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.
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.