Blurred Boundaries

4-16

The Ooz

April 11, 2019

While the decades following the second World War were marked by student rebellions, workers movements, and anti-war demonstrations in the West, a different process of identity-building  was taking place in newly independent countries. The Republic of India was formed in 1947, marking the end of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. A region with a complex social, cultural, and political history, the Indian subcontinent was an amalgamation of princely states before it was consolidated as a colony. Independent India is a secular, democratic nation with a society still rooted to centuries of tradition. As India grappled with the challenges of forging its own identity, new institutions were being built across the burgeoning nation.

In 1950, the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, invited Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh, signaling India’s embrace of modernity. Balkrishna Doshi, a young Indian architect working in Corbusier’s atelier in Paris, accompanied him. Beyond Chandigarh, Corbusier’s association with India extended to Ahmedabad, where he was commissioned to build private residences and public institutions. Doshi arrived in Ahmedabad to supervise Corbusier’s projects and made the city his permanent home, where he established his own practice in 1955. As he moved ahead in his own career, Doshi’s interpretation of modernism became more nuanced as he developed a unique architectural vocabulary that was relevant to the context within which he was working. His interpretation of modernism did not arise from an outright negation of history. Traces of building traditions of Ahmedabad and other parts of India made their way to his rich repository of inspiration. This assimilated approach shaped his practice and his role as an academician. In 1962, Doshi started the School of Architecture (now known at CEPT University).

Doshi studied at the J.J School of Architecture in Bombay, the first school in India to introduce architecture as a professional discipline in 1913. Initially, the school focused on the Beaux Arts tradition and steered towards a Modernist attitude in the 1930s. Since its inception, the school was largely under the leadership of British architects. Before independence, it was uncommon for Indian students to take up architecture, and those who did were primarily trained as draftsmen to execute the designs of British architects. As the founder and architect of the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad, Doshi was tasked with setting up an institution to train the future generation of independent India’s architects. The establishment of the school marked a new phase in architectural education in India. Challenging the norms, experimentation and a pluralistic approach were ingrained in the pedagogical model. From the beginning, the School admitted women, and many became leading practitioners that inspired generations of women seeking to pursue architecture in a male-dominated field.

Doshi recognized the need to create the right built environment for the school where students were to spend a period of five (and sometimes six) years of education. He adopted the concept of an ‘open campus,’ freely accessible to painters, sculptors, writers and musicians, who intermingled with the enrolled architecture students. The intrinsic quality that led to the openness in space making was through the blurring of boundaries, which became the defining aspect of the school’s architecture.

In many ways, the campus functions like a microcosm of an Indian city. For example, the transition from closed to open spaces on campus take place through various kinds of thresholds that draw inspiration from the myriad ways in which open, semi-open and closed spaces come together in the “Walled City” of Ahmedabad. Typically closed private inner spaces in the “Walled City” are often adjacent to a veranda surrounding a courtyard; the courtyard then meets a semi-open porch which faces the open street. Similarly, the closed spaces of the School’s studios are buffered from open spaces by unprogrammed semi-open spaces.

Life on campus is lived as much on the outside as it is on the inside of the buildings. The landscape, whose prominent features are the forest, the lawns and the open ground, is masterfully integrated into the fabric of the campus. The dense forested area on the northernmost edge acts as a buffer between the campus and the noisy streets. This forest slowly gets less dense and melts into rolling lawns. These lawns are composed of two mounds or hills separated by a valley which were made by displaced soil during construction and have become one of the prized assets of the school. In the evening, hordes of students lounge on these lawns after a tiring day of classes. At the heart of the campus is a large open space with soft, unpaved ground where the annual dance festival takes place. On other days it is a football field, a volleyball court and the site of a carnival during the school’s cultural festival. The texture of this ground changes from the dry sand in the summer to the soft mud in the monsoon.

The school building is sandwiched between the lawns and the open ground. It is an exposed brick and concrete building following an L-shaped configuration with parallel masonry walls spanned by deep concrete beams. The studio spaces are made by interlocking single and double volumes and each studio is filled with natural light from the large clerestory windows to the north and is shaded from the harsh light of the south by deep balconies. The architectural expression of the building reflects Doshi’s modernist sensibilities and is devoid of any iconography, ornament or symbols. “Indianness” is not a mere stylistic device but it lies in his acknowledgement of ephemerality, spontaneous and uncalculated usage patterns, and the seamless transition from indoors to the outdoors. The architecture of the School embraces frugality and simplicity but derives its richness from meaning. Over the years, layers of meaning have been added to these spaces by the generations of students who have left their mark in tangible and intangible ways. In return, this school has left an indelible mark in each student’s memory, contributing to their growth during their journey as aspiring architects.