “relevant” or “appropriate.” The term symbolizes Doshi’s architectural ideas in an exemplary way: terraces form open spaces that flow into one another, with basins of water and landscaped elements, while interior spaces are spanned by airy barrel vaults of steel reinforced concrete that provide shelter from heat, dust, and storms. The interior spaces can be used in a variety of ways, are artistically linked by the choice of materials, and are interwoven to form a harmonious whole.

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Consistent Decision

In its verdict, the Pritzker Prize jury noted that Doshi’s architecture “is always serious, never flashy or even chasing trends.” His work, the jury added, meets the highest standards and demonstrates a deep sense of responsibility as well as a desire to create authentic, high-quality architecture for the country and its people. The fact that these criteria were the deciding factor in awarding the prize is perfectly understandable. According to its claim, the Pritzker Prize, which was founded in 1979, is intended to honor architectural personalities who combine talent, vision and commitment in order to use architecture to achieve practical and aesthetic enrichment of their environment.

Balkrishna Doshi was honored by long-time jury members as well as newcomers, all recognized as outstanding figures in architecture: Glenn Murcutt, Richard Rogers, Kazuyo Sejima, Benedetta Tagliabue, and 2012 award winner Wang Shu. This May, Doshi will be presented with the award at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, along with $100,000 in prize money and, not to be forgotten, a medal engraved with the words “firmitas, utilitas and venustas”, the Vitruvian architectural principles.

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By honoring an architect whose oeuvre was created in India, the Pritzker Prize Committee is continuing its course of recent years: While the first 25 Pritzker laureates were all male, aged over 50 and mostly from Western countries, in the year 2004 the jury honored Zaha Hadid, a female architect for the first time; and while the focus had previously been on international star architects with their eye-catching buildings, it now increasingly directed its attention to local players in emerging and developing countries. A stronger reference to architectures that take into account or even focus on humanitarian concerns was also noticeable – linked to a political message concerning the role of architecture and architects in the modern globalized world.

Instead of spectacular eye-catchers, the focus is now on specific, contextual milieu architectures. This allows completely new protagonists to emerge who are considered for the award – such as Balkrishna Doshi now. However, there is also opposition to this. Critics have accused the laudators of confusing the content, having a guilty conscience or lacking self-confidence. But anyone who accuses an architecture with social aspirations of merely being a do-gooder forgets that it is a basic principle of spatial planning to improve existing living conditions.

These and more are reasons why Doshi was awarded the Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in the summer of 2022.

All photos: Courtesy of VSF (Vastu Shilpa Foundation)

2019, the TUM Museum of Architecture comprehensively showed Doshi’s work in the fields of architecture, urban planning, design and art through numerous original drawings, models and plans, paintings, photographs and films. More about the exhibition in Munich here: Balkrishna Doshi – Architecture for People.

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