Doshi: The Master of Elastic Time

Lecture and Text: Bijoy Ramachandran
Film: Cinematographed, Edited and Directed by Premjit Ramachandran; Conceived and Researched by Bijoy Ramachandran (© Hinterland Films)

In this lecture, Bijoy Ramachandran articulates his reading of the works and thoughts of Pritzker Laureate Dr Balkrishna Doshi through the multiple encounters with his buildings that include the seminal IIM Bangalore, NIFT Delhi Campus and the Diamond Bourse. The talk also outlines the influence of the numerous interactions Bijoy has had with Doshi over the years.

 

In 2009, Bijoy collaborated with his brother and filmmaker Premjit Ramachandran to author and produce Doshi – a film on the celebrated indian architect. In 2019, and with a gap of ten years, they collaborated again to script and produce the second film ‘Doshi: Return to Formlessness‘ – an intimate portrait of the architect with immersive and enduring glimpses of some of his celebrated buildings.

Images and Film: Courtesy Bijoy Ramachandran and Premjit Ramachandran. The talk and the film were presented at the FRAME 2019 conclave ‘Modern Heritage’. 


LECTURE SCRIPT:

I remember the trip vividly. Riding south from college, Thomas (Samuel) and I were on his beat up RX100 making our way to the Management Institute. We were working on the D.Y. Patil trophy, analysing (Sanjay) Mohe’s housing at IISc and the question of Indianness had come up – that wonderfully benign trope from our past – (now not so much). Nagaraj (Vastarey) had told us about William Curtis’s book, An Architecture for India – surely this must have all the answers – with a title like that (A). It was 1994.

Coming into view were those delicate spouts along the compound wall, negotiating the contours, creating moments of transparency and articulating the coming together of stone, concrete, water and terrain. We were in without the now customary security check…riding straight through into a forest…(N.S.) Ramaswamy’s forest. The first director famously nurturing what is now the lone refuge on that hellish stretch of Bannerghatta road.

Winding our way through, meandering, almost lost when suddenly the way became clear. And in the clearing was the low slung granite outcrop…as if carved out of the plateau itself…all choices – Sadarahalli granite, concrete, grey Shahbad, and the all but invisible MS window frames accentuating this sense of a monolith – an expression of this particular place. The large western wall almost completely devoid of fenestration, almost geological and the northern wall – all fenestration, attached so delicately to this heavy mass – separated by gardens, light and stairs. All of this is today completely appropriated by the landscape – and a much gentler expression of the plateau is visible!

 

Entering the western wall under a deep canopy, through large teak doors, we were in a space with mysterious light from above and around corners. We seemed to be in some sort of a liminal space, not yet inside…making our way very slowly. Time seemed to stretch and our passage seemed gradual, elastic. The scales within this first hall kept varying, till we got to a space flooded with light from a pair of large triangular skylights. This space was encircled by bridges and terraces overlooking it and seemed like a node – decisions had to be made…were we going straight up, slightly to the right – dark and low… or to the left.

This, then, was the first time we encountered that incredible triple height passage, with pergolas above – flooding the space with patterned light. Lush gardens, slowly climbing, overwhelming the space. Both of us stood spellbound. Here was something new – something we had never seen before and yet in our bones, we recognised it…it reminded us of something ancient, a memory buried deep in our shared consciousness. Charles Correa called this ‘deep structure’. TS Eliot refers to this twinning – of the timeless and of the temporal – in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, “…and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the past-ness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer, and within it the whole of the literature of his own country, has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.

This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.” (B)

The sheer audacity of it – that scale, the variation, structure and stone in a delicate dance – revealing, concealing, and the landscape – overwhelming. What was this? Form following function? There was something so much more fundamental going on and it connected immediately, viscerally. The ground too was now articulated, climbing ever so gradually…we walked up to the crest – past a small accessway, through a passage between the stone wall and tall columns to another wide passage – again three storeys tall and three times as long as the first passage. This long connector now opening up to the library – off axis and recessed, marked by a large gateway embellished with red granite. The mid-landing of the library’s primary stair projecting violently into the linear relentlessness of the 300m long passage…enclosed in glass contrasting the robust stone and concrete. Variations and theme. Multiplication and exception, as Doshi says.

The order of the building was now slowly revealing itself…a large framework – these incredible passages, the spines, filled with light and landscape onto which were delicately attached the programme components. A wonderful metaphor for a place of learn­ing…Over time, other architects have designed buildings that feed off of this spine – without diluting the power of this central organising strategy. The Institute providing a resilient foundation, a robust frame so to speak, onto which one can continue to layer new information, knowledge and wisdom over time.

We won the NASA citation in Mumbai that year, the first ever for us, kids from the provinces. Prof. Varkey, who had famously worked on the Institute with Doshi, was on the jury. Maybe this had something to do with it.

With this began my interest and obsession with Doshi and Vāstu Shilpā’s work. I spent a summer with Pavitra, Doshi’s site architect on campus, drawing one section of a staircase in the MDC extension and Doshi visited and I remember walking around with him hoping to learn the secret incantation to summon this magic. He wrote a note for me:

“There are many ways to create architecture, either by integrating it with the surroundings, by emphasising it or even by alienating. Each is a good solution, provided the building itself is as integrated as a human being, or an animal, or an insect, or a plant, etc.

What one needs to do is to understand the FLOW.

To know the FLOW you have to be in contact with YOURSELF, and the MATERIAL which is used as a medium.

Good luck.”

This was in 1994, 25 years ago! I am still working on it…this idea of FLOW.

Alvaro Siza, in Writings on Architecture, says, “They tell me that I do not have a supporting theory or method. That nothing I do points the way. That it is not educational. A sort of boat at the mercy of the waves…I study the currents, eddies…I can be seen alone, walking the deck. But all the crew and all the equipment are there…I dare not put my hand on the helm, when I can only just see the pole star. And I do not point out a clear way. The ways are not clear.” (C)

That is the thing…I worked at Sangath too. That plan of NIFT in Delhi…how does one get there?

Doshi’s great narrative about discovering an archaeological trace to make this plan seems the only tangible way to describe the logic of those, both random and archaic geometries – searching for water, or that incredible series of shards in the Diamond Bourse plan – a plan made of fragments, beautifully composed…crystalline, and then that amazing scheme for the Jain temple, taking this idea of collage to an almost geological level – as if this mound, this artificial terrain is natural ground – Like Heidegger – work (that) draws up out of the rock, the mystery of that rock’s clumsy yet spontaneous support. Here that clumsy rock, that expression of spontaneous support is itself the artefact.

What diagram can capture the essence of these schemes – what theory can wrap this up neatly…this is work that shows both an architect in search of his own. “Spaces full of wonder – spaces that rise and envelope flowingly without beginning, without end, of a joint­less material white and gold,” as Kahn said (D), an architect working often with a large group of collaborators, finding the way through an intuitive, iterative and shared process, and working around contingencies – constantly negotiating, maneuvering…. rather than the precious artifact, much of this work shows the joys and struggles of these conversations…

As Doshi says, “For me it is a search – it is only a search, search for that unknown which I have not known, neither I know how it will mani­fest. That’s actually the essence of my work. It begins somewhere, ends somewhere, and in that process I grow and the work grows and we both grow together.”

Over time I have realised that Doshi’s great lesson is for each of us to find our own truth…our own voice, find ourselves and in doing so find universal expression (as Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said). This is a tough lesson. Doshi himself spent long years with Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, and has been able to absorb these lessons and find his own unique voice. A voice that is informed by the lessons of his masters, a deep search for the self and by this culture of exchange, negotiation and reinvention.

In 2008, Premjit, my brother, came back to India and agreed to make a film with Doshi17. This process which took roughly nine months, brought me close to my brother, and gave both of us the opportunity to spend an incredible time with Doshi. The shoot was completely unscripted, a serendipitous coming together of three people who, as Doshi puts it, had to settle their Karmic bank balances!

 

But maybe there were balances still pending. Thanks to Ruturaj and this wonderful conclave his team and Takshila were putting together Prem and I decided to do this again…11 years later18. Both of us visibly ageing… with receding hairlines, pot bellies and a few existential crises in exotic locations behind us…but Doshi – unchanged. His message still potent, his sense of wonder still undimmed, and him: still the master of elastic time! ♦


References:

(A) William J. R. Curtis, Balkrishna Doshi: An Architecture for India, [Mapin, 1988]   |  (B) T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent, [Egoist, in two parts, September and November 1919]  |  (C) Alvaro Siza, Writings on Architecture, ed. Antonio Angelilo, [Skira, 1997]  |  (D) Louis Kahn, Form and Design, 1961 [Louis I. Kahn, Writings, Lectures, Interviews, ed. Alessandra Latour, Rizzoli, 1991]

Connected Reading: MATTER ‘Modern Heritage’ feature on IIM Bangalore


Doshi: Return to Formlessness

TRAILER:

 

In 2018, legendary Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi was awarded the Pritzker Prize for his contribution to world architecture. Ten years since we made the documentary on Doshi, we return to his home to listen to him talk again. Doshi II: Return To Formlessness is a series of conversations with the philosopher-poet-architect on life after the Pritzker and life post 90.


Introduction to the Film

After having made the first film on the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi, in 2009, Bijoy and Premjit Ramachandran return to spend time with him to unravel more of the myth, metaphor and magic that make Doshi so magnetic. The film takes the audience on a journey beginning in Sarkhej Roza and ending in Ompuri Temple, designed by Doshi in 1998 as an homage to The Mother. Featuring an all new score and previously unreleased footage of Doshi post the Pritzker accolade, the film brings you up, close and personal with the man, his work and his thoughts on the here and hereafter.

The film will not only introduce people to a truly great modern architect, but also to an evolved, cultured human being and help redirect our attention to the truly important questions of our time.

Chapter I: Architecture as Atmosphere (The Anonymous Architect)

Chapter II: Architecture as Throughness (The Acrobat Architect)

Chapter III: Architecture as Dialogue (The Visceral Architect)

Chapter IV: Architecture as Wonder (The Mystic Architect)

Chapter V: Architecture as Oasis (The Ethereal Architect)

INTERLUDE: Do I Have To Surrender? (The Narmada Story)

Chapter VI: Architecture as Organism (The Primordial Architect)

Chapter VII: Architecture as Awakening (The Silent Architect)

Premjit Ramachandran

Premjit Ramachandran (aka Dara Okat) is a musician, filmmaker and graphic designer living in Tiruvannamalai, India. He has been doing graphics, artwork and branding projects for over 15 years now and has worked in the past with companies like OgilvyOne (in Mumbai and Dubai), Landor Associates (in Dubai) and Turquoise Branding (in London). After being disillusioned with the corporate world of commercial graphic design, he decided to explore filmmaking and made his first film in the deserts of Dubai in 2006. “Look Here, Kunigunda” that was officially selected at Rome International Film Festival 2006. After returning from London in 2007 he decided to delve deeper into the cinematic process. In collaboration with his brother Bijoy Ramachandran (Hundredhands), they began working on a feature-length video-portrait of Balkrishna Doshi. In 2009, he was commissioned to create 9 short films about Kerala. His work has been critically acclaimed on many artistic and professional forums.

Bijoy Ramachandran

Bijoy Ramachandran is an architect and urban designer based in Bangalore. He is currently a partner at Hundredhands. Bijoy has a Bachelors degree in Architecture from BMS College, Bangalore University, a Masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA, in Architecture & Urbanism. In 2012 he was a part of the Glenn Murcutt Master Class in Sydney, Australia. He has been a panellist twice at the annual All-India Undergraduate Thesis Review, the Kurula Varkey Design Forum, at CEPT University, and is currently the Design Chair at BMS College of Architecture, Bangalore. Apart from architecture, he has also made two films – ‘Architecture & the City: A Bangalore Perspective’, and ‘Doshi’, a film on the Pritzker award-winning Indian architect B.V. Doshi, directed by Premjit Ramachandran. The film is also now part of the archives at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris.


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