‘Buildings today are deadening, negative, bland’

Christopher Benninger: Architecture for Modern India

Christopher Benninger: Architecture for Modern India  


Architect Christopher Charles Benninger says that he and his contemporaries hoped to build an inclusive, affordable and sustainable urban fabric.

Christopher Charles Benninger is an iconic presence in modern Indian and world architecture. Some of his best known projects include the Mahindra United World College of India in Pune, the Samudra Institute of Maritime Studies in Lonavla and the National Ceremonial Plaza in Thimpu. He studied urban planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and architecture at Harvard where he later taught. A new book, Christopher Benninger: Architecture for Modern India , is a comprehensive account of his practice and vision. Excerpts from an email interview:

After having lived and worked in India for more than three decades, you are often addressed as an American-Indian architect. How do you want to be understood?

I’d say as an Indian architect; my career began here when my eyes were opened to objective reality, as opposed to the dreamy romanticism of the West. That was in the mid-60s when I travelled in India as a Fulbright Scholar studying slums and villages.

Then, as a young man, in the early 70s, I matured, dealing with a wide variety of people when I founded the School of Planning at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT), Ahmedabad. Later, designing institutional buildings and very large human settlements, I learned a great deal, becoming a man. Fortunately, an Indian man! In fact, as an old man, I feel young architects can learn much more about architecture right here in India from the Chola temple complexes, the Mughal campuses, and from everyday domestic architecture than they can in Ivy League schools in America or in the classrooms of London or Paris.

Why did you choose Ahmedabad?

I had visited Ahmedabad in the mid-60s to study urban fabric through its shelter components, and I became involved with what is now CEPT University.

I was fascinated by Balkrishna Doshi’s mind and his way of thinking. He is a true guru and I was dazzled by his youthful wisdom and imagination.

During that long visit, I befriended master architects Anant Raje, Hasmukh Patel and Charles Correa, and we crafted a plan to start the Faculty of Planning at CEPT University.

Just when I became a Tenured Assistant Professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Doshi called me to set up the School of Planning, and the chance to found a new institute at the age of 28 was too much to ignore. I gave up everything in America and came to India.

Like the Progressive Artists’ Group, would you say your contemporaries like Correa, Doshi, Laurie Baker and yourself, among several others, introduced a new aesthetics and value system to Indian architecture?

I think we were all very impassioned with the vision that we were creating a new country, a new culture and indeed a new man. Two themes drove us passionately: One, was to invent a new, contemporary Indian style. Let me call it contemporary regionalism. We were excited about the impact of climate, local material and craftspeople; about geography and appropriate technology; about Indian culture and society.

Equally exciting was our hope of creating an inclusive, affordable, sustainable urban fabric. We did create the pertinent concepts, parts and components of such an urban fabric, but failed to carry the political establishment with us. We were too optimistic to gauge the element of greed.

How do you emphasise social benefit on community projects?

To me, architecture is not things nor is it the process of making things. It is the experiences of people who live in my milieu, or the choreographed experiences they sequentially go through that enliven their lives. It is their experience imbibing my forms, perceiving my spaces and becoming lost in these interstices, accidental or intended, which impact on their emotions, sensitivities and create their memories. So I am not going to explain social benefit as a financial subsidy, or in terms of access to a service, but as gifting people with the right to be lifted into transcendental moments of ecstasy and to experience creativity. This is the ultimate social purpose of architecture. This is how architecture contributes to what I call the civilization making process.

Musicians can have a bad concert, but if architects end up making a bad decision in design, it remains forever. Do you ever think of this?

Yes, doctors can bury their mistakes, and people forget bad concerts, but all we architects can do is plant vines! Frankly, while I am concerned with what people see in my work, I’m more concerned with what they experience and whether that experience generates positive energy or negative energy. Most buildings today are deadening, negative, and bland. The prospect of creating such banal monstrosities is a cause for sleepless nights. But I can always walk away from insensitive clients, absolving myself of their sins. So I sleep well in the still of the night!

Your views on the Smart Cities Mission?

The brass tacks of city management lies in the delivery of a few very basic services needed to survive and to work. These do not emerge out of ineptitude. They are not being solved smartly. An example is in Balewadi in Pune where I live. It is part of the designated Smart City zone. We have blackouts everyday. In Indian cities like Jaipur and Ahmedabad, this was resolved by handing over electricity to accountable, private sector companies. Likewise, we have no sewerage system in Balewadi; nor solid waste collection, footpaths, parks, paved roads or storm drainage. This is in spite of the fact that funds for these services have been collected through development fees and annual taxes. Lacking these basic services and talking about Smart Cities in one breath arouses both laughter and sadness.

What should an aspiring architect do?

We architects are practitioners. We have to learn how to practice our profession and we need to be clear about the values we will “profess” in order to be professionals. First, young architects have to design themselves. Yes, they have to make a sketchbook called the Creation of Self, and start sketching a list of the values that must guide them. Then they must write down the skills they must learn; they must note the sensitivities they must understand and acquire; and they must sketch a broad map of the areas of knowledge they must acquire. This Sketchbook of Designing Oneself then begins a wonderful process of evolution, transformation and personal change.

Tell us a bit about the new book.

It is an important publication for me personally, as I have spent a great deal of my life talking, giving lectures, writing articles and penning chapters for books. Many friends, upon seeing the book, exclaim, ‘Oh, so you actually do build things!’ So, for me it is a fairly comprehensive presentation of my creative life. The book was curated and edited by Rosa Maria Falvo and Ramprasad Akkisetti, who know my work and life well, and have been documenting and archiving my work for over two decades. The book also contains essays by Fumihiko Maki, Liane Lefaivre and Suha Ozkan. I believe it could be considered as a concise treatise on contemporary regionalism as it is evolving in Asia.

Kunal Ray teaches Literature at FLAME University, Pune, and occasionally writes on art and culture.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 9:22:53 PM |

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