Pune based iconic architect Christopher Charles Benninger, Founder, 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.
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’.
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 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’!
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.