For city-based architect Christopher Benninger, creativity has nothing to do with good or bad times. Here he shares with Dibyajyoti Sarma his vision of art in designing buildings
First, it’s time to get real. In the past few years Pune seems to have got caught in the frenzy of the real estate boom. Every other day there’s a new building in the city. Builders are having a gala time. Isn’t this a good time for architects as well, considering they are the beginning of any real estate project?
Ask this question to Christopher Benninger, and you will get an answer totally unexpected. "Like the law profession, the word architect has a number of meanings," he begins.
"And certainly, for people involved in municipal drawings and those who act as facilitators of increased FSI, it is a good time." But for Benninger there is no good time or bad time for an artist or a creative person.
Then he quickly provides a rejoinder. There is nothing wrong with statutory drawings and so on. "But this is not the life of an artist or a creative person! It is the life of the draftsman and the negotiator. Creation is a patient search, not a grinding work. It is a continuous process, not an event driven by a boom in the economy, or the ups and downs of the market."
This is Christopher Benninger for you, architect par excellence. He is no longer a name but a brand in architectural designs, whose design of the Mahindra United World College of India (in Mulshi) won him the Designer of the Year award in 1999, and American Institute of Architects Award in 2000.
Christopher Charles Benninger was born in the US in 1942, but has lived in India for the last 33 years, a decision he calls a "self-imposed exile". He studied city planning at MIT, and architecture at Harvard. A Fulbright Fellowship in 1968 brought him to Ahmedabad, where he founded the School of Urban Planning in 1971. He is an artist following the vision as Gandhi said, "Live in a village and plan for the world."
His firm, Christopher Charles Benninger Architects Pvt Ltd in Pune, functions like an American studio having its work bases in India and branches overseas. The studio has designed new towns and large housing projects for urban development authorities and state housing boards. There are more than 25 professional architects, urban designers, urban planners, landscape architects, interior designers, and engineers working in two studios at Pune and Thimphu, Bhutan.
Forget real estate. Architecture is a different ballgame altogether. For Christopher the current building scenario and the current architectural scenario are only vaguely inter-connected. In architecture there is the same amount of creative activity going on as it was three years ago, or a decade ago. But in building work, "yes, there are lots of boxes packaged in gift-wrapping - aluminum cladding, or sandstone, or some other fad."
There’s nothing wrong with that, he clarifies. "I like glass too! But there is a poetry even in the way we take a bath, and more so in how we play around with glass and metal cladding. Much of what is happing is a sad joke! People have just discovered that what is "chic", fashionable, and popular in the West, is also what is cheap, boring, and uninspiring! There is a good marriage taking place between making more money per square foot and doing cheap buildings that "look foreign".
Then he explains: "Let’s not confuse this paradigm with a creative paradigm. Let’s not confuse the search for money and the search for meaning! Architecture is a search for transcendence! The current architectural scenario is slow-paced, difficult, and painstaking."
About his own slow-paced, difficult, and painstaking journey to architectural designs, especially the projects he is working in Pune, he mentions three commissions. One is the Samundra Maritime Institute, Singapore. "We have used glass and steel and found poetry in the two working together. We have explored new spatial experiences in the way we have molded glass and steel; in the way one moves in the fabric of build. We have composed a large canvas of external space by putting very strong "markers" in that space, so that, the space is given definition. These markers are very large and sculpturesque. There is a play of the horizontal, of the things which seek the earth, against things which are vertical, phallic, and seeking the sky. There is a dynamic tension created, like between a man and a woman. There is a sense of something new, experimental, and even taboo! But it is exciting and energising."
Second, the Suzlon Wind Energy Systems Corporation world headquarters campus. "Instead of grabbing maximum FSI, they are opting for an ideal corporate environment."
Finally, "We are designing an international residential school at Amby Valley for Seemantho Roy, who wants something very special. This is a great challenge in the hilly terrain of the Western Ghats. We are building much of the campus underground, but using the natural slope so that the lower side opens out to courtyards and a fantastic view of the mountain ranges."
Sounds impressive. But unlike many others, Christopher hasn’t made forays into doing residential complexes so far. He begs to differ. "As you know I designed Tain Square. We were able to create the finest residential property in Pune there, and also we could convince the client to make a social investment in a public domain, the open public plaza itself. The atrium in Tain Square One, which is complete, is the most dramatic atrium in the city. Not even a five-star hotel can challenge this."
So what does a typical "Christopher Benninger Design" look like? He provides his first building, the Alliance Française building in Ahmedabad, built in 1973, as an example. There are some other examples - the Centre for Development Studies and Activities, the Mahindra United World College of India, and more recently the international campsite at Nilshi. Also Dr Oswal’s new centre for life sciences, health, and medicine on NIBM Road. Christopher explains: "Once an artist has found his own language he can use it to scribble down endless designs! They may have different lyricism and poetry, but they are all created from the same language. Language in architecture is based on principles, just like Hindi is based on grammar."
The Benninger Principles
a) Use materials in their natural form: Honesty in Expression!
b) Use human scale as your measuring stick: Humanism!
c) Integrate structures with their contexts assessing what is positive and what is negative in the context: Critical Regionalism!
d) Draw elements from the local vernacular: Balance with Tradition!
e) Create public domains and convivial spaces: Balance with Community!
f) Bring the natural landscape into the buildings and the buildings into the natural landscape: Balance with Nature!
g) Use materials which are fabricated within a 100-kilometre radius of the site, and which the local labour force is comfortable in working with: Appropriate Technology!
h) Make the pedestrian the king and the vehicle the servant: Separate out all machine movement from within the campus, or urban neighbourhood. Putting People First!
i) Draw one’s proportions from the nearby physical features and find order from the landscape: Organic Architecture!
j) Find a secret geometry to unify all of the components into a holistic composition. Holism!