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Sketches that reveal master architect Le Corbusier's mind

An architect who worked closely with Le Corbusier, B.V. Doshi, and one inspired by him, Khushnu Panthaki-Hoof, discuss the Swiss-French architect’s sketches

A painting by Le Corbusier, which he gifted to B.V. Doshi. Photo: courtesy Vastu-Shilpa Foundation/B.V. Doshi
A painting by Le Corbusier, which he gifted to B.V. Doshi. Photo: courtesy Vastu-Shilpa Foundation/B.V. Doshi

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It was the line that linked legendary Indian architect Balkrishna V. Doshi and Le Corbusier. When Doshi went to Paris in 1950 to work with the master architect for four years, neither had words in common—Doshi spoke no French and Le Corbusier’s English was limited to a few sentences. But they found a stronger language to link them for the next 15 years—the very cryptic language of lines and gestures.

“Whenever I was sitting with him, he was at the drawing board. He was always making lines, surfaces, sections and plans in such a way that you would never feel the hardness of material or objects. There was a softness in his designs,” recalls 95-year-old Doshi, the first Indian architect to win the Pritzker Award in 2018, on the phone from Ahmedabad. His granddaughter Khushnu Panthaki-Hoof, principal architect, Studio Sangath, and director,Vastu-Shilpa Foundation, Ahmedabad, adds, “They both spoke the language of lines and that’s where he learnt how to really feel a space.”

Lines form the basis of architecture, much like musical notes in a harmony. The drafts that architects draw don’t just pave the way for designs but also serve as communication with other architects often divided by time, space and language. This keen perception is on full display in the rare conversation we had with Doshi and Panthaki-Hoof, who are joined not only by familial roots but a passion for design.

Also read: Looking at the enduring legacy of Le Corbusier through objects

As they present their unique take on Le Corbusier’s drawings, the discussion oscillates from the professional to the personal. Doshi was gifted a painting by Le Corbusier and used to have a photograph of the architect on his wall. Many of Doshi’s thoughts on design were honed as he witnessed Le Corbusier creating a sense of space with lines. Panthaki-Hoof views the drawings through a double prism—her grandfather’s experiences and memories, and her own study of Le Corbusier’s architecture.

Doshi and Le Corbusier’s relationship went beyond the architectural projects they worked on, including the plans for Chandigarh. Panthaki-Hoof, 42, and her graphic designer sister, Jessica, grew up listening to stories about Le Corbusier, so much so that they thought he was a family member. “My grandfather is an architect and a storyteller. When people came over, the conversation would inevitably veer to Corbusier—not just his design but also his way of life. My grandfather came from an estranged family. For him, Corbusier became a father figure,” says Panthaki-Hoof.

The two master architects, Le Corbusier (centre) and B.V. Doshi (right) on site. Photo: courtesy Vastu-Shilpa Foundation/B.V. Doshi
The two master architects, Le Corbusier (centre) and B.V. Doshi (right) on site. Photo: courtesy Vastu-Shilpa Foundation/B.V. Doshi

In several essays, Doshi has likened Le Corbusier to an acrobat, one who could deftly balance light and space, sharp lines and softness, and would often work on different scales at the same time. “Architecture is not just about line and drawing but carries within it notions of space, form and proportion. Corbusier always strived to make things better. He would draw a wall or a door and observe how it would feel in a space. Each drawing carried within it his reflections and imagery. Nothing was a hit-and-trial but was in continuous connection with the surroundings,” says Doshi, who has designed, among other iconic buildings, Ahmedabad’s CEPT University, the sprawling Aranya low-cost housing project in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and the granite buildings of the Indian Institute of Management, Bengaluru.

Also read: How daily objects tell the history of India

He says Corbusier devised tools to design architecture suitable to the aspirations of a newly independent India, while taking into account the climate, cosmic elements, and lifestyle of the population. “Being methodical and precise, he would expect us to transform into design a stamp-sized conceptual sketch he had made in India. But while developing it, he would ask us to follow up all other relevant information. For example, the climatic grid was prepared in the studio to study air movement, sun path, humidity, rainfall, to decide the orientation, materials, openings, methods of construction, etc,” Doshi said at a lecture at a conference on Chandigarh in 1999. This was later published by the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation.

It is such principles that continue to inspire architects. One can see this sense of lightness and visual continuity between outside and inside in Panthaki-Hoof’s designs. In the 2018 project 079|Stories, a 11,000 sq. ft art and cultural centre in Ahmedabad, the team placed “conventionally underutilised” spaces like courtyards and galleries at the heart of the building. The cube-shaped building became known for its circulation spaces and unobstructed movement.

It is one thing to grow up with stories of a person and another to study his philosophy. “As an architecture student, I realised we overcomplicate things. The way Corbusier worked and my grandfather practised architecture, there was a lot of focus on intuition, on how to feel the space when you moved through it,” says Panthaki-Hoof . “In Corbusier’s buildings, there are a lot of chance encounters, there is always something unexpected. This happens in my grandfather’s work too and we try to do the same.” The focus remains on telling a story through space.

Also read: Looking to the past to design future cityscapes

The multidimensionality of Corbusier’s drawings conveys a sense of inspiring largeness and emptiness, yet his work had elements of whimsy and the lyrical that brought life and perspective to them. “He would make a small sketch of a flying bird in the corner (of his architectural drawings). Usually, such things are not drawn in the draft. By adding that sketch, he communicated so much about space and scale. A tinge of blue would make one perceive the sky,” says Doshi.

Many sketches carry symbolism from Indian mythology and his perceptions of life. Corbusier would often draw hands, which, he believed, were tools from God to find solutions. “There is a sketch, which appears on the door of the assembly building (in Chandigarh), that shows an integrated yet peaceful connection to our understanding of life and decisions. Once, he mentioned that at night when we sleep, we dream, and those dreams give us the images of the whole of life that goes on beyond and we become party to it,” Doshi had said in a 1999 lecture.

Le Corbusier also drew inspiration from classical Indian architectural elements such as cloth awnings that kept buildings cool in summers, objects such as the charpoy, the ghats near water bodies, the sanctity of trees in Indian philosophy. It is this relationship between the “spiritual and the material” that he often worked into his drawings. The Brahmani bull from the Indus Valley site of Mohenjo-daro held an endless fascination, as did the serpent, a symbol of revitalisation in kundalini. He used several such symbols on the walls of the assembly and the secretariat in Chandigarh. “I feel that they are very important because these symbols easily communicate with the Indian people, man on the street,” Doshi has said in essays.

Also read: What will cities of the future look like?

The time spent with Le Corbusier was an education in philosophy and behavioural sciences too. He once drew a donkey and told Doshi that every day he is reborn in the skin of a cart donkey—never forgetting to work incessantly, never scared of experimentation or starting afresh. In his autobiography, Paths Uncharted, Doshi shares a story on two dogs—one a pet and one a stray—that Le Corbusier related just before he left for Ahmedabad to start his own practice. Every day, the street dog would pass the pet and envy the care it got. The pet, however, craved the freedom the stray had. “Corbusier told him that you can tie yourself to something and give up your freedom to have a good life. But if you want to be satisfied within, you should have courage,” says Panthaki-Hoof. Her grandfather recounts these stories to Panthaki-Hoof’s daughter too, trying to inspire a fourth generation.

For Doshi, the biggest learning from Corbusier has been “to find freedom of the mind”, he says, discussing another drawing from the master he cherishes—one of a star, cloud and dagger. The inherent advice was to dream big, never let the vision be clouded but, also, remain vigilant about the uncertainties that lurk behind a cloud— and “constantly be in touch with your inner self to create designs that carry meaning and message”.

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