Mr. Christopher Charles Beninger,
‘INDIA HOUSE’, Sopan Bagh,
Balewadi, Pune 411045
5th October 2017,
Given your invitation to everybody to respond to your presentation at CEPT University, I felt the need to write in with my views.
Prior to seeing the video published publicly by CEPT University, of your presentation for the Academic Hub on campus, I have experienced first hand three buildings designed by you. Of these I have had the opportunity to visit the Alliance Française most often, though both the CDSA and The Mahindra World College are memorable enough for me to recall after almost 20 years. It is the standard of these buildings that set up an expectation for your intervention on a campus many of us love.
It is unfortunate that I was unable to be present at your presentation, and convey my utter disappointment and yes anger; personally.
A few days ago I had drafted out a letter to you which was absolutely scathing, written with raw anger. It was vitriolic, brutal and and deliberately without a sense of decorum. It was though, completely truthful to the way that I felt, backed up with facts and observations. Given its emotional content I did share this letter with colleagues both from the CEPT fraternity but particularly with those who are not. I wanted a balanced feedback from many people before I sent it to you. One of the first people to support my sentiments was Aniket Bhagwat, whose name was therefor attached to the initial drafts that were sent around. As you will see at the end of this letter, he is not the last to endorse it either. As I write to you, I have received an email from Jaimini Mehta (among so many others) who adds to the critique by making the important point that there is a difference between ‘Institution’ and ‘organisation’ and that the former is open hearted and has a generosity, while the later are more obsessed with functional efficiency and structure. He feels your proposal belongs more to ‘organization’ and that an ‘institutional’ imagination is missing. This has been the effect of sharing my letter. It has become very apparent that though my emotional response might have been personal, its sentiments are shared across much of the architectural community. I have therefor tempered this letter to retract its personal tone, to impress upon you the fact that every single one of your peers that I have had the opportunity to interact with, have struggled to find value in the proposal you made. I am absolutely sure that you will receive strong letters from them as well.
To start on your presentation, I must say, that I had expected a different tone and preparation considering that it was being made to students of architecture and architects at a place where the architectural standards expected have always been high. It is also a place where the older buildings are of a very high quality and require care when being dealt with. To put it simply you were presenting at CEPT, a place that you have been a part of, contributed to, and professed to love. The President himself introduced you in a manner of someone who is a part of the community and not with the formality of a professional outsider. Unfortunately, it is very clear that in this situation of possible intimacy, you chose to take a position of superiority. I say superiority because I understand that the aim of such a presentation is to demonstrate the values of a building that is being proposed. And yet there was no demonstration, only a series of ‘statements’ that were supposed to be swallowed whole, without any form of verification in the manner that architects are professional duty bound to. In this you took the position of a supposed ‘STAR’, whose work is to be judged, not for itself, but for ‘the stature’ of its author. This position is perhaps understandable (though unacceptable) given your media presence and stature in the profession today. In fact it may well have been dismissed had the quality of your thinking, the depth of ideas, the care of response, the meticulousness of research, the sharpness of detailing and articulation come through in your presentation. What came through however was a carelessness, an indifference, and a disregard towards a place much loved. Let me elaborate in some detail how this was so.
In your presentation you stated that yours was a conceptual design. I understand that a ‘concept’ is a co-ordinated set of ‘ideas’ that underpins a work. And yet we did not hear you articulate a single idea in the entire presentation. We did hear about some shifting response to three trees (there is a grove there by the way!!!). We did hear pious platitudes to Doshi’s ‘iconic’ building, a term the president also echoed. But you did not care to articulate what exactly you thought makes this building ‘ICONIC’. You did not care to articulate the ideas that are at the root of that building that make it even an important work. Is it simply its construct? Are there ideas of architecture that underlie its making? Are any of those ideas worth continuing? And do any need revision? No…there was nothing. Nothing about the relationship between the form and the pedagogy that the building held. Nothing about the theory of campus design that the building has consistently demonstrated for 50 years. Nothing even about those iconic doors, that may well get removed for an air-conditioned environment. Nothing but the label ‘iconic’. And it remained that; simply a label. And your response to this ‘iconic’ building, that you claim to respect was explained to us in the only and single section of the entire presentation. And all it said was that you were matching heights. Matching heights? Is that an architectural idea? Is this the message to be sent out to students and faculty? And I ask this because it has been taken for granted that on this campus, that buildings walk the talk. They are demonstrations to students and reminders to faculty. What you demonstrated was that architecture is an easy business, to build in close proximity to one of the icons of 20th century Indian architecture, all you have to really do is ‘match heights’.
The fact is, Christopher, that the presentation outlined with great clarity a paucity of ideas. In the absence of ideas, buildings degenerate (much like the library) into a series of happenstance gestures: a shift here, a kund there, lets throw in a bridge and then, why not a circular elevator shaft? The entire exercise comes across as a self satisfied process that actually does little to acknowledge what has gone before and the implications on a future. It is this smugness that has so angered me on viewing the presentation, and I suspect it will many others.
Unfortunately there is also so much more to be angry about. Like so many average architects (who shroud the absence of ideas) you tried to seduce us with imagery. Flat, unimaginative, soulless, computer generated imagery. Even the music, cheap mall stuff, defies a serious engagement. Quite clearly the idea was not to create an atmosphere conducive to critical thinking, but a visual phantom of supposed delight. Unfortunately the computer generated walk through was so ill thought through, so fraught with contradictions that one would have to be incredibly unsee-ing and naïve to have been convinced by it, where words are so blatantly removed from what is being shown.
Let me give you three examples which are illustrated with stills from your video:
a. After talking about the iconic nature of the existing building and how much you felt you needed to ‘respond to it’; to give it its due; The opening sequence of your video does exactly the opposite. What is the first thing you see? THE PAVING? And an architectural promenade. As a colleague of mine asked, “Do you sense the existing building (which is right before you)? No. The Camera turns to the right as soon as you cross the gates. And there it is. The brand spanking new project”. in your video, your new building is so much more important than the existing building, even the grey paving is more important than the icon. But then, why should we be surprised? it is paving that is changing the campus most drastically. And it must! For the strength of Doshi’s architecture lies in the treatment and attitude to ground. The continuities of movement under buildings, through and across building. We have a lexicon of terms that have given the campus and the buildings their identity: THE RAMP, THE BRIDGE, THE STEPS, these particular ‘places’ are embedded in an attitude to ground. This particularity is being paved over in a manner that makes what has been proposed completely self important and self conscious! You only have to look at the library building to know what I am talking about. In the absence of you articulating a new attitude to ground, the promenade seems like just another gesture, unfortunately destroying the ‘iconic’ idea that underpins the earlier building. New Grounds for Old I say! [See Figure 1]
b. In The early part of your explanation, you talk about the movement of people under the existing architecture building through from the New Plaza to the North Lawns. You say, and I quote, “I would like to see more people walking under the school of architecture” (42.15). Yet in your video a series of what looks like concrete walls and planters (with ridiculous pink flowers) blocks that very movement you desired. In fact the manner in which the building and ground meet is altered so fundamentally that your promenade actually closes and seals itself of from the existing icon, far from being responsive to it. You rant about the ugly additions to the north façade of the existing building, made and used by students as part of the inhabitation of the campus, and yet your intervention destroys one of the most important relationships of the existing building: the manner in which it meets the ground by adding a layer of decorative planters that have no real purpose. I find it incredible that an architect of your standing can say one thing and show something completely the opposite and expect it to be simply taken at face value. [See Figure 2]
c. You talk about a love and care for this campus, and yet your proposed building is articulated in such a shabby commercial façade, louvered skin way. It is not the architectural language that is offensive, it is the sheer lack of resolution the casualness with which it is done that is irksome. You stated more than once that work on this building has been going on for a year. That I must say is not what came through. What showed up seems like a few days of work slapped together in a generic manner. I am not for a moment suggesting that laborious time is equal to good design, but even the brightest flashes of brilliance need to be followed up with a rigour for resolution. Because it is in the nitty-gritty, in what is seen as the trivial issues like wall sections, details, typos and the ridiculous list of GREEN features that any second year student could have downloaded from the net, that a symptomatic larger lack of seriousness, care and intent, pervade the proposal’s mediocrity. [See Figure 3]
Frankly Christopher if you ask my opinion, and wanted to convince this lot, you needed sections; Lots of sections! Sections through your buildings and the North Lawns, Sections through your building and the kund. Sections between your building and the icon. We needed a three dimensional imagining of the ‘hinge’ not just a label. It may be old fashioned, but sections cut through and expose relationships. And I suspect that drawing sections of the proposed building would have showed up that there are none. The 3D views only showed us a wrapping which when opened show that what is inside is terribly undercooked.
So far I have outlined my observations and critique about your presentation. A few thoughts on the design being proposed. I have articulated it with examples:
a. As I have stated above that the words that you use remain labels. They are not developed into architectural ideas, nor is there a spatial imagining of these conditions. The ‘Hinge’ is a case in point. It is a moment on your promenade and there is nothing to show how it is articulated. It therefor remains in the rudimentary diagrams that you present but has no presence in your three dimensional visualisation.
b. The floor plans have very little architectural thinking. They are standard variations of a doubly loaded corridor plan that is ubiquitous for school design. The diagram in principle, is a good starting point but when placed in a rarefied context in proximity to the North Lawns and the existing architecture building they remain unresponsive. The diagram makes no adjustments. While making the presentation, I suspect you did realise that there are possibilities in shifting lecture rooms to open up bays connecting the central circulation to the lawn. This would immediately bring the ground into the building. It would then raise the question as to how this vector of movement should be terminated to the west on the kund side. But this wasn’t articulated or explored in the design. There was no tying up; and so the gestures remained isolated and for themselves.
c. I thought the bridge to the canteen was very poorly thought out particularly since you used the term ‘elevated plaza’. Again there was no verification. No demonstration of how this ground connected to the superbly crafted variations of the existing building.
d. There is a question about the nature of the auditorium, because if it is to be used for anything other than lectures there are serious servicing concerns, as there are about safety and access given the volume of students that will be using the building.
e. Climatic concerns have already been raised by people after your presentation itself.
You yourself have acknowledged the prestige of designing a building on this campus. Many have stated earlier that the campus is a contribution to the ‘world of architecture’ and not to that of the country alone. You have the opportunity to do something truly special. Not Iconic: Special. My expectation with a regard for your earlier work was that you would have come here better prepared and not left a sense that you are taking this for granted. When one says complacency, one does mean that there is a sense that you believe that your design will get built irrespective, its quality is apparently to be taken as given. Unfortunately, your presentation shows otherwise. And this comes across as the worst form of entitlement, doing irrevocable damage to the wonderful institutional intention of transparency and public debate. We will now forever doubt whether it is an eyewash.
I write this to you with complete frankness and with the best intensions in mind for the CEPT University Campus, a place that means a lot to me as it does to many others. I have requested some of those who share my sentiments (though they may differ on particular interpretations) to countersign with me. This is to ensure that there is no sense of anything being personal here.