Christopher Charles Benninger
speaks on Architecture
Text by Apurva Bose Dutta,
Picture courtesy: Christopher Charles Benninger Architects
A distinguished architect, planner, Institution Builder and a writer, Prof. Christopher Charles Benninger was born in America in 1942 and has lived and worked in India for the past 40 years. He did his double masters in City Planning and Architecture at MIT and Harvard University respectively. As an institution builder he founded the School of Urban Planning at CEPT, Ahmedabad in 1971 along with Balkrishna Doshi, after which he founded the Centre for Development Studies (CDSA) in Pune, India (1976) involving him in rural development, preparation of city and urban plans for many cities in India such as Thane, Kalyan and towns in Asia. After heading the Institute for twenty years, he relinquished the management of CDSA to become fully involved in his design studio Christopher Charles Benninger Architects (CCBA) at the age of 50. Prof Benninger has a whole lot of recognitions to his credit: He has won the Designer of the Year award (1999) and American Institute of Architects/ Architectural Record Award (2000) for his design of the Mahindra United World College of India, 'the Golden Architect of the year Award' instituted by Architecture +Design magazine in the Year 2007, Great Master Architect Award in 2008 by JK Cement AYA. The firm's projects have been finalists in the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (2001) and the World Architecture Awards UK (2002, 2009). Several projects of his have won many awards including Architecture+Design award, AYA awards, IIA awards and Archidesign awards in the past ten years.
CCBA has a team of forty architects with studios in Pune and Thimphu. As an internationally known 'design house' CCBA creates products ranging from Capital Cities and new towns; Educational Campuses and Corporate Headquarters; Housing Estates and Complexes; Hotels Resorts and Hospitals; down to the design of individual chairs and art works. The entire range of materiality plays a role in the studio's search for beauty. In the end it is not the "things" that the studio designs, but the transcendental experience of the people using them, looking at them, or just being in them which forms the essence. For the studio, good life exists just a step outside of materiality, in a mystic twilight zone, which they call architecture. The firm's work has been published in international and national books and magazines.
Prof Benninger is a Fellow of the Council of Architecture, India; a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects and a member of American Institute of Architects (AIA) and American Psychological Association (APA). He has been on the Board of the United States Education Foundation of India (Fulbright Foundation), is a member of the Bureau of Indian Standards, is on the Board of University Teaching and Research at the University of Pune. He is a distinguished Professor at CEPT, Ahmedabad and is on the Governing Council of the World Society of Ekistics at Athens. He is a Statutory Member of the Board of Governors of the School of Planning and Architecture, at New Delhi
Apurva Bose Dutta (ABD): Please give a little background on your schooling and education.
Christopher Charles Benninger (CCB): I feel my childhood schools were sound places of learning, while surely not outstanding places of learning. They were populated by the children of University Professors and the buzz was always "ideas and issues" amongst my classmates. We were more into chess than into football and avid debaters rather than baseball players. All of my friends planned on their University degrees at a time when less than thirty percent of Americans completed their bachelor's degrees. By this time I already had a good collection of books on architecture and the Florida, or "Sarasota" school of architects (Paul Rudolf, Victor Lundy). So I enrolled in the Faculty of Art and Architecture at the University of Florida where I found a fertile learning place for young architects. We had great teachers in Turpin C. Banister, Robert Tucker, Harry Merritt, Dan Branch and Blair Reeves. These gurus inspired us to find our true passions. They encouraged us to follow our instincts in search for the truth. They encouraged honest arrogance and scoffed at hypocritical humility, while insisting we behave as gentlemen. These were golden years of self analysis and exploration and discipline and in rationality.
Professor Harry Merritt was a Harvard graduate and he wanted his best students to go there. Upon acceptance in 1966 I went directly into the Studio of Jose Louis Sert and Jerzy Soltan, both long time colleagues of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Sert's childhood friend, Juan Miro, was often on the campus and Walter Gropius, though retired, could occasionally be found strolling through the studios. My short stint as a student was deeply enriched by a longer tenure as an Assistant Professor and an apprenticeship with Sert's Studio.
ABD: What was your reason behind selecting architecture as your main vocation? What are your other hobbies?
CCB: I fell upon architecture, not as a profession, but as a spiritual path. It is through creation and through the realization of my works that I reach nirvana. I love to write, to plan cities and to draw small little things and tiny designs too. I love the universal inter-connection of the act of designing at all levels.
ABD: You have had your entire education from America. After having studied there what difference did you find in the way architecture is approached there and in India?
CCB: My formal education was in America. My informal learning was in India. They are part of the same journey and it is like a vine that grows around a tree until one can not make out the difference between the tree and the vine.
ABD: You have done extensive work in urban planning. What motivated you to take up this field?
CCB: I was motivated to take up urban planning as it is like designing a large house. But it is a very complex house and it brings systems in front of capsules and in front of shells. There are new dimensions in the search of poetry and the gamble is greater as the potential losses one can impale upon masses of lives and future is immense. I think I love complexity and I love the riddle of problem solving and the multi-tasking to solve a city design at different levels, dimensions and aspects all,at the same time.
ABD: You've your office in Pune and also in Bhutan. Was there any special reason why you thought of setting up a branch in Bhutan? Since you're doing a lot of projects in Bhutan, can you please acquaint us with the architecture being followed there?
CCB: I had no choice of whether to open an office in Bhutan or not. It was fate that brought me there. It was fate that introduced me to some of the most amazing people in the world. I played little role in this other than that I love adventure and that I never shied away from new and interesting places and people. In Bhutan we are driven by a great tradition and by people who know who they are and value their past and their future. Thus, the architecture of Bhutan is part of a long continuum and part of a long future. We are just visitors within this given niche of time. We are not there to change anything, but to serve within the culture and to follow our dharma. India is like Hollywood. We have to invent the future out of threads of the past and thus there is a roaring need to go forward.
CCB: All designs have to have a clear "starting point"! It may be in the context. It may be an uncovered secret in the nature of the building program and brief given by the client. It may be in the materials available and the modules and shapes they want to be. But there has to be a clear continuous thread from the initial ideas and concept to the end product.
ABD: How important is technology in architecture? With skills like Sketchup, Autocad and 3Ds max do you think we are relying more on technology and not our own creativity?
CCB: Software and computers are as to architecture, as a typewriter was to Hemingway. People wrote novels in the 19th and 20th centuries and they will continue to write novels in the 21st century. They can write them by hand if they want. With computers I can work with more teams at one time. I only sketch and draw and dabble. It is my team that brings in the real technology and makes things work. I am their critic and their guide but they have to fly the computers and put things together. Due to technology I can do more multi-tasking and more work at one time. I am usually working on five buildings at the early design stage and five buildings in working drawings and ten buildings on site. This is exciting. But it needs technology and a great team. Technology makes a great team greater.
ABD: You are the founder of the Centre for Development Studies in Pune. According to you what is it that is missing today in the architecture education or the syllabi?
CCB: CDSA is not focused on architecture, but is looking at issues like sustainability, equality and poverty alleviation. It is focused on micro-level planning and participation. It pioneered water-shed planning and integrated rural development and slum up-gradation and access of the poor to shelter. These are all elemental to a new architecture. Today what is missing in architectural education is the mentoring of teachers. Students, if they are curious and smart, can learn a lot for themselves. But they can loose their path very easily and get into fads and fashions and not really know what architecture is all about.
ABD: Have you ever visited Pakistan? Do you think architecture could in any way unite both the countries?
CCB: I have travelled through many countries on my exploration in 1971 from London to Mumbai over-land. I came down the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. India and Pakistan are united as people seeking a simple and a good life. Architecture is an elemental thread that unites everywhere all people and our common traditions is a binding factor between India and Pakistan. It is only the interests of powerful individuals and the poking of fingers by outside influences that separates these two parts which are actually one. We have to begin with the starting point that there is only one "architecture" and that there is only one human race. Unfortunately our race is made up of both monsters and of saints. Fortunately most of us are simple people with simple ideas and needs.
ABD: Which country would you rate at the supreme position as regards to architecture?
CCB: I would rank Bhutan as in the supreme position when it comes to architecture as there is a seamless integration between the culture, the materials and craftspeople and between the life style and with the built form. Other countries are lost in a search for self, and expressing that confusion through wild and strange shapes and forms, or just resigning themselves to the European Box.
ABD: What is that one new aspect of Indian architecture that has been a revelation to everyone?
CCB: One new aspect of Indian Architecture is that there has been a gap in our history. There is kind of a lost period during the colonial period and at Independence. Suddenly India found itself the oldest civilization in the world and the newest all in one day. We had to re-invent ourselves suddenly. But this self discovery is a long and continuous process. In fact all societies need renewal and self-discovery. In that sense we are path-setters. It is that innate search for meaning and for identity that we are different.
ABD: After being in this field for so many decades you can today see an enormous amount of steel and glass box architecture being used in all the major buildings in the country. Do you think this is a threat to our identity?
CCB: The glass box is a simple cut and paste template that people with no mind of their own, no personality and no vision want to put up quickly and cheaply. Often these boxes are neater and cleaner than the messy stuff we were putting up before. Often they are more preposterous and ridiculous! The glass box is like any other mechanism for problem solving. It can be done mindlessly, or it can be done with some sensitivity.
ABD: Amongst the vast repertoire of your projects, which project did you find the most challenging and why?
CCB: At present my favourite project is my design of the Suzlon One Earth since it represented new challenges. It is a highly complex system that looks simple. It is a very hi-tech, green building that has a sense of sophistication. Moreover, I had the chance to work with J. R. Tanti and his team at Synefra and it was exhilarating. The project involved a huge team of infrastructure, landscape, structural, green, interiors, construction management, and branding and landscape designers. As the design team leader it was a great experience. JR and his team at Synefra deserve most of the credit. JR was like a conductor leading an orchestra. The fun was they were playing the music I composed.
ABD: What is the biggest problem that you as an architect are facing in the profession today? Is talent the only factor needed for being a good architect?
CCB: I do not think that there is any huge problem I face in architecture today. I have amazing patrons of the arts like B. S. Teeka in Singapore, Rahul Bajaj in Pune, Rajiv Bajaj, the Tanti family, the Kirloskar family, the house of Tatas and the government of Bhutan. The Indian Institute of Management at Kolkata is giving me a free hand to create a wonderful learning environment. The biggest problem is for me to meet the high expectations of my patrons and of myself. I tell my team that I will tolerate excellence but that I want perfection. Talent makes up only 5% of architecture. Being rational, disciplined and working "to the point" is what is needed. You have to work hard. Talent just creeps up on one like the early morning mist! Suddenly a young architect is full of capabilities gleaned from five or ten years of work in the studio and on sites. Talent is the product of hard work and a clear, rational mind. It is not some kind of magic. \
ABD: What are your upcoming projects?
CCB: The projects currently in various stages of design and construction include, amongst others: IIM Kolkata campus, the Suzlon World Headquarters in Pune, an international school in Sahara Amby Valley, the Haryana Cultural Centre in New Delhi, the landmark Cyberpark in Gurgaon, the Bajaj Corporate tower in Pune and various buildings for the College of Engineering , Pune. Projects in Bhutan include the new National Capitol Secretariat Complex with ten ministries, the Supreme court complex and the UN House.