Doshi’s Sacred in the Secular

Volume 51, Issue 1, Michael J. Crosbie
Balkrishna Doshi

By Sanyam Bahga (Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

As we go to press with this issue, it has been announced that the 2018 Pritzker Prize is bestowed on architect Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi, 90, of Ahmadabad, the first architect from India to be so honored.

Many of Doshi’s works exude a sense of the sacred. His design for the Amdavad Ni Gufa, completed in Ahmadabad in 1994, takes the form of a subterranean art gallery that possesses the spirit of a hallowed place, a primal space that appears ancient and timeless at the same time. His Kamala House, dating from more than half a century ago (Doshi has practiced for nearly seven decades), is pierced by sunlight that imparts a divine presence.

The architect credits his primary architectural influence to Le Corbusier. Doshi studied Corb’s work and then travelled to Paris to work in his atelier for several years, before moving back to India to help complete several Corb projects, such as the Mill Owners’ Association Building. Doshi’s early buildings show the obvious influence of Corb, particularly in their muscular concrete, which is evidence of another architectural mentor, Louis Kahn, who in the early 1960s designed the campus of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmadabad, which Doshi worked on.

But the quiet presence of Alvar Aalto seeps through many of Doshi’s later buildings. His 1980 Ahmadabad studio, Sangath, shares siting and material similarities to Aalto’s 1952 Säynätsalo Town Hall in Finland (both building’s wrap around courtyards, use indigenous materials, and are scrupulous in their environmental responses to very different climates). Particularly relevant for the theme of this issue, Doshi’s architecture carefully calibrates material presence. As his work has matured, Doshi’s architecture reflects greater physical richness: intricate mosaic work, clay tile, indigenous brick, recycled materials. The stuff of architecture is a natural expression of Doshi’s belief that it is an extension of the human body; we most intimately connect with buildings through our experience with their physical reality, not intellectual abstractions.

Doshi cultivated his talent for distilling the presence of the demotic architectural context within which his creations exist—not only their architectonic characteristics, but their social, urban, environmental, and economic factors as well. In this way, Doshi’s architecture exhibits an architectural multidimensionality, mindful of all the claims that people exert on their built world.

One sentence leapt out of the Pritzker Prize press release that I believe merits special comment. Doshi’s architecture, it is noted, “is both poetic and functional.” Is it possible that the degradation of our built environment, marred by placelessness and alienation, is a product of pitting these two qualities in contradiction to each other, implying that the functional is rarely poetic, and the poetic is seldom functional? Doesn’t the creation of memorable, life-affirming architecture, and certainly of sacred space from the beginning of time to today, possess these two elements in a reinforcing fusion? Isn’t architecture’s poetic content an essential functional element, if we wish our buildings to touch the soul? Is our sense of the spiritual seriously impaired if we cannot see the poetic as architecture’s primary function?

Ultimately, Doshi’s architecture demonstrates an important lesson for the creators of sacred and secular space alike: every environmental intervention holds the potential to invite the human spirit and that of the divine to mingle, to cohabitate, to impart upon the prosaic the dimension of the sacral. How can architecture bless quotidian life, often seemingly just a daily drudge, with the gifts of celebration, reflection, and remembrance? Doshi’s architecture shows us how.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]handform.com Back to editorials