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 —
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 multi- dimensional; 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.”
This was a time of great changes in India and in 1972 Christopher’s friend Sanatbhai Mehta became the Minister of Housing, inviting seven architects, each to plan low cost housing in one of the seven larger cities of Gujarat. That same month, the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) was formed in New Delhi and Christopher’s scheme for Jamnagar became the first Economically Weaker Section (EWS) housing project in the country, clustering hundreds of small courtyard houses around larger neighbourhood courts, all connected by pedestrian lanes and inter- linked by community open spaces. The World Bank took notice of this first ‘EWS’ housing scheme in India and asked Christopher to be their consultant for their large housing programmed in Chennai.
“For the Madras Urban Development Authority, I pulled out my Harvard design concept for ‘Self Help, Sites and Services,’ and I laid out large communities in Arambakkam and Villibakkam and other areas of the metropolis. We soon had 15,000 families building their own homes, paying for their small plots at market value with ‘30 year loans,’ recycling materials and building with their own hands. Meanwhile my small studio was designing the SOS Children’s Villages in Calcutta and Delhi, the Alliance Francaise in Ahmedabad, and a large house for my friend Dr Bhanuben Parekh in Bhavnagar. In my designs, I was learning from what I saw around me, from the materials systems, from the craftsmen and from the limits of the available technology.”
This beautiful time of awakening in Ahmedabad infected Christopher with a desire to get out from under the banyan tree of the great gurus in Ahmedabad and head off on his own to a city in the mountains called Pune, and to found, with Aneeta Gokhale Benninger, their own institution called the Centre for Development Studies and Activities (CDSA), with Barbara Ward as its Patron, that eventually was recognized by the University of Pune, the Indian Council of Social Science Research and began doing policy research for the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Indian Planning Commission. Their innovative course in development planning attracted students from around the world. From Pune he became interested in international development and took up assignments for the UNICEF in Bhutan, the World Bank in Indonesia, the Asian Development Bank in Malaysia, the UNO in Africa and the UNFAO in Nepal. He had 80 professionals in offices in Thimphu, Bhutan; Galle and Jaffna, Sri Lanka; Almora in Uttarakhand, and in Margao, Goa, as well as in Pune. The CDSA also took up the planning and design for two thousand ‘growing houses’, for the Yuosufguda Housing Federation in Hyderabad, a low cost, growing-house program, that was the first project of the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority.
During this period, Christopher began to teach in short courses and workshops for the World Bank and the UNCHS (Habitat) in South-East Asian and Africa, and to deliver lectures at UNO seminars in Europe. In 1983 he was invited to write the Theme Paper delivered by the Director General of the UNCHS (Habitat) at the Seventh Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Settlements. In 1986 the Asian Development Bank invited him to write their Board of Director’s ‘White Paper’ in urban development investment banking, steering the bank away from its exclusive focus on agriculture, and bringing their sizable funds to resolve problems of urban infrastructure and poverty alleviation. All of these activities lead to the preparation of development plans for Thane and Kalyan for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and the World Bank, and to the planning of seven cities in Sri Lanka for the UNCHS (Habitat). All of Christopher’s fees for these projects were given to the CDSA, and used to buy their present fifteen-acre campus site where CDSA now stands. Thus, Christopher transformed into a responsible Grihastha, making things and not just studying them; solving problems and not just critiquing others!
3.0 A VĀNAPRASTHA ĀSHRAMA IN INDIA HOUSE
According to ancient Vedic wisdom when a man becomes above a half century in age he may withdraw from the domestic responsibilities of the Grihastha, seeking retreat in an ashram, or even retiring as a hermit! So, leaving the world of education, planning and policy analysis behind Christopher retreated into the world of his true love: architecture. He resigned as a Board Member of the Fulbright Program in India, the world’s largest international exchange program of 100 Indian and American students each year. He removed his name from all of the UNO advisory registers, and he relinquished his post as the founding Executive Director at CDSA, and left his membership on the University of Pune, Board of University Teaching and Research, retreating with his partner, Akkisetti Ramprasad, into the peace of their studio.
“The first thing we did after setting up our studio in a rented apartment was to debate the principles that would guide our work. Several concepts emerged that have shaped our different projects in different ways. These design principles are:
Design in Context: Integration with the environment has been a design theme in all of our work. At the Alliance Francaise at Ahmedabad the ‘context’ was an urban setting of late nineteenth century red brick structures. The new structure participated visually with the existing setting to form a small public domain, where people can sit and relax in shade. Site features and the local ecology helped me focus on design themes of gifting light only through north facing skylights, and a north facing fenestration system protected from the morning and evening sun by fins; no windows on the east, south and west; using the blank end walls of two existing old structures to create an intimate courtyard; and, drawing upon the materiality of the existing structures. At the Mahindra United World College of India we were fortunate to have a vast site in the mountains that could be apportioned between productive cultivation and the natural landscape, with a variety of terrain and vegetation within which to integrate creative living and learning spaces. This site, on a hill in the Sahyadri Mountains, was discovered by Ramprasad and I by pure good luck, and we ventured there with Harish Mahindra, who fell in love with the site immediately. The design borrows its angular geometry from the mountainous landscape and its materiality from the local basalt stone village walls and tile roofs of the region. Gardens penetrate into the buildings, and out-of- doors terraces and courts become classrooms. At the Capitol Complex in Thimphu, I had a heritage site centred on the centuries-old national icon, the Trashichhoedzong. Thus, the idea of context, which Wright saw as nature, expanded to include the heritage of sites. Nature, urban fabric and heritage milieus all became environments that tempered our design strategies. Each of our projects had a clear mandate and program of activities, through which objectives were to be met, but there were also contextual features that had to be addressed.”
Materiality: “Architecture should be a natural expression of available resources, through the use of indigenous materials like terracotta tiles, basalt stone walls, Shahabad stone for external paving and lintels and Kota stone for interior floors. Depending on the regional setting these materials will change, where relevant local materials can also be critically selected when appropriate to new functions. These materials are all expressed naturally, without the application of granite or marble cladding, gaudy paints or mirrored glass. Form finished concrete is also a way to use a new material critically and to express the reality of materials. More than the selection and expression of local materials, the materiality of our works stimulates all of the senses from texture and feel; light and sight; on to density and sound. Even the choice of landscaping modulates aromas and smell; colours and ambiance! Space is created by the cues emitted for all of these senses. Thus, honesty of expression of materials is a fundamental design principle.”
Employment of Human Scale: “In opposition to the monumentality, we so often find in large institutions, lies another principle. No building should dominate the landscape through brute size, or heavy architectonic statements. The architectural milieu must provide personal spaces, which belong to the inhabitants and engender interaction, and a sense of community. This infers a ‘low-rise’ fabric wherein the roof-shape should be a humble reflection of the land¬scape. Where buildings have to be taller, one can either step the massing down to the human scale, or bring human scale elements up and into the structure, as was done with the protective parasols at the entry to the Kochi refineries limited.”
Continuity and Harmony: “Harmony should be achieved through consistency in the architectural language and the environment. It is important that common building systems tie a complex group of structures within one campus into an integrated whole. For example, in a single building, or complex campus, buildings cannot vary in their ‘styles’, like one in reinforced concrete, and another of brick- bearing walls, and yet another of pre-fabricated concrete elements, and still another of steel and sheer glass walls! We can observe this in American ‘showcase’ campuses these days, where each architect is competing with the others for attention. The university administrators are trying to ‘collect’ star chitects in the same manner that nuevo-riche dilatants build collections from different avant- garde painters, and hang them insensitively side by side merely as wall decorations. The University of Cincinnati even went to the extent of carving out isolated sites, and allocating each to ‘name brand architects’ to put up individualistic stunts and unrelated structures, much as a nuevo-riche art collector shows off his ignorance of art by decorating his house with Picassos, Pollack’s and Stella’s. The outcome is a travesty of good design, taste and planning. Often these collectors’ items are surrounded by roads, so that people can drive by and see them! Instead of uniting knowledge, as in the ideal university, these structures emphasize the boundaries between people and academic disciplines, becoming mirrors of what is wrong with the very system of education. Each building is packaged and decorated in the ‘hallmark style of the architect’, instead of in the theme of the university, inured into the regional context!”
Choreography of Spaces into a Narrative of Places: “In most of my buildings I attempt to organize and plan a sequence of spaces gifting the visitors and inhabitants with ‘an experience’, and a unique memory of the place. I often use an entry promenade, like at India House with lotus pools and art work, leading up to a main portal that sends one a message that ‘this place is sacred’, and your behaviour needs to be modified appropriately to the ethics of the place. A ‘wow’ space, like the India House courtyard, can be a great connector, or ‘main structure’ to link all of the diverse functions together. There needs to be a hierarchy of space-types for a hierarchy of interaction types catalysed.”
Motifs: “An architectural language must be evolved through the selection of appropriate motifs, modular components, colours and materials. Motifs can include functional components like door lintels, window shade boxes, skylights and ventilators, skylights, waterspouts and various built-in components. These reflect the demands that climate and culture place upon lifestyles, customs and habits. Murals cast into natural, exposed concrete enrich the design. At CEPT University, I cast the icons of the ten principles
of intelligent urbanism into a ceiling to reinforce design concepts into the minds of students. In Bhutan we looked at the enduring elements of buildings such as: the sloped white walls; the dark brown wood fenestration; the red and gold colours; the wide over-hanging roofs; the articulate doors and the iconography of Himalayan Buddhism. One cannot ‘design a language’ overnight. Elements, ideas and components may emerge from historical examples within the context. An architectural language must evolve through a number of projects and experiences.”
A Sustainable Environment: “Sustainability must be created through design. A campus cannot just be a cluster of buildings on parcels of land. A building cannot just be a nice façade and an exciting section. These have to be integrated man-bio systems where nature thrives and people are nurtured. The sun, rains and winds must all temper the orientation of walls, roof coverage and openings. These are not issues of style or fancy, but facts of the environment. At the Kochi refineries limited we covered the generous glass sliding windows with aluminium louvers which totally blocked any sunlight from touching the building, while still allowing sight lines, breezes, ambient light and panoramic views of the lush green Kerala backwaters. On weekends individuals can slide open their room windows for ventilation without turning on air-conditioning systems. This ‘parasol’ concept saved the refineries about thirty percent of their annual air-conditioning costs and cut the initial investment in air-conditioning equipment by about forty percent, compared with the fashionable structural glass corporate image imported from the freezing cold Atlantic north. Over twenty-one years, the company estimated that they would save an amount equal to the cost of the building! At the YMCA international campsite, we burrowed the structures within the natural hill slopes so that the internal areas are insulated from the harsh summer heat, while the open side faces the lake view!”
Articulate Circulation Systems: “In campuses and buildings alike, the circulation system, or movement systems, must separate vehicles from pedestrians, and visitors need separation from regular inhabitants. Noisy and polluting activities must be kept at a distance from quiet areas. Movement must be pedestrian oriented and service/visitor vehicles must be separated from this main walking network. The circulation system can be a lattice, allowing criss-cross choices of how one walks from place to place, or a unidirectional tree trunk, which keeps gathering larger and still larger arteries from smaller branches and limbs into a main stem and the entrance. But as the planned systems get larger, the ‘stem’ has to give way to the ‘lattice’, to reduce congestion at the gathering points and to disperse traffic. In the living areas there should be a tree-like structure, lending privacy and security to the most basic residential units. A campus, or a neighbourhood, is not a city, and the circulation system must honour this distinction. On the other hand, a ‘city is not a tree’, to quote Christopher Alexander! A city must provide choices, multiple alternatives and flexibility through latticed networks. So, as we practiced architecture, our building types expanded from small meditation halls to medium sized academic buildings, to entire campuses, to the planning of neighbourhoods, new towns and then even to cities.”
Main Structure: “The architectural scheme must establish a main structure through the circulation pattern and the building technology pattern, which reinforce one another, integrating into a frame¬work. Trunk infrastructure must also generate a structural pattern on the overall design. The building programme of functions will also have its own order and structure, dividing spaces into work areas, ‘service cores’ and passive areas like courtyards and gardens. The main structure must respect the need for short span spaces to gather together (perhaps on one side), and for long span spaces (perhaps on the other side) to act as focal points at the ends of spines and trunks. Along spines nodal centres (courtyards or small atria), can be used as the destinations at crossroads of footpaths) or at the ends of passages also, creating a sense of destination. These can be clustered along circulation stems and channels, which are also trunk paths for major utility networks. Such an integrated circulation network-cum-structural system works to separate casual visi¬tors, vendors and suppliers from serious participants and key actors. In its subtle manner such a system may reflect the daily schedule, requiring quiet zones for reading, analysis and personal study, while having loud zones for music and workshops. Space and move¬ment; place and sense of being; form and sequence; are all part of this integration of movement networks and building systems. These elements are linked and integrated through a main structure. A great example is the multi-level glass gallerias at the Indian Institute of Management at Joka in Kolkata.”
Humanism and Humanity: “Most of all, the ambience will be one of visions and a humanistic worldview. This does not mean the projection of a cold, cultureless image through an industrialized international style. It does not mean McDonald’s hamburgers will replace dhal-bhat! It means applying principles which can unite mankind into a world community of values: honesty in expression; sustainable environment; respect for the individual; encouragement of constructive group discussion; human scale; use of appropriate technology and creating balanced eco-systems. It is in its role of promoting group concerns and lifestyles that architecture contributes to a future vision.
A good social environment has a hierarchy of places that promotes isolation for ‘one speaking to oneself’ through contemplation (meditation and introspection); small spaces for two or three people together to sponsor friendship, romance and sharing; small group spaces to sponsor sharing, social hierarchies, group behaviour, and sharing values and goals; collective community spaces where festivals, exhibitions, annual events, votive ceremonies, celebrations can occur. My campuses are based on the vision of a secure, green, equitable, safe and enjoyable pedestrian environment. In such an environment, national origin, ra¬cial characteristics, religious choice, gender, sexual orientation and other ‘boundaries’ lose their divisive meanings. Architecture and planning are not merely geometric problems or engineering solutions. They are organisms in which time, space, life and purpose all become part of one reality. Architecture and planning are social tools that can be used to create a better world, or to fashion a dysfunctional one.”
Design Approach: Our team’s design approach matured and morphed through ‘learning by doing’ over these past twenty-five years, sticking to the fundamental concepts noted above, as it is a methodology, step-by-step, rather than a hazy, ad hoc ‘approach’ of fuzzy thinking. It always begins with the client’s brief, and with a site analysis, developing a building programme, putting the programme into a same-scale, single page layout of all of the spaces standing in same-scale rectangles together, then developing into a bubble diagram illustrating which function wants to be next to which other one, or away from another function, and arrows showing the lines of connections between functions and spaces. Design objectives should then be noted, like creating certain numbers of functional spaces, fitting within statutory norms and building regulations, fitting within a maximum cost, etc. Sites need analysis to determine an entry point, slopes, view lines, unbuildable zones, hard noisy edges, soft green edges, and soil types, water, electricity and IT source points and recycling waste and water. Then performance standards are stated and various layouts are attempted and evaluated against these standards. Accordingly, there are a string of analytical tasks and an evolution of thoughts leading to several possible alternatives and choices. An optimal design solution should be identified that achieves most of the objectives within the standards. The client becomes an integral part of this iterative process. This is a very simplified brief of a very complex process involving fire rules and building control rules analysis, the nature of the site, and the likes and dislikes of the client. Complex as it is, the process remains about the same, if it is a small school or a large campus design; it is an iterative process with the client. Over the years I realized that there is something essential to design that I call the culture of construction. This became clear to me while designing the National Ceremonial Plaza in Thimphu, Bhutan, while simultaneously designing the giant Forbes Marshall Industrial Pavilion near Pune, and the Nagaloka Buddhist campus in Nagpur also having its own ‘language of build’ based upon local materials, craftsmanship and management modalities.
So, in search of peace as a Vānaprastha, I seemed to have fallen back within a new avatar of a grihastha yet again, designing buildings, writing about architecture, planning university campuses, towns and cities, and becoming involved in programmes and celebrations of architecture through lectures, events and publications. Again I seek peace, bliss and withdrawal away from the life of a householder. This search leads me on an adventure into the unknown, seeking life in the sannyāsaāshrama.
4.0 IN SEARCH OF THE SANNYĀSAASHRAMA
I suppose I will never fully escape my infatuation and love for architecture, and the yearn to design will haunt me, luring me back into my grihastha ashrama. But there are other roads waiting to be travelled, questions to be answered, and the unknown to be discovered from the darkness! I still seek the truth, and the good, from somewhere within the unknown. In fact, my next search as a sannyāsi is to answer a question haunting me:
Who Killed the Truth? Yes, I think the truth was hidden from me at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology! I think the truth was deigned students in all of our schools of architecture here in India, and I think the same false knowledge system has killed the truth about India’s people, its architecture and its human settlements! We have watched the truth being silently discarded under the lure of Western romanticism, unachievable ‘progress,’ and media generated, dreamy middle-class aspirations.
Just as the colonial myths of the white man’s burden’ justified alien rule, by instilling romantic visions of progress and development, our post- Independence architectural system has, with a slight of hand, magically led us down a rosy path into the wrong romantic world of Western ideas of styles, imagining great engineering stunts, iconic designs, Hollywood images of ‘the good life,’ and false hopes about economic and social development. Perhaps a Hollywood image of America is put in front of us, and we are all told that it is the end game, the dream, the hope for a future India. That is a lie! We are told that development is owning a car, having an air-conditioned apartment, and being trapped within a digital mentality. Flyovers, weekends in Goa, and studying in America are false symbols of progress and achievement.”
“Objective reality (the truth) has been hidden in closets, talked of by a few thoughtful professors, and largely ignored, while peaceful romantic dreams in front of plasma screens are less disconcerting antidotes to life, and not as upsetting than harsh reality!” But I say, “There is a dark reality that we must know, study and transform into a light reality, in order to seek the truth and the good! Let us start by noting down some mistruths; romantic false dreams, countered by the objective reality of our world and how we professionals can be game changers!”
SIX MISTRUTHS FROM WHICH WE CAN LEARN THE TRUTH
FIRST MISTRUTH: “The people of India are living in apartment complexes, and less fortunate families live in ‘affordable housing schemes?’ Who should we design for?” There are many ways to characterize and define people, but I would like to use a simple concept of defining our people by their ‘ability to pay’! The simple truth is that only about three percent (or less) of our people can be labelled ‘middle class.’ Ninety-nine percent of the registered architects work for this tiny sliver of the society. I say this because only three percent of our citizens pay income tax! Only a minutiae of our citizens have effective medical insurance. While one may argue that people are escaping income tax, surely any economically comfortable household would pay annual fees for medical insurance. Most of the people of India gain their livelihood from the informal sector of the economy where there are no retirement benefits, medical leaves, paid holidays or other benefits. The International Labour Organization estimates that 81 percent of Indians gain their employment from the informal sector, and only 6.5 percent from the formal sector. A study by Ashish Mirchandani about the Mumbai Metropolitan Region found that only three percent of the twenty-two million metropolitan inhabitants could afford the EMIs to purchase housing in the zone south of the airport down to the Gateway to India; only another six percent could afford EMIs in the zone including, Thane and Vashi, and only 17 percent more of the population could afford the EMIs for any housing scheme further out to the extreme edges of the metropolitan area. Thus, 74 percent of the people of Mumbai do not have a right to the city, and are forced to live in shanty towns, illegal workers’ layouts, over-crowded villages and sleeping on the footpaths of Mumbai. These are the people who we must serve. We can solve their shelter problems, only if we accept them as our clients, understand their ability to pay, and know these are the people who we must serve first! Even in this excluded group we tend to further segregate society horizontally into religious and regional communities, and still further into castes; and then we divide them all vertically according to their incomes, land holdings and their control of businesses. Along these lines, families are further excluded from their rights to basic needs through multi-dimensional social stratification pushing them into inhumane forms of habitat. The solution to this mistruth lies in the Self-help Sites and Services program I initiated in Chennai in 1973, and it is still running.
SECOND MISTRUTH: “Model cities in India are Chandigarh and South Delhi!”
We really never had an Independence revolution in India, we had a transition from monarchy, from colonialism, to Western democracy, and then to socialism, with a terribly disruptive Partition. After decades of the License Raj and pseudo socialism, harbouring favoured monopolies, we jumped into globalization! We modelled our economy
on a Western philosophy of socialism, and we made the mistake of inviting foreign architects and planners to impale alien ideas in the forms of cities like Chandigarh, Bhubaneshwar and the 1961, New Delhi Master Plan. These plans required large minimum sized plots with large set- backs, and limited heights, generating American style low density, automobile dependent living, excluding a huge percentage of the citizens of India. Such designs excluded the Indian population who would never be able to afford
a minimum sized plot to build their own houses with their own resources. South New Delhi, Bhubaneshwar, Gandhinagar and Chandigarh are not solutions; they are problems creating scarcity and homelessness. They became false models infecting the future of Indian urban planning, like a virus that closed the opportunities for millions of people. These became ‘models’ and icons for other cities and neighbourhoods. Schools of planning taught these anti-Indian concepts to young planners, creating a coterie of mislead professionals, who devoted their lives and thinking to excluding the vast majority of Indians from humane habitat. We went on for seventy years doing the wrong thing, aping the West and forgetting India.
The solution to this mistruth lies in a concept I call Special Habitat Zones (SHZ)! The basis
of these SHZ lies in the way the government facilitated and enabled large corporates to acquire large swaths of land to create mono-functional Special Economic Zones (another disaster for the people of India). But the truth often can be found within a lie! These mono-functional industrial zones can be transformed into multi-functional Special Habitat Zones, that have large self-help housing neighbourhood layouts, skill training centres, primary and secondary schools, basic health centres, amenities, construction materials godowns, and recycled materials shops, as well as plots for large scale industries. There would also be areas of medium and small-scale industries that are integral to the larger scale ones, being ancillary integrated units. We need to invent new urban fabrics that are people friendly and extend the right to the city to all of our people.
THIRD MISTRUTH: “We have a great architectural education system with PhDs heading schools, highly educated teachers and motivated students.” “Just as we copied urban planning templates, architectural patterns and Western ideas, flyovers and expressways, we took models of architectural education along with Western mistakes!”
“The five years long English course has an esoteric, theoretical curriculum much like schools in the United Kingdom and America. We then expanded this wrong model to 550 bad schools, most of which have no real teachers. What is wrong with the model? First, the theoretical curriculum! Students should work on construction sites as workers during their early summer breaks! Later, they should work on sites in construction management, finally in MEP and structural designers’ offices. Finally, they can join a registered architectural firm! Next English! Why should architecture be taught in English? It should be taught in regional languages to make the ideas more accessible. Why should the course be for five years? We can have a three year long course leading to a Bachelor of Science in Architectural Studies, and allow the last two years for post graduate degree courses in a range of choices that the construction industry actually needs, and students actually want, instead of pushing the romantic dream of creating 40,000 great designers annually who know practically nothing of building systems, mechanical equipment, materials science, construction management, working drawings, statutory rules, real estate norms, or even aesthetics. And we award each graduate with a ‘license to kill,’ as a registered architect, just by presenting their graduation certificate to the Council of Architecture, that registered all of these schools. We need a National Architectural Qualifying Exam to be taken after a fresh graduate works in a registered architect’s office for a minimum of two years, to weed out the ‘floaters,’ who paid their fees and glided through colleges learning nothing, from teachers who knew even less.”
Teachers are preparing ‘practitioners’, not more ill-prepared teachers, and they too must have practical experience, and not PhDs! We are emplacing a mafia of inexperienced, narrow thinking people, holding PhDs to lead the preparation of our new practitioners. This is comparable to using theoreticians, who have never done any surgery, to teach brain surgery! Senior teachers must be senior practitioners! Notably all of these PhDs have produced no text books, very few peer reviewed published articles, and no experiments. Neither students, nor teachers read anything, other than their WhatsApp platforms.
FORTH MISTRUTH: “There are great architectural historians in the West, who can tell us what is great architecture, and what we should be doing!” We are listening to critics, architectural historians and journalists living in the North Atlantic countries propagandizing us into ‘knowing what architecture is’. All of these people are looking backwards into the heroes of their youth, to the twentieth century, and their Westernized Indian students, now grey haired are telling us what the truth is! That is a lie. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright did beautiful, artistic work for their societies, but they did not come up with any solutions for the people of India. Using these ‘grand standers,’ and star architects as models for youngsters is both humiliating for them, and is sending them the wrong message: a lie! The great, irrational stunts of Western metropolises are not models for us, and maybe not even models for anyone. They are not examples we should use to teach our students; they are lies! We should be learning from our ancient cities and from the histories of our own practitioners how and what to do!
FIFTH MISTRUTH: “The people of India work in IT companies, corporations and government, in highly organized jobs, protected by labour laws!” I would like to make some blunt, in the face, observations about the ethical environment in which architects are working. Government, and in particular municipal corporations, are seen to be hallmarks of the ‘formal sector, organized part of our society.’ In fact, they are anything but formal, transparent and organized. Most of their work takes place only on receiving cash kick-backs! They are generators of ‘black’ money, receiving illegal payments through ‘liaison consultants’ and agents. They are de facto extortion agencies robbing the tax payers who pay their salaries. Young architects will have to face the spectacle of their local government blackmailing them into making under the table payments to clear their drawings and see their designs built into reality.
Several decades ago, young architects could get decent work just by ‘doing good work’. Every architect charged about the same fees as laid out by the Council of Architecture. Many clients now require that architects have an annual turn-over of Rupees 5, 10, or 15 crores a year, thereby excluding all of the young architects. These wealthy clients want architects to do free work submitting designs to committees where there are rarely architects sitting to judge works. The committee will give marks based on the quality of the design (70%) and on the fee quoted (30%)! But wait; there is a trick here. A government job needs three ‘valid bidders,’ or the entire process is nullified. So, if there is a very good design, it may be awarded 62 points out of 70 points for the technical quality.
But wait, this is a lie! The other projects will each get not less than the fail line of 35 points, as below that they are disqualified, and the entire procedure will be cancelled without three valid vendors for the price bid opening. Next, a new game is played. The architect who bids the lowest fee, say one percent, gets all the 30 points out of the 30 possible points making his total now 65 points, and the architect who honestly bids the highest, most likely the ethically needed Council of Architects’ fees, or the fees recommended by the Indian Institute of Architects, will be the highest and as per rule get no points at all, or a total of just 62 points. The architect who bids exactly between the lowest and the highest, say between one percent and the highest ethical five percent, will get 15 points. So, the best design charging honest fees gets only 62 points and loses; the worst design bidding the unethical lowest fee gets 65 points and the mediocre architect
gets 50 points!
The reality of our system is that we are running a system of extortion and corruption. Architects charging one and two percent, don’t survive on fees! The ‘work’ the system! Only administrative reform, giving due wages and respect to our public servants, and engaging management companies to operate our building permission systems, will change this system.
SIXTH MISTRUTH: “Private sector builders have created urban India and they will solve the ‘housing problem’, if government just gets out of their way!”
We are living with lies of the role models of what the city fabric should be like, and in the process we have deigned the vast majority of city dwellers the right to live in cities, forcing them into illegal hutments, layouts and workers camps. Just as our planning concepts were highjacked by Western, unworkable ideas, concepts and models, so also our ideas about shelter systems are perverted. We have always assumed that shelter had to be supplied by private sector developers, or by the government (using private sector contractors) while in fact it can be built by the people themselves, facilitated by enabling public agencies. It is a lie that builders create our housing! So, there is a lie and there is a truth! There is the known planning system, which is false, and the unknown which is the truth. Ninety-five percent of the housing stock in rural and in urban India is created, and built by the people of this country with their own hands! Yes, the people build with their own hands!”
It is a wrong idea that formal sector contractors, working for developers, creating architect designed housing, cleared by authorities are solving our nation’s shelter problems! They are a part of the problem. Imported typologies of costly low-density neighbourhoods, with expensive stretched out infrastructure, are based on automobile movement and dependent on combustion engines. In our model towns and award winning housing schemes there has been inadequate allotment of space for the service trades like metal workers, fabricators, auto-repair mechanics, tailors, carpenters, repair shops, materials godowns and tiny-scale industries. May I say none of our showpiece city plans are a solution to anything, but have created wrong models, and planted a lie in our minds! The truth would have emerged if we had first studied our ancient cities and learned how to plan cozy, pedestrian urban fabrics with hierarchies of open space types, catalyzing a variety of constructive human interaction. The result would have been the creation of ground-level, pedestrian oriented, bicycle-friendly, lattices of lanes and services with small plots for self-help building, maximizing shared walls and encouraging small internal courtyards.
We should have taken two steps backwards, learning from our historical towns, from Indian heritage, and with that knowledge taken three intelligent steps forward! Narrow plots would have reduced the length of costly infrastructure like potable water and sewerage drain pipe lines, roads and storm water drainage, electric and IT lines, and would have compacted the entire city into efficient and manageable sizes. The most important lie to overcome is that we depend on imported planning ideas, the formal sector, the private sector builders to create humane settlements and a right to the city! So, as a sannyāsī I reflect back from the outside, in critical of my own era, of my own fellow professionals, and even of my own work, hoping for a better future. That is the true work of a sannyāsī.
Professor Christopher Benninger has been practising architecture in India, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and China for the past 50 years. In 1994, Akkisetti Ramprasad joined him as the Managing Director and the duo formed CCBA Pvt. Ltd. This later transformed into CCBA Designs in 2014, with Rahul Sathe and Daraius Choksi joining as owner-directors; they have now been with the studio for more than 20 years. The strength of the studio lies in its experienced architects, with a core team working together for over 15 years, including Shivaji Karekar, Noel Jerald and Bhushan Pise. Senior architects Rahul Deshmukh, Gaurav Inamdar and Sundar Bommaji further complement the team, with more than 12 years of association in designing, supporting and managing the day-to-day activities of the studio and sites. Geeta Kedari and Shantaram Shinde have managed the office for over two decades, with the entire team of over 50 members supported by the staff of India House. Cultural events, such as the annual Architecture and Urban Design Film Festival and the annual children’s art competition called ‘The Earth Matters’, are curated by Akkisetti Ramprasad, along with other art and architecture exhibitions at the India House Art Galleries.