The Discovery Of India: An Architect's Journey
Architecture + Design|August - September 2020
The Discovery Of India: An Architect's Journey
Pune based iconic architect Christopher Charles Benninger, the founder of the practice CCBA Designs, has added a new vocabulary to modern Indian architecture. In this essay, he artistically and pungently shares with us his beliefs in architecture, his life-evolution and most importantly, pointers to the way forward. Architecture+Design feels privileged to bring to you this very ‘straight from the heart’ writing penned down by the Master —
Christopher Charles Benninger

1.0 A BRAHMACHARYA IN AMERICAN

Christopher Benninger was born to a professor of economics, Laurence Benninger, who devoted his life to analytical research, writing and teaching, bringing Christopher into the milieu of an academic community at an early age. His mother, heir of the French family de Guibert, a gentile family of artists, dramatists and writers introducing him to modern dance, painting, creative writing and statecraft, with an ‘uncle’, Adlai Stevenson, the Governor of Illinois, Democratic Party candidate for President twice, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations. At the Embassy in New York, Christopher met many ‘thought leaders’ of the time, like Sir Robert Jackson, Chairman of the United Nations Refugee Relief Commission, who introduced him to the Ekistics Movement, gifting him a lifetime subscription to the Ekistics Journal. As a youngster, Christopher was active in the civil rights movement, and chose many friends from amongst the South Asian student community, like Meer Mobasher Ali, his roommate, who became the first Bangladeshi Dean of Architecture in BUET in Dhaka.

The family had homes in Free Acres (an artists’ colony in the Watchung Mountains near New York City), Gainesville, Florida (where Christopher completed his first degree in architecture) and Medellin, Colombia (where his father created a college) and Christopher was introduced to abject poverty in the barrios of the city. Early in his career he took a keen interest in ‘no-cost’ housing, doing his thesis at Harvard on self-help housing in Medellin, a concept he invented, taking advice from his mentors John F C Turner, and Jose Luis Sert, creator of the first course taught on ‘urban design’. At Harvard, he came in close contact with Fumihiko Maki, Jersey Soltan, Dolf Schnebli, Yona Freidman, Shadrack Woods, Louis Mumford and Barbara Ward, who considered Christopher her protégé, taking him to the Delos Symposium in Greece in 1967, and to the annual Athens Ekistics Week thereafter, where he befriended Constantinos Doxiadis, Arnold Toynbee the historian, Buckminster Fuller the technologist, Margret Mead the anthropologist and Jackie Tyrwhitt, editor of the Ekistics journal, in which Christopher’s early writings appear. Adventure was always Christopher’s true love. Instead of flying to Athens to attend the Delos Symposium, he landed in London, crossed the English Channel by boat, buying a Peugeot bicycle in Paris, and then cycling 1,500 miles over land to Athens. Thinking back over his explorations and travel adventures, Christopher reflected:

“I think my life has always been energized by ‘the search for the unknown’. In my youth I undertook extensive bicycle excursions through back roads from Berkeley to Los Angeles, Boston to Montreal and Paris to Athens, passing through unknown cultures, languages and political systems. I travelled alone overland from London to Mumbai, finding my own way, enjoying the great adventure of life, and learning from people I met along the way how to survive. Forty years ago, I ventured up into the high Himalayas, over a winding gravel road, from Phuentsholing to Thimphu, as one of the first Caucasians to enter the mountain kingdom of Bhutan overland, and being the first architect-planner to open a studio in Bhutan (1979) when there was no electricity, television or even an airport. Our team prepared micro-area rural development plans employing foot trails, suspension bridges, micro-irrigation technology, innovative seed technology and Japanese hand plows to increase agricultural productivity. During my long stay in the Kingdom, I met people who are still my coveted friends even to this day.”

“From searches for the unknown, emerge the known! The search in life is for self-discovery through the revelation of truth, and moreover to know the ‘good’! I’d rather know the good, than find the truth! I always say, because the good is about ‘balance in life’, and the truth is about black and white!”

Later, Christopher prepared the capital plan for Bhutan, designed a new town in eastern Bhutan, Denchi, planned three border towns in Southern Bhutan, designed the Royal Secretariat Complex, the U N House, the Supreme Court of Bhutan, the Upper House of Parliament, and the National Ceremonial Plaza in the Capitol Complex urban design he prepared.

After his student days at Harvard, Christopher was honoured with the Carnegie Mellon Fellowship to study at MIT, where he worked under Kevin Lynch, Horacio Caminos, Herbert Gans and Lloyd Rodwin. Winning a Fulbright Fellowship in 1968 brought Christopher on a round-the-world adventure from Cambridge to San Francisco, to Tokyo, Nara, Hong Kong, on to Phnom Penh, Bangkok and then to India, onward through Russia and the United Kingdom.

In Ahmedabad where he spent a year, he began his teaching career, at what is now CEPT University. While there he came under the spell of Balkrishna Doshi, who shared his insightful stories, zest for life and deep analysis of Indian culture. He taught his first course in town planning there, and a studio that included students like Shishir Beri, Madhvi Desai, Miki Desai, Kersi Daroga and Ameeta Parikh (later Raje) Anand Raje, Piraji Sagrara and Hasmukh Patel who become his lifelong friends. While in Ahmedabad he envisioned the need for a post graduate programme in urban studies and planning, and drafted a proposal to create a school of planning. Designing slum upgradation shelters in Vadodara, as a volunteer for the social worker Sanatbhai Mehta, led to a lifetime friendship, with Sanatbhia publishing ‘Letters to a Young Architect’ in Gujarati in 2014.Often asked what attracted him to India, Christopher replies, “I first came to India out of curiosity to explore things I did not know, that intrigued me! I think I am one of the last survivors from the age of adventure, and that age can never exist again. But the unknown still exists, and I love being in a place of the unknown. I love being in a place that reveals its secrets ever so slowly in refined seamless streams of inspiration!”

Returning to America, Christopher continued his urban and regional planning studies at MIT, writing his thesis on the urban structure of Ahmedabad, authoring ‘Models of Habitat Mobility in Transitional Societies’ that became a classic in the literature of human settlements.

In Cambridge, Christopher was offered a teaching position at Harvard, first as an instructor, and later as a tenured assistant professor. At Harvard and MIT he had a wide range of inspiring teachers, learning economics from John Kenneth Galbraith, teaching in studios with Roger Montgomery Jane Drew and Gerhard Kallmann, and working in Jose Luis Sert’s studio. Many of Christopher’s teachers were also curious about the subcontinent writing books like Barbara Ward’s ‘India and the West’, Jacqueline Tyrwhitt’s ‘Patrick Geddes in India’, Erick Erickson’s ‘Gandhi’s Truth’, and John Kenneth Galbraith’s ‘An Ambassador’s Journal’, all raising Christopher’s nostalgia for his life and friends in India.

Missing Ahmedabad in Cambridge, Christopher, the brahmachārī, brought India to America, inviting Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde and Balkrishna Doshi to give lectures at Harvard in the spring of 1970, enrolling Indian students at MIT and Harvard like Praful Patel, Nimish Patel and Trilochan Chhaya, befriending South Asian students with whom he still shares ideas. India was the backdrop to his life in Cambridge, with a large Pichwai painting dominating his living room, and a sign at his front door directing, ‘Remove Your Shoes Before You Enter’!

2.0 A GRHASTHA IN INDIA

An offer from the Ahmedabad Education Society to found the School of Planning at CEPT, where Doshi was the Dean of CEPT and Hasmukh Patel was the Director of the School of Architecture, allowed Christopher to explore his karmabhoomi, and to respond to a hidden voice deep within him calling him back to live in India.

“What I discovered in Ahmedabad in the 1960s and 70s was evaporating in America. There were no television sets in Ahmedabad, no stared hotels or even air-conditioners. There were only a few telephones, and we rented bicycles in the evenings to go places and meet friends. So, what was important were people, friendships, shared interests, introspection and stimulating one another’s imaginations.”

“I found a kind of ideal village of friendship in Ahmedabad on my first visit in 1968, and things were much the same when I returned, after teaching at Harvard, to initiate the School of Planning. Yes, over the years in India we have become globalized, digitized, Westernized and a consumer society, but that is really only along the main streets of our big cities. Adventure still lurks down the back alleys, hides out in our villages, lurks up in the mountains and hides amongst the wonderful people inhabiting this great land. I yearned to return to the place of the unknown and the adventure of discovering it!”

“I was curious about the way we all went about thinking, about the ordering systems, processes and the patterns of our creativity. I studied architectural sites, and urban heritage places, making beautiful friendships in the process. And, all of this made me more curious, wondering who I was and where I fit into all of this?”

“My exploration of India was an adventure of my own inner search for self. I was a traveller, not a tourist! I moved about on hunches and suggestions from people I met along my way, and out of my own curiosity, not on a pre-packaged plan of destinations, faux cultural events, fancy hotels and air-conditioned restaurants. New Delhi was very strange, a half century, ago with horse drawn tangas as taxis, waiting for passengers in Connaught Place, with no tall buildings along its radiating boulevards, and only a few hotels and restaurants. I wondered why the people of India lived in British colonial buildings, and how a city could be defined by grand Moghul monuments, expansive European boulevards, and linked within geometric vistas that reminded me of Versailles, and Karsburg in Germany. In the Central Vista I could see the Washington Mall, and in the city’s plan I could sense the influence of Washington D C, laid out two hundred years ago. I was curious about the way people thought; most of them in their traditional dress and riding in tangas, and a few serious looking men in their English clothes and buildings and riding in their black English Ambassador cars, along the English boulevards? I wondered about myself, and I questioned myself, whether I’d got stuck in a knowledge system at birth too, maybe where I did not belong? I wondered if I thought through an ordered template like my Western teachers did, and the way my Western teachers wanted me to think too! India turned me upside down and inside out! Instead of one ordering template there were many! Unlike New York City or Cambridge, everywhere in India there were different knowledge systems living and operating one besides, over and under, each other. Some people were Western capitalists in suits and ties; some state socialists disguised as social workers wearing Kolhapuri chappals, khadi kurtas and carrying a jhola; some oblivious of isms were just trying to survive; some were Hindus with beautiful colours carefully adorning their faces; some were traditional Muslims wearing dignified caps and well-trimmed beards; others were anglophile Christians sporting faded fashions; but people everywhere were all working together under a large umbrella of understanding, yet thinking in different languages. While there were strict rules and guidelines structuring how each type of person lived within their own type of template, there was amazing variety, incredible mixing and tolerance of other’s lifestyles and values. I saw in this complex world a path toward freedom of self, and a harmonious, complex environment; a system of secure stasis and balance, yet beautifully chaotic. Maturing into a young man, a grihastha, I saw this as a potential laboratory of self-discovery and a place where there could be experimentation with new concepts of myself longing for a better future.”

So, the age of twenty-eight, in 1971, Christopher left his existence as a brahmachārā, leaving the intellectual playground of young men and women, who were trying to describe their world, and I entered Ahmedabad as a grihastha trying to create a school of urban planning, trying to redesign the world; he left his youth and became a man; he continued to be curious about the nature of the world, but was equally curious about how we could make it better. Thus, began the long journey of self-discovery and adventures of the spirit. Thus, began his fellowship with professionals across India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and China, who professed values and followed spiritual paths of discovery and enlightenment. Every year threw up new problems, new conundrums, and new design issues. Every year he started building and planning for the future. India morphed him from a boy, who was subjectively questioning and trying to describe things, into a man, who was formatively planning, designing and creating institutions. His first challenge was designing the School of Planning (now the Faculty of Planning at CEPT University); planning the curriculum, selecting students, hiring teachers and making institutional affiliations.

To start with his planning course had to be different from the traditional two-dimensional, physical, urban-based planning being taught in New Delhi, at the IITs and elsewhere. It had to be multidimensional; physical, social, economic, ecological, geo-physical, psychological and fit within local histories. He could not limit his student in-take to civil engineers, geographers and architects like all of the other planning courses, and as prescribed by the Institute of Town and Country Planning.

“We needed to plan for rural India as well as urban India. We needed to plan for the places where people actually lived, be it in villages, slums, chawls, migrant workers’ huts, or within the neighbourhoods of the over-crowded, ancient walled cities of India. I wanted for my students to ‘learn by doing’, and to ‘learn from the people for whom they were planning’. So, we inducted students from law, statistics, sociology, economics, psychology, besides a limited in-take of physical planners. We looked at the city like a human body made up of many cells, or habitat components, and we began to do settlement biopsies of each of these. We saw the city as a great laboratory where we could analyze human stresses, raise pertinent questions, and state problems to be solved, evolving performance standards and define possible solutions! All of this started out in the field surveying and studying the people for and with whom we planned. We were like anthropologists analyzing peoples’ mores, cultures and livelihoods. We looked at people’s education and skill levels, occupations and incomes, ability to pay and access to essential amenities, movement patterns, nutrition levels, health status, aspirations, and much more! We did stratified random surveys to get the numbers and sizes of stresses, but we then carried out household case studies, and family histories, as tools to understand human development, family histories and social structure. People accused me of teaching Marxism! The New Delhi senior planners said, ‘Hutments don’t exist, they are illegal, and city planners don’t prepare village and district plans’. The course grew and matured. The Institute of Town and Country Planners changed its name to the Institute of Planners, India, in order to remove the word ‘country,’ that I argued included villages, farmers and craftspeople! We began teaching computer analysis and network theory, and had seminars in social and economic change. All of our students found meaningful employment immediately, and they began to make significant contributions to humanity, founding institutions, leading NGOs and working for international development institutions.”

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August - September 2020