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Le Corbusier, my grandfather

First work at Le Corbusier, a creative time in up-and-coming India and now, after 70 years of professional life, the Pritzker Prize. Retirement? Not at all. Balkrishna Doshi on the time in Paris and his plans for the future of his country

Text: Czaja, Wojciech, Vienna

Mr. Doshi, did you ever think you would win the Pritzker Prize?
Yes and no. No, because you just don't expect it. When I called a few months ago and got the message, it was like a shock with a pleasure factor. Receiving the Pritzker Prize is like a miracle for an architect that occurs once in a lifetime, if at all, and then never again. And yes, because ... Honestly? Don't we architects all hope so?

A former member of the Pritzker jury is honored for the third time. Shigeru Ban, Fumihiko Maki and now you. Isn't that noticeable?
You have to ask the jury that! I can only say this much: after all these years, the jury network now consists of a very, very large number of architects. There is great potential here.

How would you describe your own potential?
When you're young, you have time to experiment. And when you are old, like me, you have already done all the experiments and have implemented the best findings from them many times into reality. I've been in the job for 70 years. This is a great gift for a designer.

You worked with Le Corbusier in the first few years of your career. How did that happen?
It was a coincidence. I was in London in 1947 and shared a room with a friend. We read in the newspaper about an architecture congress in Bridgwater, Somerset, and thought: That wouldn't be bad! It later turned out that it was the sixth meeting of the CIAM, the Congrès international d'architecture. Not bad either! It was there that I met H. T. Cadbury-Brown, Secretary of Congress. And he introduced me to Le Corbusier. I thought: now or never! So I asked the gentleman with the round horn-rimmed glasses if I could work for him. The next day I sent a handwritten cover letter to Paris - and the answer came back a few days later. For the first eight months I worked for Le Corbusier without a salary.

What did you live on during this time?
Of bread, cheese and olives. I love bread, cheese and olives! I still do that today. Unfortunately, the choice in Ahmedabad is limited. But your own demands will also become so over time.

How was the collaboration with Le Corbusier?
The funniest thing: Le Corbusier could actually speak English well. But he just didn't want to. He wanted to speak French to the whole world at all costs. Thanks to Le Corbusier, I not only learned how to draw and plan properly, but also French. But now and then he took pity on me and spoke English to me. I think that was a token of love.

What kind of guy was he?
We really liked each other. Again and again he took me by the hand, asked me aside and explained life. “Doshi, come here!” He said then. "There is your armchair! Draw! ”And so he let me draw people, figures, windows, parapets, columns, pillars and stairs for weeks. He was a strange but kind-hearted person. I learned a lot from him. All things that I still use in my own work to this day. Le Corbusier was my guru.

You once called Le Corbusier a kind of grandfather.
Yes, over time we got closer and closer. Every now and then he would invite me to his home. His wife Yvonne Gallis - he always called her “my little Vovon” - told such good jokes over dinner that Le Corbusier laughed like a madman. When eating, he always uttered the most beautiful wisdom. “Sometimes you have more salt,” he once said, “sometimes less salt, and sometimes no salt at all, in order to cope with life.” It is one of those sentences a grandfather says to you. It was a nice time.

After six years you left Le Corbusier.
Yes. From 1950 he worked on his Chandigarh city project in northern India. The idea was that I would take over the project as a project manager. But then I was sick and weak. I wanted to watch the big world go by and I just longed to go back to Ahmedabad and get back home.

How did you experience the fifties in Ahmedabad?
Oh, it was busy. It was a time of new beginnings! There were thousands, alas, millions of internal migrants. People came from rural areas and moved to the cities in the hope of finding work. And suddenly they all needed a roof over their heads. At that moment it was clear to me: creating affordable housing. This is the job i have to do. It was the second best decision of my life.

And the best?
Years later to marry my wife Kamala. We have been a couple for 60 years. She is sitting right next to me - as in all the important moments in my life - and watching over me. She is the one who looks after me and makes sure that I don't work all the time, but also enjoy my life.

Do you have enough time?
Thanks to my wife yes. Otherwise I would be hopelessly lost.

The British daily "The Guardian" has called you the "Architectural Champion of the Poor".
As a champion? Really? I wouldn't call myself a champion. That doesn't feel right to me. There are enough others who deserve this name. But right from the start I was actually committed to helping the poor, often the lowest castes and income groups in India. Anyway, when I came back to India in the 1950s, there was almost no money in the country. Cement and steel were almost unaffordable. And so I built my first own project in 1957 with very little cement and no steel.

As the?
It was a brick building with wafer-thin mortar joints and a timbered pitched roof. It was a simple shell that I built entirely with local materials.

So very different from everything you learned at Le Corbusier?
Perhaps in material terms. But basically it was exactly what I learned from him. He taught me to question what is taken for granted and to work out new approaches for holistic, sustainable living from the respective situation. I stayed true to this approach.

What were your first assignments?
Housing for poor, low-income people, especially migrants. Among the most famous settlements are certainly the housing estate for textile workers in Ahmedabad and the housing estate for the Life Insurance Corporation and the Aranya settlement in Indore. The topic has remained the same over the years and decades: How do I manage to build robust and functional buildings with little money? How do I manage to shade the houses with limited resources and keep them cool in summer?

In an interview you once said that designing affordable living space requires a dignified attitude. How is this dignity reflected in your buildings?
In beauty. In the space available. With a certain spatial dignity. In a staged game with the weather and the seasons. And in the ability to age and still be in relatively good shape after many decades - just like me. The most important dignity, however, is to build so efficiently and intelligently that people are able financially to afford their homes without having to pick up the last rupees every month. There is hardly anything more unworthy than not having enough money to live in.

What about social housing today?
Social housing is a vague term. Everyone talks about it, but the truth is that nobody knows what it means exactly. For me, social housing is not just about constructing residential buildings, but also about thinking and helping to design entire cities and districts. Many ignore that. And then, at the end of the day, social houses will be built in more or less asocial cities. Unfortunately, you can observe this phenomenon all over the world.

What are you doing instead?
I envisage beautiful, attractive communal areas in all of my projects - whether it is social housing, a high-priced residential building or a public building. And not in the form of separate common rooms, but as lounges and meeting rooms that run through the entire project. When people start talking in the garden or in the corridor, then I've done a good job.

What are the current hot topics in residential construction in India?
The cities and villages are getting bigger and bigger due to the constantly growing population. What used to be a small town is now an economic metropolis. This changes our overall understanding of town and country. We are currently noticing that the newly created and rapidly growing cities still lack social and cultural infrastructure - and above all diversity. We have to catch up!

For a long time there was a caste system in India. And even today, the gap between rich and poor is huge. What can architecture and what can urban planning contribute to reducing these differences?
A little bit. The greatest levers to fight against segregation are in politics and social culture. My goal was and is empowerment, i.e. enabling and empowering people. You can't do that with brick and concrete. That is only possible with education, technology and a rethink in society. And maybe with a Pritzker Prize, who knows!

What are you going to do?
Everyone, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has congratulated me on the Pritzker Prize and, in fact, are very pleased that the prize is being awarded to India for the first time. That does something to people! It fills people with pride and a sense of responsibility. I want to consciously use the price as a tool and get the Indian government to rethink.

How would you like to do that?
The mindset needs to change across the country. Thanks to the prestigious award, I now have a certain cultural power, and I want to use it. My aim is for decision-makers to understand that architecture is not the biggest and most important factor in a functioning society, but it is not to be neglected. There is a difference between good and bad architecture. We have more than enough of the latter. She's breaking us.

What are you working on at the moment?
A lot! We are currently working on university buildings, main buildings for companies and institutions as well as many implementation plans. Fortunately, I have four partners in the office who support me. Our main focus is on the renovation and expansion of townships and the topic of energy sustainability. In Europe and North America, people speak of the low-energy standard, energy-plus houses and resource conservation. In India, however, we speak of zero energy. We urgently need houses in this country that are low-tech and function independently.

Can you give us an example of zero energy?
In 2014, Nalanda University was founded in Bihar, in northern India. At the beginning, the university had a few students who found accommodation in a hotel. Now, as a result of a competition, we are building a new campus with student apartments. And nature helps us with it. All around there are several cow pastures and farms whose cow dung we will use to run the campus. It's about networking, communication and interdisciplinarity. It's about a holistic interplay of forces. This is - at least in India - a completely new approach in the planning. I think this model is sustainable. There are cows everywhere in India.

Do you have any wishes for the future?
Yes. My greatest wish is that we learn to share. Namely: money, knowledge and resources.

Do you already know what you are going to do with the $ 100,000 prize pool?
I founded the Vastu Shilpa Foundation 30 years ago, which deals with educational and environmental issues. In order to reach even more people, the foundation urgently needs an injection of money. This is where the Pritzker Prize comes in handy. Wait ... My wife Kamala is whispering something to me ... She says I should put some money aside to finally bring good cheese and good olives to Ahmedabad.