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Robert M. Rubin on Balkrishna Doshi and Le Corbusier

by Robert M. Rubin | May 18, 2018

In 1951, Balkrishna Doshi attended the International Congress of Modern Architecture in Hoddesdon, England. The 24-year-old architect was the only Indian there. He was besieged with questions about Chandigarh, the planned new capital city of Punjab. At Hoddesdon, Doshi sought employment with Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier was chosen as lead architect of Chandigarh by Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India. Doshi was promptly dispatched to Corb’s atelier in Paris. Speaking no French, and receiving no pay for the first eight months, Doshi survived on a diet of bread, olives and cheese.  For the next four years, he would work on Le Corbusier’s most important Indian projects: the High Court and Governor’s Palace in Chandigarh (the latter unbuilt), and the Shodhan House and Villa Sarabhai, and the Mill Owners’ Association (MOA) Building in Ahmedabad.

Doshi was quickly designated by Le Corbusier as the atelier’s principal interlocutor between Paris and India. In 1955, Doshi returned to India to oversee the completion of several projects there, and started his own firm in 1956. His pivotal role in the Mill Owners’ Association project–probably the last direct link between the Pritzker laureate and Le Corbusier–is worth a close look as we celebrate Doshi’s legacy.

After World War II, Le Corbusier was seeking to move beyond the International Style by bringing in elements of traditional architecture, yet avoiding nostalgia. Doshi remained a key elaborator of this fusion. In his own projects, in his own words, he builds not on the literal elements but rather on the spirit of Corb, “expressed in proportions, modulations of space, creation of rhythms and tonalities.” However, in the early fifties, Doshi was not yet at a stage where he could operate independently of the western, modernist canon and pursue his own more overtly Indian architecture. He needed to please the Mill Owners Association, who wanted the Le Corbusier “brand” on every aspect of the project, including the furniture. Doshi needed also to meet Le Corbusier’s exacting standards, describing the building as a “little palace… an architecture for modern times adjusted to the climate of India… a true message toward an Indian architecture.” Disputes between the client and Le Corbusier created an opening for Doshi to design the building’s furniture himself. It was in harmony with the little Indian palace, but would not have been out of place in Saint-Germain showrooms like Steph Simon, next to designs by Charlotte Perriand, Pierre Jeanneret, and Jean Prouvé.

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Robert M. Rubin has been an SAH member since 2003.  
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