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Book Review: Built in India

The book is evidence of Christopher Benninger’s enormous range as an architect and his exploration of a widening arc of Indian ideas

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
August 6, 2016 8:19:50 am
benniger-book-review-759 Benninger’s engagement with India began with his own inclination to architecture and academia.

India’s recent architecture oscillates between the two extremes of theatre and banality. The despairing strains of urban life are clothed in monsoon-stained plaster, broken incomplete walls that remind you that survival in the city takes the form of neglect and ruin. At the other end are extravagant private strongholds — concealed behind high walls and extensive shrubbery, shaped to please only the owner and the architect. The middle ground of a coherent building landscape is altogether missing. This is where Pune-based architect Christopher Benninger provides relief.

Amongst the multitude of practitioners, Benninger is one of those rare professionals whose work stands apart in the ramshackle state of India’s public architecture. Obviously, any new and vivid expression can only be the hallmark of someone who actually enjoys what he does. In projects that range from factories to institutes to meditation centers, Benninger demonstrates the continual testing of design ideas — new materials, engineering techniques and technologies — and a deeper strain of spatial magnanimity that can only come from work that is formed out of both serious study and contemplation, and the pleasure of construction.

Benninger’s engagement with India began with his own inclination to architecture and academia. In his early years, the drift from Boston to Ahmedabad had none of the petulant recoil of a foreigner’s maladjustment, but merely became a transposition of the Harvard gharana to India — and the willingness to explore a widening arc of Indian ideas: regional styles, vernacular traditions and local off-shoots of modernism. The book is evidence of the architect’s enormous range. So well-crafted and detailed are the buildings that at first glance many of them look like they could well be in Arizona or North Carolina; only on closer examination of the photographs can you make out the distant profiles of a broken-down city.

Brancusi, the renowned sculptor once said, ‘I can only work on one idea at a time.’ The making of things — self-willed and wrought in agonising discovery — was a self-inflicted wound, a form of forced exile that occupied him all the time. The predominant slowness of developing a design also concurs with the intensity of the architectural process. Unease and displacement are essential to the production of ideas. The struggle to enact art begins as a solitary exercise, but paradoxically descends into team participation and manufacture. Sadly, the failure of most work in India is the result of an unsuccessful reconciliation between the two. In his larger works, Benninger conceives and develops ideas in a cohesive collaboration that intimately connects his hand-drawn paper studies to the building site. Such proximity insures the transformation of a sketch into a computer image, and finally into brick and mortar.

The volume is, however, too perfect a picture-book presentation. Architecture is one of the luckier trades that can truthfully express the growth of the architect, as a person and a professional. A reordering of daily life in institutes, stadia, homes and offices is a subliminal comprehension of all the sociological and cultural forces that influence an architect’s way of seeing. What is eventually built is evidence as much of a client’s requirement as a continually changing professional perception.

Benninger’s contribution to the profession — besides the enormous range of structures across India — is the evolution of his thoughts and design processes. The obsessive resolution of the form of buildings, therefore, makes an architectural sketchbook of jottings and visual observations, a worthy companion in the study of an architect’s life. Unlike building, it is a purer distillation of intent, much before the intent is abused and coerced into physical form. In a life so accomplished, and full of the rigour of architectural discovery, the book’s organisation into building types is unfortunate. A less polished enumeration of Benninger’s ideas and a presentation that combined writing, drawing and building may have been a more fruitful and engaging tribute to the man and his work.

 

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer

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