Architecture infuses livability in cities

Christopher Benninger’s book ‘Architecture for Modern India’ brings some fascinating facts about the role of architecture that will not only make cities scientifically and aesthetically pleasing but also humane. Such a city would lead to creation of recreation zones,inclusive public participation and an existence that would be in synchronisation with nature. Government sponsored schemes such as AMRUT, HRIDAY and Smart City. can get interesting insights from this book

Name of the book
Christopher Benninger–Architecture for Modern India
India House Art Gallery, Pune
Rs 4181/-
Must read from a library

Architects play a very crucial role in the overall making of any good and liveable city. In other words, the built environment in a city tells us a lot about who created that. Of course some architects are extraordinary in their vision, planning and execution while others are not. Some build ordinary houses, shabby government buildings and private offices, while others design cities and contribute through their creative genius to build beautiful public spaces and buildings which add to any city’s aesthetics and goodwill.
The book which I have been enjoyably reading for sometime, I thought of introducing to the readers of Urban Update only because of this celebrated American architect’s impressive vision for modern India which he has shared through this voluminous compendium, printed in Italy recently. This book introduces to us his ideas and creativity in great depth. What is special about Christopher Benninger is that after acquiring degrees from the top 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 (Kolkata) , mass self help housing (Chennai), experimental shelter strategies in Hyderabad, SOS Village near Delhi and government buildings designed by him proudly stand tall across India, from Delhi to Ahmedabad and Pune to Kolkata. Benninger and his studio team also designed the Supreme Court of Bhutan Building which Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated last year, among many other prestigious buildings in South Asia.
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. Then, frankly, I had not at all heard about Benningeror 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 sometime 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 prominent gift of Lutyens to the Indians.
Benninger’s India story begins with the well known Indian architect BalkrishnaDoshi who was instrumental in inviting the American architect to initiate the School of Planning at Ahmedabad, which is now known as Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology-CEPT- way back in 1971. Now 75, Benninger is still 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 Benninger, term the Gujarati doyen as the ‘Guru’ of the American architect.
Benninger’s modernism, according to RamprasadAkkisetti, 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. 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 sees 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.
Benninger’s superb creations include the Mahindra group’s Mahindra United World College of India, only one of its kind in the country. This is one of the world campuses worldwide under United World College banner, led by (late) Nelson Mandela and Jordan’s Queen Noor. The picturesque campus, spread over 120 acres, is situated on a plateau 100 metres above Mulla river basin, 100 kms south-east of Mumbai, in the Western Ghats. Remember the same Western Ghats, where the building of Lavasa residential city and other amenities created a nationwide 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 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 of 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 much explains 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 Benninger, the American, has adopted Pune as his second home which is now a permanent home. He built India House, a superb architectural marvel in Pune where not only he lives but creates beautiful designs for the rest of India which, after 45 years of his stay, he feels has become “a very complex society “.
Benninger 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 a 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 gives us an adequate insight into urban India’s issues, architect’s worries, approach and thinking of a well trained and educated foreigner towards India and its cities, as its unfolds his superb creations one after the other before us while simultaneously telling us subtly a lot about urbanisation, importance of planning, environment and aesthetics.