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In Conversation: B.V. Doshi

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Video recorded at Sangath, Ahmedabad, October 9, 2015

What can a building convey?

 

You know you are standing here with a lot of noise, traffic, but you will be wondering what is this place. And this place which you see with a vault, low-rise building in a crowded area where obviously the buildings are very tall. So you would naturally wonder why I have done this. And one of the things that I found is that a journey begins like this, with the unknown. And slowly you begin to understand yourself.

 

What I found in my journey has been a strange pattern because I was born in a joint family and now I am here. And in this place, I built this building in 1981 when there was nothing around but I knew fully well that the buildings are going to come up here and tall buildings and extensions.

 

So the question is what is it that the building can convey. So this particular building conveys my life story, the unexpected, meandering, with all kinds of events happening and gradually it makes you discover yourself. Like if you walk around here, you will find that this path, you suddenly you see that this is a building and it could not be an office and people would come halfway and go back. And I think that’s what happens.

 

When I was writing the book, the title of the book is Paths Uncharted. That also suggests that there is no path which is one. There could be many ways and this building represents almost the essence of my career.

 

If you look at the floor, this is all made of waste products, but done by the craftsmen.

 

And here this is a tree which was here before, a mango tree. And it died because once we came here, probably it was not acceptable, she did not want to accept the tree. So in that memory I did fix, and if you see it is rising and one day it might come back. So I believe that in all these ups and downs you will be taken to your path one day. Who will take you? I don’t know. But it can happen.

 

A lot of people come here and they see this garden. Earlier they used to think this is a municipal garden. And everybody who comes here, they are surprised. All the students come, bus loads of students come, very very often because it is considered to be one of the best buildings that I have done. And in this journey they come here and they wonder, what is this garden and how come that this architect has done a building here where one could have made five storeys, six-storeyed building. So when they ask me this question, I say, you should always find what is the value of your life. And I have to pay that price. If you want to enjoy the life, you pay your price. And this is what it is. So you can see more than 50%, 60% is open garden. And the building is very unusual. You can’t see any windows. You don’t see anything at all. And it is an unexpected journey. Journey could be of a village, a place which is left over. And to reach that place as you will walk, you will not know how to go.

 

But this is my office and it is called Sangath. Sangath is moving together. You never walk alone. And if you prefer to walk with people around, friends around or scholars around, life is richer.

 

And anyway what is an office. Do you go there to work like a clock? You know, 8 o’clock to 6 o’clock. Do you work like there like a robot? Or do you want to go when you want to go and you choose your time and you choose your place. And I believe in that, that the freedom is what one must get all the time in life. Utpal who is here is a professor. He is heading now a school of architecture in Nirma University. He was my student. So we know each other for more than 30-35 years and the important aspect is that the journey is always cyclic. It moves on and it is a possibility that the helical spiral can go up and up and wider and wider and not the other way around. And I think that is really the journey of my life.

 

A lot of people come and they don’t know the place. So they look into this pond. They look at this place and they think this can’t be an office of an architect. So they go away. Sometimes those whose buildings I have done and I have failed in their buildings, it leaks and it cracks, it can fall off perhaps, it has never happened but finally he will come to shoot me and he doesn’t know, he goes back. So it is like a movie where many episodes happen.

 

You will wonder why there is music in this place. One is to drown the outside noise and another to make you aware that you have eyes, you have ears, you have senses so you see the garden, you see the park, you see the sound, you see sky, you sometimes see monkeys here, birds there and then we can have functions here. My daughter’s weddings were all done here. So it can become also a public place. So is it necessary to be confined. Is it necessary to be isolated? Is it necessary to be so simple, direct and narrowed so that I say this is what I do.

 

So my life actually is a journey where anything or everything has happened. And every time I wonder how come.

 

This is where the battles happen, discussions take place, discourses happen. One of my students always describes this place as a setting for Sholay. And he says this is where the entrance is there and this is where Gabbar Singh comes there and I walk from there and sit.

 

All these walls, all these textures if you see it is slightly incomplete but it is made purposefully to have a contrast. I believe in paradoxes. I believe in unexpected events. I believe in uncertainty. And I believe that in those, in between those events there is a life, there is music.

 

Here is Buddha who was done by one Mr. Kulkarni in Kanoria Centre when there was a workshop. And I liked it because there is no head. So you have to imagine where it has gone.

 

So there are these kinds of semblances of ruins, old places, and new places. Incidentally not many architects ever use old china mosaic. Those are all broken tiles, waste products from the factory. Only I paid for carting. And this is what the lesson is. You can see all the floor here. You see all these things are done by the craftsmen. These are the leaves in stone here. You can see this. So there is art everywhere. It is just a question of putting it together in a certain way and if you allow people to do it, they excel.

 

So if you come here then the entrance is very narrow. Lot of people come up, go there, there is a door which is closed. Then they don’t know what to do. Then they come back. Look at the pigeons there now. So you allow nature to be part of your life. You allow surprises. And you make them as your main trunk of your work and your life. And so I always expect or create situations by which I am in a crisis and the door opens.

 

Nowhere will you find an entrance like this, like the face of the ruins. And then you go down and there is a door. And it is a semi-dark place and you don’t find a secretary. There are few chairs but there is nobody to check. Then you look. If you come here, suddenly you will find perhaps a secretary there and you will say where you want to go. One place goes up, other place goes sideways, this one goes to my studio and all these you can see, they are of different scales, different…and they carry you in a very meandering moment.

 

And this is the …studio where we work. It doesn’t use much electricity. This is one of the most important sustainable buildings in our world. It was classified in the '80s as one of the hundred buildings by hundred architects in hundred years. So it uses all the technologies of sustainability of which we talk. And the light is natural. And you can also look at the rains, and being inside when the light changes you know how is the sky. So you can talk to the sky also.

 

This is my room and you see this light which is indirect. And when the light is reflected, that is what the good photographers do, the harshness goes away. So those who come to fight start smiling.

 

So I asked you yesterday, is your name Chetana or Suchetana? And I think what is nice is to start with an idea that how come good inspirations, good memories, good thoughts come. I think they don’t come unless you allow them to come. And to allow them to come you should have an open mind and an open heart. And to do that one has to also think about saying that how was your journey in life. Did you plan, not when you are young but when you are graduate or when you are in college you start thinking. And then when you graduate your highway is open, a linear highway. There are opportunities of course but you know exactly what they will do. They will not allow you to see anything else. And your direction is straight and eventually the speed catches you. And in that speed you forget, was this what you were when you were a child? Was it something that you thought of being and one doesn’t remember time, one doesn’t remember space, one doesn’t remember oneself.

 

But luckily for me life was life was presented very differently because I was born in a joint family where there were close to 15-14 people, my grandfather’s house. My two uncles and my father, and then my aunts and they were not staying very far in Pune, which is a lane or a small street, not very small but a by-lane. And what was interesting was that was a lane which was mostly occupied by my caste people, our caste. I am a Gujarati Vaishnav. Religion has been one of the important thrust of the life. With religion comes rituals, with rituals comes ethics and with ethics comes compassion. And with compassion you get into sharing. And my life has gone there. It doesn’t mean sharing because in the joint family and when you have never seen your mother’s face because she died when I was ten months old, my aunts, uncles and neighbours, they took care. So as a result when you go to the house, they never ask you whether you have eaten or not because they say, do you want to eat or you have already eaten somewhere. And normally I would go on the walk on the street and one of the relations would say, this is lunchtime, why don’t you come.

 

So I have lived in a very large extended community, not family and that has made me look at life differently because in that community birth, life, wedding, old age, disease, death, the whole cycle I have seen. I have seen that cycle when I was young. So I grew into that cycle. So in that transitional cycle, you don’t know where you are. In fact, very often even now I think what is my identity. It is like a flowing river and you are the boat, little boat, paper boat and you are bumping one on the other. You look at trees, you don’t know. And I think the journey has been fantastic for me because the moment you allow things to happen, on their own doors open and my doors opened continuously. And that opening of the door allowed me to go to many places and my journey is of crossing thresholds because my grandfather used to tell us stories from the Mahabharata. So there was value, there was revolution, valour and there was facing war, strife, hunger and still discovering yourself. So this gave me and I still remember I wrote in my book about Karna and what a fantastic personality and how he dies on the last day, he gives that tooth to the beggar who was Indra and that kind of quality, generosity, I think is something which I don’t know but I have felt that.

 

So my grandfather who had a furniture workshop in the same house on the side, a big workshop, shared but almost 15-20 people working, a lot of wooden logs etc there and this house was growing. My grandfather must have added the house. So I found that as an architect it is surprising but if you look at it carefully, houses also grow. They are alive. They are alive and they are wanting to talk to you. So in those completely 24-hour practically open door, three floors, staircases going between the walls, you walk there, you go up and you come back and you go down and that is what I used to do. And then when you go to the furniture shop, you see the planks and logs coming and slowly they get transformed into furniture. So you see a tree becoming a chair or a table or a wardrobe and all these things show that transformation goes on and the transformation is not meaningless, it is meaningful. And I believe that is what life is about.

 

But interesting thing is that when I studied this I tried to experiment what my brother used to do. He would have that stove but you need a spirit. So he had a bottle of spirit and then came to put this. So he tried and it fell off. It did not fail when my brother was doing. When I was doing, it fell off and I got fire and my leg was burnt.  Seven months of isolation and almost you hear, you are half conscious, and you hear the doctor saying, I am sleeping in the middle room where there is a darkness, semi-darkness, people come and go and I am lying there in pain. And gradually it became worse and the doctor said, maybe you may have to ampute the leg. That is where I think grace came and I got cured. And I have not forgotten it. And perhaps that was the time I thought maybe my mother has protected me. And that faith is continuing till today.

 

So what I find is in life one should tell your children that have faith in somebody. Love somebody and believe in them. Whether you believe in god or not, doesn’t matter, it is an image, you never know. But it is very important to have some faith that destiny is for you and the karma will take you where you need to go. And that is how today I am sitting in front of you here.

 

And I think the journey has been fantastic because from there I went to the school, Marathi School. Then I went to Science College. In between I had my art education because of a friend again. And that teacher told me that what are you doing? You are doing science, you are going to that college for what purpose? What will you do afterwards? Join your grandfather or your father’s business or you want to do something? Because I was good in Maths, I was good in art. So he said why don’t you go to the J.J. College? And I had no idea about architecture. Nobody in the family was even educated. Hardly anybody had gone to the college. So then my journey began because when I went to J.J. College I went in that Pune style dress at that time, lehnga, shirt and cap and I see these Parsis, Christians, Goans, other scholarly people talking in English, properly dressed. I am with chappal. When I saw them I removed my cap but I had the glasses. And I couldn’t converse in English. So I found a Gujarati also who was applying for the course and I sat with him and we became friends. And we continued our friendship very very late in life.

 

But there I did my architecture. But the interesting thing which I was telling my students the other day that Pune is not very far and I would feel homesick and I was staying in the hotel, semi-hostel. There the owner, it was called Sardar near Crawford Market, two-three minutes walking distance. And in that room there were five beds, in the narrow room and one in the verandah. And except two of us, three were passengers. So I used to come there and they would ask me, what are you doing? I said, architecture. What is architecture? And what will you do then? Will you get a job? I heard this for almost three and a half years and that has helped me because today when I design, I ask this question, what is architecture, what is it that you are doing, does it have any purpose, any meaning? And that is how I started the school of architecture in 1962 in Ahmedabad. But those issues made me aware. I was sick, I was about to leave the school because of humidity. I had problems with boils on the legs all over the body, allergy was there. I had to go to Pune and come back. But interesting thing I remember is that I would leave on Friday afternoon, go by third class train and come back Monday morning by 11 o’clock, 10:30. And then I would start counting my days. I would say, Monday is gone, so today is Tuesday, so that is also gone, so Wednesday, Thursday and Friday I am going. So I would say, only two days I have to work. So I learnt how to create illusions for myself. These are all illusions. You never know, you can also stretch it into seven days. I mean you can stretch it to two days. So in crisis I used this method of calculating this by deleting a lot and finally you have less problem.

 

And that was the other lesson that I learnt that in crisis which will come unexpectedly, how do you keep not only balance but how do you make them malleable, workable. So this student who, there was one senior called Hari Mukund Kanhere, he was in the fourth year and one day he saw me walking there in the hotel and he says, what are you doing, what is your name? I told him my problems, I said, maybe I can’t appear for my exam. This was in the first year. He said, don’t worry, I will come with you to the principal, let’s see what he…., he helped me to do the drawings. And then we became friends and then he was to go to London for the Royal Institute of British Architects exam and he said, look, what you do is, you will also have to appear for exam, so when I reach London, I will call you and you come and stay with me. I had left my house, I mean left my parents and separated from my family because of my stepmother because of my elder brother and we moved away and that was when I was perhaps 12 or 14 and thereafter I left the house when I was 18 to go to Bombay. And since then most probably, very few times I went, never more than couple of days in my life to my place. So actually all these longings remain but your life is going on. So….instance for me are lessons of learning.

 

Now why that particular art teacher advises me I don’t know. Why I went to architecture I don’t know. And then I go to London. And there I stay with him and then I stay in the hostel, I appear for the exam and there in the building where there were paying guest arrangement, many architects were there from Bombay doing jobs and working. So one of them said that there is a Congress in London of International architects called CIAM, Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne. So I said let me go there and they would say you can’t come, you are not even a student. I said, yes, but I have come this far and all that. So he says, okay, you come as an observer.

 

So then when I entered there, Hoddesdon, one gentleman comes from across and he says, 'Are you an Indian?'  I said, 'Yes.' I said, 'My name is Doshi.'

 

He says, 'I am Samper, Herman Samper.'

 

I said, 'What are you doing?'

 

He says, 'We are showing Chandigarh.' What is Chandigarh? So I said, Chandi must be the name of the goddess that is how the name is. So he says, 'I will show you.'

 

I had never seen big plans. I don’t know what planning is. So I was good in drawing, I was good in the school but beyond that I was not exposed. We used to see the works of others. I had not seen Corbusier’s work. There I asked him the next day, showed him my work and I said, can I get a job. And he said, 'Why don’t you come? We will write you a letter. You do a one letter application in your handwriting and I will give it to Le Corbusier and let us see what he says.'

 

Not knowing English, not knowing anything I wrote it six times. And there was my teacher, an architect, my teacher was there, one other one from India. I wrote the letter, corrected six times and left.

 

Suddenly I get a letter saying that you can come and work provided you come as a stagiaire, that means as an apprentice and we will not pay you for eight months. Now, not having much money, not knowing Paris, I was not knowing how to go. My brother when I wrote him a letter saying I want to go to Paris, the reply came as a telegram, don’t ever go there because the life there, the women and everything, there is wine and meat, you should not go. I said but my colleague said, this is a lifetime opportunity, you must go.

 

That is how I landed in Corbusier’s office. And after few months and few years I became one of the seniors there. And at that time I had the chance because of Corbusier to meet many best architects in his office. I met a historian, Gideon. So you ask an architect’s name and they were all there because they belonged to the Congress and they all came to meet Corbusier.

 

There not knowing French, not knowing much English, not having exposure to drawing, who came to help me, Corbusier himself. He comes there, sits next to me and he would say, 'And Doshi, you do like this, so, so, and draw like that. Here, this is the space, and this is how it works', and then he would draw the section and he would draw some birds. He says, 'Oh! Your country.' He was there doing Chandigarh. So he said, 'The birds are there, the trees.' He used to draw the drawing as if it is speaking. That was the first time I learnt how to do a drawing which speaks.