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Of architecture and Indian Cities!


Abhilash Khandekar

Well trained and seasoned architects can play a decisive role in the overall making of any good and liveable city. Although all architects are not city planners, all trained city planners are architects by education. The built environment in a city tells us a lot about who all created that. Of course, there are categories of architects -- some are extra ordinary in their vision, planning and execution while others may not be. Some of them build ordinary houses or shabby government buildings and private offices, while others design sprawling cities or part of them and contribute through their creative genius to build beautiful public spaces and buildings which add to any city's aesthetics and goodwill. Names of Sir Patrick Geddes, ( 1854-1932) the Scotsman, who designed Indore, Nagpur, Patiala, Kapurthala, Ahmedabad and many other cities in undivided India and Edwin Lutyens ( 1869-1944) the famous architect of Delhi, come to mind instantly, followed by French Le Corbusier ( 1887-1965), the Chandigarh-fame. This I am talking of only in the Indian context since the book talks largely about Christopher Benninger's Indian experiences.
Well, the book which I have been engrossed in reading for sometime and thought of presenting to the readers is mainly due to the celebrated American architect's impressive vision for modern India which he has shared through a voluminous compendium, elegantly printed in Italy, recently. In India it's being launched this month (April) at CEPT University in Gujarat.
The book introduces to us his brilliant ideas and unique creativity quite in depth. What is special about Christopher Benninger is that after acquiring degrees from the world best institutes in the United States (from MIT and Harvard), he decided to settle in India, first in Ahmedabad and now in Pune. So he is one person who is an American by birth and education and an Indian by experience and learning. Public buildings, corporate headquarters, slum-upgradation project (Kolkatta) , mass self help housing ( Chennai), experimental shelter strategies (Hyderabad), an SOS Village (Delhi ) and a clutch of government buildings designed by him proudly stand tall across India, from Delhi to Ahmedabad and Pune to Calcutta. Benninger and his studio team also built the Supreme Court of Bhutan which Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated last year. The beautiful building is among many other prestigious buildings in South Asia by the American.
Many years ago I had an occasion to visit the External Affairs Ministry headquarters on Rajpath, facing the Central Vista in New Delhi and was amazed to see its beautiful design. There are many trees around it now and the building is not seen easily. But then frankly, I did not know much about Benninger nor much of his stylish works elsewhere in the country. And of course his building philosophy and outlook towards India were not much known. This Delhi building, built some time in the year 2000-01, was heavily influenced by the creations and thinking of Edwin Lutyens in designing the Parliament building which is easily the most precious and lasting  gift of the British architect and planner to the Indians.
Benninger's India story begins with the well-known Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi who was instrumental in inviting the American architect to initiate the School of Planning at Ahmedabad, which is now known as School of Environmental Planning and Technology--CEPT-- way back in 1971. Benninger (75) is still very active and there is a long queue of young aspirants wanting to be trained under him as future architects, not to talk of private and government clients. Some of those who know Doshi, term the Gujarati doyen as the 'Guru' of this American living legend.
Benninger's modernism, according to Ramprasad Akkisetti, curator at India House & Art Gallery at Pune, has to do with social architecture, urbanism, and the human condition." He is interested in creating the architectural' building blocks' that transform society and gift rationality to the institutions that build civil societies."
The beautifully produced expensive book which showcases some of his best works, tells a reader a lot about Christopher, nay introduces him to India all over again. In his many urban plans he has put 'the last first' and focussed on inclusive human settlements. In other words, he did not just go after building brick-cement-mortar structures, something we come across, sadly, in the rapidly urbanised India. He sees the plan of a city as "harmony between networks of critical systems realised through rational structure plans, assuring potable water, mass transit, sanitation and basic amenities. Within that structure, local area plans are defined by micro water sheds, where land pooling and participatory decision making involve all stakeholders. He believes planning itself as a continuous, ad hoc and disjointed process of public decision making for the common good and rationally distributing limited resources in a sustainable manner". According to Akkisetti, the septuagenarian architect rejects" comprehensive planning, zoning and automobile oriented planning as oppressive, polarising and creating inefficiencies that drive local communities into endless debt."
In my opinion this is what is exactly happening in India where more than the city planners/architects, administrative authorities are deciding about city's Master Plans and creating problems for citizens. 
Benninger's superb creations include the Mahindra group's Mahindra United World College of India, only of it's kind in the country. This is 12 of the world campuses worldwide under United World College banner, lead by ( late) Nelson Mandela and Jordan's queen Noor. The picturesque campus, spread over 120 acres, is situated on a plateau 100 metres above Mula river basin, 100 kms south-east of Mumbai, in the Western Ghats. It's  the same Western Ghats where the building of a sprawling Lavasa residential city and other amenities had triggered a nation wide furore a few years ago ! 
But don't be mistaken about his environmental concerns or lack of it. "He believes in contraction of consumption, and the application of intelligent design principles to sustain homeostatic microclimates. He has practiced in utilising, rather than exploiting resources, replenishing energy, re-elaborating traditions authenticating cultures rather than cloning customs, respecting geo-climatic conditions and supporting conviviality," writes Rosa Maria Falvo from Milan, among others from different countries, who wrote about their impressions of the US architect par excellence. 
In his own words, Benninger says, while explaining his experiences with India and why this book was produced, that " the book is about the practice of architecture in South Asia and the kinds of artifacts our studio has produced over the past four decades. So it is a document about intentions, strategies and methods of producing buildings. It also illustrates how the products of these processes appear in reality. However, an architect produces more than just buildings; he or she practices art, aiming to create what poetically reflects their context in terms of social, economic and cultural, forces. Their architecture intervenes with a history official fabric, which is often more responsive to the politics of contemporary urban planning than to ancient prototypes. He goes on to state " their creations have to say something uniquely lyrical about the context within which they emerge to qualify as architecture. And that unique lyricism has to read visually as a putative truth, leaving words as poor substitutes for architecture content."
I think this explains much of his philosophy as a professional of highest order in this particular field. Like the veteran and famed British journalist Mark Tully who adopted Delhi as his natural home, Christopher Benniger, the American, has adopted Pune as his second home which is now a permanent home. Both are professionals and have had a lot to do with Indian public while carrying out their activities--be it journalism or architecture ! They understood Indian psyche well. Benninger built India House, a superb architectural marvel in Pune where not only he lives but creates beautiful designs for rest of India which, after 45 years of his stay, he feels has become " a very complex society ". 
Benniger has been a witness to many changes in urban India. During his initial years in the 70s, there were no TV sets in the country, very few homes had telephones for which there were year long waiting lists and cars were few and far between. Urban development as process or a phrase was almost non existent. "But in the last decade this nation has been addressing global realities of a subcontinent trying to address a world economy" he says, observing further : "Urban development has moved into public debate without the necessary institutional underpinnings in the areas of public finance, urban law, urban planning and administration."
This book (with superb pictures of his buildings) gives those interested in public architecture and urbanisation process, an adequate insight into urban India's issues, architect's worries, approach and thinking of a well-trained and highly educated foreigner towards India and its cities, as it unfolds his superb creations one after the other before us while simultaneously telling readers subtly a lot about urbanisation, importance of planning, environment and aesthetics. A must read!

Name of the book: Christopher Benninger--Architecture for Modern India
Publishers: India House Art Gallery, Pune
Pages: 384
Price: Rs 4181/-
[ Abhilash Khandekar is a senior journalist can be contacted at
Abhikhandekar1 ( Twitter) and at : [email protected] ]

[ Click : Sushobhit Saktawat ]

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