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Concretised, un-ecological architecture for Ahmedabad? BV Doshi: A tribute of dissent

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 
I wish the thoughts were shared with Dr. BV Doshi Sir before than writing a tribute knowing that he was constructive towards critical appraisal. The tribute is a discussion of dissent on the approach to yesterday’s architecture (pedagogy, profession, and product) by most masters including you as those approaches shape the built environment of today.
Your ‘combined modernism with vernacular’ approach to architecture has undoubtedly influenced generations in the region and the country. Just like your works are influenced by the modernism and monumentalism of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn besides the exclusivity of Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, Frank Llyod Wright, Alvar Alto, Antoni Gaudi, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Robert Venturi, and more masters.
Your biggest contribution is undoubtedly the making of the CEPT Ahmedabad campus and nurturing a pedagogy of critical thinking into the school’s foundation. It is the critical thinking of the school and your mentorship in the early career helped intend and implement converging thoughts and actions.
From my first employment at Sangath followed by 2 years of Master and 5 years of Research Consultancy at the CEPT campus besides following your endeavours distantly have immensely influenced. A crucial learning is that architects ‘Do(should) Not Create’, instead they are meant to facilitate the needs of the citizens and the commons.
You have echoed Kahn that, “Architecture is about seeking Truth.” Agree! You have also echoed Corbu that, “To create architecture is to put in order.” Disagree! These statements seemed contradicting as the former suggests harnessing complexity and the latter secures a harping in linearity. Many a times, there was an urge to put some arguments like these and debate with you. Here are a few of them.
The pedagogy of the CEPT embraces the complexity of the society in the education. Yet, since its inception there has been a conscious attempt to put the society in an order of function and objects especially with the advent of the architectural style of Corbu and Kahn. It may be the time in history post-independence and post industrialisation in the country which made us think/do in that manner.
Further, with the limitation and obsession to read and be influenced by the foreign architects and architecture, there was explicit shift of architecture profession as, ‘by-for-of elites’ that will aim to produce master pieces different than ever done before than aim for common architecture that will be understood and used by the masses.
A strong belief that architecture can change society’s behaviour is (mis)interpreted usually as architect’s power to change everything as they wish to. In this approach, building form started defining the function and thus slowly drifting architecture towards narcissism, the result of which is now evident in the cities with highly democratised (polluted) architecture where each building aims to be louder than the other and thus a total loss of integrity. In Ahmedabad this may have started with the big building blocks like Dena Bank and Premabai Hall that were imposed onto the old city’s close knit low skyline fine grain fabric.
Sangath remains a sacred institution for most of us who have worked at some point in time. Millions have visited and appreciated Sangath including me for all its goodness. Still, cherish a memory of using your adjustable big table and sitting right at the front row thus greeting everyone coming to the design studio.
The vaulted arch structures with levels created on a flat land is documented and disseminated extensively however, rarely did anyone sought answer about its inclusiveness for the differently abled people who may like to visit/work. The architecture reiterates an idea of a perfect society where ‘all is well’. Well, no harm in it as long as one doesn’t face any problem about it. The learning is that a little heaven created there should not be upscaled/accentuated to large public institutions.
Working on the landscape designs of then Stein, Doshi, and Bhalla (now Vastushilpa Consultants) projects namely, Bharat Diamond Bourse Bombay (BDB) and extension of National Institute of Fashion Technology Delhi, there was a realisation that personification of buildings made landscaping a mere exploitation to fulfil the aspiration of architectural extravagance and thus far from seeking the truth about nature/ecology.
The experience in the BDB project with technological shift to design using computers is unforgettable as an amateur in the profession. The struggles with floor space index, circulation, services, etc. of the monstrous scale of buildings in a composite campus gave many lessons to most of us.
The BDB is located on the bank of Mithi River but is indifferent to the river. So, designing the campus landscape (my scope of work was to convert Paul Friedberg’s design sketches into working drawings) as terrace gardens seemed superficial. The ornamented open spaces in such projects distances the use and the users from the bio-physical nature.
Then, the fascination (fixation) for form transcending the need of the use and the user is evident in the Hussain-Doshi Gufa project which pushed all of us, then at Sangath, to literally create the Herwitz Gallery overnight for the inauguration of large length paintings of Hussain.
If architecture is to be seen as individual projects with full freedom to express form, then the understanding of the surrounding and the society became mere an exercise of justification and integration. I could relate how in bachelor/master degree projects we would do systematic study of the site surrounding but end up designing what ‘I’ believed is good/right and eventually defend with a good vocabulary and speech.
Most of the institutional and large-scale projects are standalone entities from the early projects of IIM Bengaluru, MPEB Jabalpur to the new campuses like IIM Udaipur which are indifferent and in no interest of dialogue with the surrounding habitat and nature. Authors rightfully appreciate that IIM Bengaluru reflect the perfect sense of scale, proportion, and light. However, they miss mentioning unsustainability from light, air, temperature inside the built spaces and the building services besides the extravagant built form.
Institutional architecture does require certain degree of monumentality and formality however, sustainability too is crucial. May be in those days, climate change was not an issue, but minimalism and sustainable development were already in the public discourses. Similarly, inclusiveness may not be that prominent then, but may be expected from lead designers to uphold and uplift those values in the public realms or commons.
To you, “a campus should be meandering and connecting.” So true!
The CEPT campus is close to heart to almost every architect in the country(and world) and rightfully so. It is understandable that the campus is designed to be an experiment for the perfect balance between human and nature -- on a flat land, creating levels. However, my struggle to comprehend is when many undulating sites are flattened by architects (usually mostly by developers to maximise built-up area).
Thinking deep, it seems both approaches are against the physical nature. The multiple levels of the CEPT undoubtedly create an interesting experience of the built and open spaces, of light and shadow, however, its inclusiveness for all seems compromised besides the buildings’ infrastructure issues until recently.
For example, during Urban Design course in 1997-99, a batchmate in Landscape Architecture was differently abled (with limbs) and he would use the steps and the spiral staircase (on the first floor) several times every day. I recall requesting the administration to bring our classes on the ground floor, but with no response.
The public projects for the commons like, Aranya Low-Cost Housing Township Indore, ATIRA Housing Ahmedabad and Vidyadharnagar are worth mentioning as genuine attempts to manifest sustainable society where a mix of economic classes would live together. They have inspired many township/housing designs across the country. Pity, that those models could not become ‘the optimal’ alternative to address sustainable density and low skyline city.
Your push and more projects may have helped establish this approach as a city building process. It seems your focus on ‘How the Other Half Builds’ was too short spanned in comparison to the large exclusive buildings to impact the policies and city building process. All new cities look the same and all new cities wish to be some other (western) city. Few good architectures in a city are really unable to pull an image for the city. It is likely that overrating the profession’s responsibility in city building process is na├»ve which you may have understood at some point in time and thus gave up on city building process.
Assessing all the above as projects/products of time, project, business, material, technology, aspiration, certainly they are well deserved efforts and worth classifying as master’s works.
My dissent is mainly on the insubstantial and insufficient interventions on two major projects which have impacted the architecture and ecology of the city for eternity besides the professional practice. The CEPT Planning and Urban Design disciplines and discourses are underexploited to the city’s growth. A missed opportunity by the fraternity, besides falling for politicisation of science and scientisation of political aspirations in these projects.
First is the Ahmedabad’s City Planning and development. It is understandable that when rampant urbanisation engrossed the city, there wasn’t much in the hands of the architects especially with their focus on building master pieces. I wish CEPT Planning and Urban Design besides Sangath as a Think Tank really made enough efforts to influence the city’s growth in terms of imageability, sociability, sustainability.
Despite dissents developed with your approach to architecture, there is a genuine confession: there won't be a better architect-mentor
Some efforts were indeed made from groups of architects-planners-designers led by you on the building guidelines which emerged after the city was affected by the earthquake and the recurring floods in the early century. This did lead to Revised Building Regulations, and we see the return of the 60-70s architecture but with more use of glass and air-conditioning.
However, the effort did not go further to set urban design guidelines and robust planning for resilience. Then, the strategic allocation of the FSI could not anticipate and capture the needs of the forthcoming boom in the building industry. The architecture of the city today is aesthetically polluted in addition to air, water and noise pollution with carcitecture of the humungous transport corridors of highways, flyovers, BRTS and now metro.
Interestingly, the city is now a UNESCO heritage city because of all the heritage built around the Mughal period. Ironically, the new city with no architectural language fails to respond to the living heritage the city owns. This process of changing architecture began from the time of Tagore Hall, IIM Ahmedabad and alike which got distorted with every new building in the city.
Second is the Ahmedabad riverfront. Who knew that a mere 11 kilometres will sabotage the image of a 370 kilometres long river that lived for centuries. The originally conceptualised riverfront design by Bernard Kohn with river as an ecosystem did not materialise on ground for decades.
When the present-day riverfront was contextualised, there was (still is) a missing voice by the fraternity against the concretised un-ecological architecture. Assuming that you were cognizant of both the riverfront approaches, there was a wish that you lead a campaign to retain the social-ecological character of the river.
With you we could have resisted the malicious intent to be implemented. Failing to do so resulted in what we now embarrassingly own in the city, a tank with borrowed water and weathered biodiversity, besides being among the most polluted rivers in the country.
Being personally inclined to water and ecology it is an observation that your interventions in them were limited to ornamentation towards appropriation. For example, the Smritivan Earthquake Memorial at Bhuj designed with concretised cascading pools of waterfalls, ironically at an arid drought prone region, is also dependent on farfetched Narmada water like the Sabarmati lakefront.
Despite the dissents developed with your approach to architecture, there is a genuine confession that there will be no better architect-mentor as you in the years to come. Observing-understanding your thought process and works over the years is a great learning process. While seeking answers about design and practice, your works did offer some answers. There are still many questions hovering.
A fundamental question that seeks answer from within is: what if the greats could explicitly share the mistakes done in the projects and guide the next gen to avoid those? Another question is, who is ultimately responsible for the loss of imageability, sociability, and sustainability of the cities. If architecture-planning-urban design is about buildings and cities, then when will they be better organised in doing so?
Idealising and idolising are justified as long as they allow delimiting the thoughts which is a challenge. In the days to come, we may live in a time of ‘No Greats’ in architecture with the advent of technology and rampant development. Wonder if that is a good for the profession as that may liberate us towards experimentation and innovation.
All said and done, what is wished for is, more accountability of the profession towards the society. The Council of Architecture bestows that duty by safeguarding the use and the users, however, not much is done to make the profession more accountable towards sustainability, inclusivity, ecology and water.
The profession unfortunately predominantly dwells in monumentalism, in other words narcissistic approach to architecture, an architecture of difference, but with limited intent for unity in the diversity. It is a wish that instead we look for orientalism which is philosophically underpinned towards ‘small is beautiful’, ‘less is more’, ‘god lies in details’, ‘function to form’, and more.
Amidst the many learning, an important takeaway is, ‘what should not be done’ or ‘what one should not be doing’ especially in the architecture of today.
---
*Entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor. More about her learning and sharing at: www.mansee.in and www.wforw.in

Comments

Arun Bhandari said…
Excellent article Mansee. Totally agreed, Dr. B V Doshi sir was a master of bringing in the inclusive planning in the large cities. Today we are witnessing his efforts in to fruition and Urban India is vibrant again! Rest is Peace maestro Dr. B V Doshi sir.
Deepti Vyas said…
It was an interesting article keep writing and inspiring .An honest and critical piece of subject which teaches you to be more honest towards sustainability.

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