A fleeting trip to India in 1968 changed the course of life for renowned architect Christopher Benninger. Despite having secured education from prestigious Universities like MIT and Harvard, Prof. Benninger was lured to a foreign land by veteran architect Balkrishna Doshi. He developed a strong affinity with India and it’s ethinicity, which convinced him to settle and start his practice here.
Along with B V Doshi he co-founded one of the most coveted architecture institutes in India, ‘Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology’ at Ahmedabad (CEPT University) and later went on to establish the Centre for Development Studies and Activities (CDSA) at Pune.
His western roots have in fact aided him in appreciating India’s vernacular architecture without any bias. Prof. Benninger, apart from emphasising the need for legitimate architectural education has always advocated that answers to sustainability lie in ancient wisdom.
Hence, living by their motto ‘powering a greener tomorrow’ the Pune-based firm essentially relies on the logical adaptation of vernacular techniques.
CCBA strikes a perfect balance between the lineal techniques and modern technologies, as is witnessed in their projects – CDSA, Pune and Suzlon One Earth, respectively. The firm has worked extensively on campuses, however in each they have displayed an incredible ability of humanising these rather large ensembles.
Apart from his extensive body of architectural work, his written literary works have been widely published across the globe. Prof. Benninger’s undying passion for the field of architecture, his strong beliefs and doctrines about education have made him a name to be reckoned with. Here, he shares his thoughts on architecture, sustainability and education.
After studying in top universities in the US you moved to a foreign land. How has your journey of the past 40 odd years been?
In 1968, I came to India for the first time, and I stumbled upon a true guru – Balkrishna Doshi. He possesses an incredible mind that can make conundrums and puzzles out of simple questions and ordinary problems! He is a sage of the ancient past, and a visionary of the unimaginable future!
So the aura of his magic lured me back, and in 1971 I travelled “overland” from London to Mumbai. Having taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I reunited with India and its ancient wisdom and the challenges of the oldest civilisation in the world becoming the newest nation; the largest and newest democracy.
Every day, every week, every month raised new challenges and new opportunities for self-discovery, lyricism and epic struggles! India has been for me the true frontier of the imagination, and a wonderful place to work.
Your work is intrinsically developed on sustainable principles. What is the most radical sustainability idea that you have applied in your architecture?
The most radical idea I have applied to my sustainable architecture is the concept that sustainability lies in ancient wisdom, traditional building techniques and local materials, and through local craftspeople.
The idea that sustainability will be delivered through photovoltaic panels, VRV water cooled, Japanese air conditioners, and fancy new materials is an imported falsehood. We have to look at ‘Sustainability by Nature’ rather than ‘Sustainability through Numbers’.
One hundred years ago 95% of India’s buildings were sustainable! The West should have learned from India. Instead we imported their bad ideas, and then their wrong ideas of sustainability to fix their bad ideas! The CDSA Campus is an example of the former, and the Suzlon One Earth is an example of the later! We can learn from them both, but more from CDSA!
You have invested a lot of your personal time and effort in building the Centre for Development Studies and Activities in Pune. Tell us something about your vision and aim for the Centre?
In June, 1971, at the age of 28, I was invited by Doshi to start the School of Planning in Ahmedabad.
That is why I travelled so far, and in a great overland adventure to come to India that summer. Doshi himself was young and in his early 40’s. But he gave me full support and it was our joint exploration, our love of trying out new things and our discussions and arguments. Most of all it was our friendship that allowed me to grow.
CDSA was a new experiment that branched out of the CEPT experiment. The idea was to imbed the social sciences into the physical planning ethos and to come up with a new mixture! We brought in economists, sociologists, political scientists and activists to join with architects, geographers and town planners to think and create a new future scenario of development.
CDSA was grounded in the vision of creating a new society and a new man! It is grounded in concepts of equality, sustainability and inclusiveness.
CDSA conceived the first micro-level watershed plans and implemented them as pilot projects. CDSA was the first institute to delve into decentralized, participatory planning and experimented widely with these ideas.
CDSA invented the concept of integrated area development, looking at all sectors of development simultaneously.
The UN supported Social Inputs for Area Development designed by CDSA that became a national programme. In 1979 CDSA created the first Integrated Rural Development Programme that was implemented in Ratnagiri along the mountainous coast of Maharashtra, then in Etawa, and then in Goa, and then went viral across the entire country. CDSA worked on a more integrated, spatially complex, and programmatically difficult plane of affairs than urban planning at the time, or town planning even today.
You worked in Ahmedabad and other metros before coming to Pune. Why did you decide on starting your firm in this then sleepy city?
I prefer sleepy towns to chaotic cities! But the fact is that Pune was a centre of intellectual activity, thinking and new ideas. Deccan Gymkhana was a beehive of debate, writing, discussion and creativity.
Throughout your practice you have been deeply involved in academia and have advocated the importance of architectural education. According to you, what steps need to be taken by the Indian architectural schools to offer comprehensive courses to aspiring architects?
This seemingly small question is in fact a huge “issue.” To start with, within our tiny profession of about 60,000 registered architects we are arguing over petty procedural matters, like having firms with diverse directors that are “corporations”, as opposed to having one man proprietorships, one man studios or limited partnerships.
Meanwhile, we allow anyone to start a school of architecture, any one! Anyone having a bit of money, but having no education in architecture, no knowledge of architecture; in fact with no knowledge of any “profession”, or understanding of “what is a profession”, or “professionalism” can start a school.
So we now have about 400 schools of architecture, owned and run by non-architects who just want to exploit our profession and make money, ruining education in the process.
This does not seem to matter to anyone. It does not seem to matter that we now allow these “qualification machines” to produce 32,000 young people annually! Like a Xerox machine printing out degrees, they are just producing pieces of paper that declare their graduates are architects! Some of these, so-called schools of architecture, even take in first year student batches of 120 students.
Where will all of these unprepared youngsters go to do their training? How will they learn to be architects when their own teachers don’t know architecture, have no practical experience, and have never worked in a real professional practice, or on a site?
Now we require PhDs as a pre-qualification to teach! So we will get PhDs in the hundreds! Who is guiding these PhDs? Do the guides have any record of intellectual originality or creativity?
This is not to say by any means that all of the new schools are bad! Some, indeed, are very good! But the general trend is of a very poor quality.
What we are doing is just creating a huge circus. There are no trainers in the circus; the animals are jumping through fire hoops and doing other stunts; but these are untrained animals doing the best they can; and it is becoming unsafe to let these wild creatures loose out into society. I say, “Close the Circus!”
Today, your architectural and written work inspires the young and budding architects. Which architect/s inspired you in your youth and why?
Without a doubt, Frank Lloyd Wright inspired me the most. On one hand it was due to a few of his magical masterpieces like “Falling Water”, The Guggenheim Museum and “Taliesin West”, but moreover it was his integrating a clear value system into his thinking, and expressing that same system of values as his “Credo”(or I Believe), into his work. He was a classic “thinker-doer”, who worked across several muses, disciplines and arts.
You have worked on diverse projects (institutes, residences, town planning). Is there one project/ sector that is on your wish list?
Any design problem that engages my intelligence and imagination in more than a few buildings, knitted into one holistic complex, is of interest to me. I like to deal with indoor and outdoor relationships; fabrics of construction and their interpretations into complex clusters; employment of positive-negative clusters of built-up masses and open courtyards; structural systems that continue between various buildings, effectively gifting a fabric to the campus.
These have been themes of mine since my two early SOS Children’s Villages in Delhi and Kolkata in the 1970s, also through CDSA, the United World College, IIM at Kolkata and the new Azim Premji Campus that I am now working on.
India has a wonderful architectural heritage (sadly some of it is in a dilapidated condition); any personal favourite structure? Is there a traditional technique, which has impressed you thoroughly?
My own house, INDIA HOUSE, is basically a prototype drawn from the precedent of the traditional “haveli” house that one finds in Rajasthan, Gujarat, or like a “wada” in Pune. It has a central courtyard, or “Bhramasthan” opening up to the heavens and holding great energy.
I feel we need to explore ancient wisdom to gain contemporary knowledge for the future. Fatehpur Sikri is surely one of my favourite complexes that employ water, landscape, outdoor and indoor linked spaces and powerful geometric forms.
The great temple complexes in Tamil Nadu from the Chola Period also are incredible fabrics of built form, space, movement, light and sequence. All of the principles of architecture can be found in these magnificent campuses with colonnades, water tanks, gardens, portals, grand halls, sacred precincts, towers, arcades and focal points. For me, the Chola temple campuses are the ultimate architectural experiences.
A project that is very close to your heart…
The Suzlon One Earth still entices my imagination, less so from the sustainability viewpoint, but more as a large “campus ensemble.” Like the Chola campuses, the employment of a strong language, or a “fabric of build”, and then dropping exceptions into that positioning, is what excites me!
I feel there are many planning principles exhibited at Suzlon, like the total separation of pedestrians and vehicles; provision of adequate parking; getting full FSI, while having low-rise structures; employing a vocabulary into streetscapes to maintain harmony; attaining human scale within a large complex; integrating indoor and outdoor spaces, making a green garden and flowing water the central focus, and many other planning axioms.
On a lighter note…
A field apart from architecture that fascinates you…
I find people and the contradictions between their professed values, and their actions for power and money very interesting. People are complex, contradictory and unfathomable. They create “puzzles” imbedded in contradictions for us to study and ponder over.
They reach for the heavens, and then trip on their own toes just at the final moment where they could have experienced epiphany! There is both humour and tragedy in the human condition. Literary fiction is about the poetry and lyricism of human folly; architecture, real architecture, must be about the epic search for a rational and human world order!
If not an architect what profession would you have loved to take up?
I spend a great deal of my time writing fiction and essays. I think I’d have liked to be a writer to chronicle our times from my own imagination and perspective. If not that I’d have liked to be a painter and an artist!
Interview by Shweta Salvi