Prof. Christopher Charles Benninger, Founder and Principal of Christopher Charles Benninger Architects (CCBA) suggests that India is the most conducive ground for young architects to practise in.
Architect and savant Christopher Charles Benninger’s love for architecture brought him to India. This life-changing decision by this American-Indian architect not only witnessed the creation of the first ever low-cost project for economically weaker section of society in India, but also saw the inception of his architectural studio Christopher Charles Benninger Architects (CCBA) and Centre for Development Studies and Activities (CDSA) in Pune. Besides architecture and teaching, Benninger has developed a passion for working on urban plans, rural and regional plans along with low cost mass housing projects for not only India but also for Indonesia, Malaysia, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and America. His remarkable work in architecture has won him numerous awards and international recognition. Prof. Benninger narrates his journey, his lessons, his philosophy and his expectations from the budding architects.
1) According to you, what is the most interesting aspect about Indian architecture?
First of all, we should be proud of the fact that we build buildings at a very low cost in India. In terms of cost, we build buildings at about a tenth the cost of what Americans build with. Besides, we have a wealth of various traditional elements in Indian architecture, which include portals, (or large doors) which convey messages to people about social behaviour, having a positive impact on the psyche of the users. Elements like courtyards, mixed use development and a sense of public and private spaces are things that are very informing about Indian architecture. We have a great history of themes and elements to build upon.
- Tell us about your journey from US to India.
In the year 1968, I came to India on a Fulbright Fellowship and I worked at the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad with Balkrishna Doshi. Later in 1971, I resigned from my assistant professorship at Harvard and returned to India and started to set up the School of Planning at Ahmedabad (1971-1975). Since then I haven’t gone back to work in America, as meaningful work and friendships kept me in India.
In 1968, I designed a low-cost housing scheme for my friend Sanat Mehta in Vadodara, who was a social worker there. In 1972 he became Minister of Housing in Gujarat and requested me to design the Jamnagar Economically Weaker Section scheme, the first scheme in that category funded by HUDCO. By 1978 we had built almost hundreds of low cost houses. That project lead the World Bank to engage me as an advisor to the Chennai Urban Development Authority where we innovated the Site and Service Scheme concept, that provided shelter to more than 15,000 families.
- How would you rate town planning, urban design and architecture in India?
I would rate India very low, maybe a one out of ten in terms of both town planning and urban design. Our plans create hindrances to development rather than facilitate rational urban growth. The reason why India is lagging behind is that we don’t have urban designers or town planners employed to work for cities. We need layouts for public spaces, gardens, riverfronts, sidewalks and streets. Of course, this is because our leaders lack vision.
- You had once mentioned ‘India is a good learning ground if one is ready to get one’s hands dirty.’ Please elaborate.
One learns more as an architect here in India because we do all the groundwork and are exposed to practical field experience as compared to America, or other countries where everything is corporatized and based on marketing. The architect working in India is directly involved in all stages of design including the planning, negotiating, concept design and explaining the project to the clients.
- What is your take on Architectural Education in India? How does it affect the profession?
We have too many architecture schools in India, nearly six hundred architecture schools, but we don’t have even five hundred good teachers to teach in them. Today we have about two and half times as many students in architectural schools compared to the number of registered architects in India! We are faced with an avalanche of mediocrity that will flood the profession with ill-prepared graduates.
In short, the architecture fraternity is just producing quantity, but is destroying quality. Greedy money makers have hijacked our educational systems!
- What are the most important things to keep in mind while designing a building?
The client’s brief (budgets and the required functions), analysis of the physical site (considering the geo-climatic context), and social issues that synchronise all of these into a poetic design. The most important thing is to imagine oneself as a future visitor into the spaces one is designing; to move about these imagined spaces finding peace and happiness.
- From where do you draw inspiration?
I feel that creative people draw inspiration from within their own mind, and not from websites. Moments of human compassion towards other people, their contexts and environment inspire me.
- What is your design philosophy? What are you most passionate about?
My design philosophy is oriented around seeking transcendental moments of ecstasy through design: through light, through spaces, structure, forms and kinetic ambiances. I believe in integrating the interior and exterior bringing nature into buildings. I believe in expressing structure and materials honestly. Human scale and proportion must be reflected in designs. My philosophy is that people who enter my buildings should have a pleasant and poetic experience, and they should leave my buildings feeling better about life and themselves.
- Any particular artist, architect or innovator whose works you most admire?
People who passionately work on new ideas and innovations are the ones who inspire me, like Picasso, A.R. Rahman or Steve Jobs.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s book ‘The Natural House’ inspired me to take up architecture. I loved the way he related buildings to the society, construction to nature and art to culture.
- Which project has been most memorable and has taught you an important lesson in practice?
My first project, the Alliance Francaise in Ahmedabad! The important lesson I learned was — ‘Be honest to oneself.’ Do things the way they have to be done.
- What was your intent behind writing the book ‘Letters to a Young Architect’?
I love architecture, and I love bright, enthusiastic youngsters and I wanted to give people an idea about my philosophy of life, of architecture and certain values that we must profess. It became one of India’s top ten best selling books for several months.
- How can The Council of Architecture and The Indian Institute of Architects (IIA) organise and promote the architecture fraternity in India?
The Council of Architecture (COA) is a statutory body and the Indian Institute for Architects (IIA) is an association of committed professionals. The duty of the Council of Architecture is to protect the public through professional standards. So they have limited powers. It is not the organisations that are failing, but the members who are not working together to highlight the problems of this profession such as poor fees, under cutting fees, and corruption in education. We need to organise themselves. We must start with an oath of values that we all subscribe to.
- Any historical building that has impressed you and inspired you?
I love Fatehpur Sikri as a campus complex and not just as a building has impressed me as an urban design solution that talks about people moving in space, motivated by water and kinetic experiences. The Chola temples of Tamil Nadu are classic urban design complexes that teach me how to think! They teach me of spatial hierarchies, of the integration of the nature and water into built forms, of how to use light and dark areas, of movement and of visual axis, and of our sense of identity!
- What is the one design mistake you avoid in your practice?
Never copy another building, even one’s own designs! Never like one’s own designs and always look for faults within one’s own conundrum of imagination. Become one’s own critic, and seek perfection.
- What is the influence of international architecture on India?
It has a very negative impact on India, because it is influencing people to copy alien technologies, budgets and functions that are not applicable here. It inspires the wrong path and flimsy philosophies.
- What, in your opinion, is the future of design in India?
I foresee a bright future. In the last five years, Indian industry has realised that in order to sell products, they need to be well designed. Products need to be special! So I think this change should probably start from industrial designing and will slowly advance into architecture. Learning is a slow process!
- 17. Share one piece of advice to the young architects.
It is better to know the good in oneself, than to search the ultimate truth. Seek balance between extremes, not the one only perfect solution!