Upon entering, and moving up through the three floors of Ahmedabad-based architect Balkrishna Doshi’s Architecture for the People, one quickly notices that the exhibit has been divided into three distinct categories. These categories, loosely, are grouped around education, city life, home and identity, and each section is selectively chock-filled with drawings, paintings, architectural models and explanatory texts, each making the case for Doshi’s thoughtful vision and approach.
“So you know, the whole idea of showing the work … it actually comes about from Doshi’s understanding of Hindu philosophy,” explains curator and exhibition designer Khushnu Panthaki Hoof, architect and Doshi’s granddaughter. “There is a diagram there [in the exhibition] which has four words written, in both Hindi and in English, that mean ‘blossoming, expansion, melting and churning.’ So, these are the ways in which he has understood over the years what India’s ethos is about, and also the psychic notion of time in the Indian context—we do not see time as something that is linear. So, we look up these notions and expand on them. We talk about blossoming, being adaptive, being accommodating and so that’s instructive how we approach these kinds of objectives. So that is why we have these themes, we wanted to explore that understanding through his work.”
Open now at social practice art space Wrightwood659, Architecture for the People was first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery of Art in New Delhi. Doshi, who won the Pritzker Prize for architecture (the field’s version of a Nobel) at the age of ninety-one, famously began his storied career working as an understudy in Paris for Le Corbusier, the brilliant (and at times controversial) thinker often referred to as a father of Modern architecture and a leader of the International Style. “I am indebted to Le Corbusier for setting me on the path to write, sketch, design, paint,” wrote Doshi for the exhibition guide, “and to Louis Kahn for widening my understanding of the more abstract and philosophical aspects of life and working as an architect.” Flourishing in his practice, Doshi stayed on for four years, eventually leaving Ahmedabad after prompting by colleague Buckminster Fuller to accept a teaching position in St. Louis, from where he made his first visits to Chicago.
Returning to the city through this retrospective, it’s actually hard to get one’s head around the staggering accomplishment of Doshi’s life’s work, as is the sad fact that he remains a relative unknown in the culturally insular United States. Simply spend some time with Doshi’s gorgeous architectural models, such as his 1:200 vitrine for his Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore from 1977. Art objects in their own right, these painstakingly constructed wood models take up whole tabletop sections of the exhibit, and give visitors who may be unfamiliar with it a bird’s eye view of the architect’s ambition to think on a civic scale.
Similarly, his paintings, such as his “Encounters 2” from 2014 depict the environments he seeks to articulate: open, inviting, projecting a salutary aesthetic in saturated yellows, pinks, green and blues, intended to prompt interaction and exchange between members of the public. In fact, it’s imbued in much of Doshi’s outlook, whether in the 1968 plans for the Ahmedabad School of Architecture, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, with its openness and embrace of indeterminacy, or in the grandiosity of his 54,000-square-foot Mahatma Gandhi Labour Institute, built in 1982. Space expands, contracts, offers escapes from the heat of India’s extreme heat and places to gather, engage in commerce, share together in making a life of prosperity and meaning. Inspired by Gandhi, in his housing-project work such as that for the Aranya Low Cost Housing development in Indore, Doshi sought to integrate the work of local craftsmen using traditional techniques to assemble ferro-concrete structures, creating a more participatory process in their construction. Similarly, in his Masterplan and Urban Design Guidelines, for the Vidhyadhar Nagar of Jaipur, India, Doshi actively sought to incorporate “an amalgamation of traditional town planning principles,” including a rectilinear road structure that divides up the space for the more than 400,000 residents living there in the 1980s.
It’s that spectrum of concerns that Doshi has so successfully crafted, especially through his social housing work, that new combinations of traditional and modern, individual and architect, participation and urbanist virtuosity come well into view. “We wanted to try to explore these understandings through his work, and talk about the open-ended, how these spaces speak to their surroundings … so that the whole understanding would be this open-endedness,” explains Hoof. “Similarly, melting came about as this idea of being inclusive, and also talking about an anthropocentric idea of space. That’s where all the projects which have to do with the public, in terms of having to do with the community, with its shopping centers and all this, which is acceptable to people from all walks of life and institutions coming to that. But when we talk about those spaces, the informality, we see the ambiguity of those spaces and how they kind of connect with the human behavior patterns, so that whole idea comes from that.”
Balkrishna Doshi: Architecture for the People, at Wrightwood 659 is temporarily closed in accordance with State of Illinois restrictions. A series of virtual programming is still available at wrightwood659.org.
Michael Workman is an artist, writer, dance, performance art and sociocultural critic, theorist, dramaturge, choreographer, reporter, poet, novelist, curator, manager and promoter of numerous art, literary and theatrical productions. In addition to his work at The Guardian and Newcity, Workman has also served as a reporter for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, and as Chicago correspondent for Italian art magazine Flash Art. He is currently producing exhibitions, films and recordings, dance and performance art events under his curatorial umbrella, Antidote Projects. Michael has lectured widely at universities including Northwestern University, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The University of Illinois at Chicago, and served as advisor to curators of the Whitney Biennial. His reporting, criticism and other writing has appeared in New Art Examiner, the Chicago Reader, zingmagazine, and Contemporary magazine, among others, and his projects have been written about in Artforum, The New York Times, Artnet, The Financial Times, The Huffington Post, The Times of London, The Art Newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Art In America, Time Out NY, Chicago and London, The Gawker, ARTINFO, Flavorpill, The Chicago Tribune, NYFA Current, The Frankfurter Algemeine, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Village Voice, Monopol, and numerous other news media, art publications and countless blog, podcast and small press publishing outlets throughout the years.