Book: Christopher Benninger: Architecture for Modern India

A monograph on the work of Prof. Christopher Charles Benninger chronicles buildings that express his transition from an architect in India to an Indian Architect outlining and emphasising on the core values of his work and the changing nature of the context that it negotiates with.

A 1972 Photograph shows Christopher Benninger with Balkrishna Doshi on the CEPT Campus, Ahmedabad.
A 1972 Photograph Shows Christopher Benninger with Balkrishna Doshi on the CEPT Campus.

“A designer is a planner with an aesthetic sense” – Bruno Munari

It has been 44 years since Christopher Charles Benninger came to India as a young planner with an intention to establish the prolific school of planning at CEPT. While a majority of that time was spent by Prof. Benninger viewing the issues of India from a planner’s vantage point, this first monograph: ‘Architecture for Modern India’ introduces us to his body of work as an architect and a practitioner.

Book Cover: Christopher Benninger; Architecture for Modern India
Book Cover: Christopher Benninger; Architecture for Modern India

Architect of the Plan

The book is a record of some of the most significant of his projects – from the CDSA Campus to the large industrial structures for Forbes Marshall.

As one dwells deeper into the works – from the photographs to the models and isometric drawings, one is compelled to think of the most operative and defining moment in his work – The Plan.

In the deluge of visual information that we receive today through many mediums and many forms, we seldom realise [and mostly miss] the critical significance of the building plan and the way it shapes and governs the experience of architecture.

The projects in the book are organised in typological clusters. This enables the reader to make comparisons and draw commonalities and distinctions between the many approaches that Christopher Benninger has refined over time. Sometimes, one finds a simple idea that repeats itself in new meanings, materials and forms over many projects: a parallel bay, series of walls, a free curve, hexagon, tangents and enclosed open spaces; while in some cases, one finds a unique gesture that is specific and demanded from the building in its situation.

From the earlier works to the most recent projects, we can notice some familiar gestures and some special moves which make each project quite independent in its language. Through the book, we can notice the clarity with which a plan is shaped and what it responds to.

The book gives us a glimpse into a unique aspect of Christopher Benninger’s work – his ability to frame a distinct strategy for all sites and programmes.

The projects in the book also present a certain command on articulating the open spaces within the buildings – as courtyards, as extended fingers of green, as roof-top gardens, and as light-wells and large public containers. The monograph is an evidence of the significance Christopher Benninger attributes to the merit of the architectural plan as an aggregator of activity .

India House in Pune where Christopher Benninger Lives, Works and Writes.
India House in Pune where Christopher Benninger lives, works and writes.

Planner with a Visual Language

The scheme is central to the architecture of Christopher Benninger. The book contains small diagrams in blue ink [mostly at the beginning of each chapter] that capture the essential idea of the project. To achieve this schema is perhaps the most consistent endeavour of the practice and the book represents how well-organised this effort is. Photographs in the book show how the idea is omnipresent in the experience of the projects at the human scale. Across projects, the design language might vastly defer but there is a rigour and consistency in the scheme.

While a major chunk of the book deals with projects of varying scales, a small section of the book discusses planning.

This section forms a legible DNA – a source of important ideas that have gone into the documented projects. The section on planning is written in a very comprehensible language and the diagrams represent the clarity with which a planner goes about his work – no incomprehensible data, no statistical jargon and no complexity for the sake of complexity. The planning ideas of Prof. Benninger are significant today – years after they have been drafted especially in the climate where arbitrary financial speculations and flawed Mckinsey Reports have begun to dictate urban planning and view cities as vehicles of profit.

Voice from the Global South

While many critics in the west and in Europe have attempted to articulate the works of architects in India in post-independence era, the architecture of Christopher Benninger is very difficult to package in brackets like ‘critical regionalism’. The language in which modern architecture in India is described in the global discourse and the narrative of all ‘isms’ that follow has been of little significance to the works of many architects who established their practice in India in the 1960s and 1970s.

This predicament has been a topic of discussion in all essays that form the prelude of the book. Ramprasad Akkisetti talks about the culture of content in Architecture in India as a contrast to the anxious traditions of the Ivy-League and Euro-centric dialogues. The publisher, Rosa Maria Falvo speaks about the human engagement of Christopher Benninger’s work and its significance in the global context. Fumihiko Maki speaks about the roots and conceptual foundations of Christopher Benninger’s work while Suha Özkan outlines the importance of Prof. Benninger’s work in the context of recognition of the architecture from the Indian Subcontinent and the core concerns that it emerges from.

Book Spreads are composed of Drawings, Photos and Model Images with text that outlines the Design Process.
Book Spreads are composed of Drawings, Photos and Model Images with text that outlines the Design Process.

An excerpt from Suha Özkan’s essay from the book:

“Christopher Benninger belongs to the group of architects who search for cultural identity without compromising the modernist ethics, social commitments, and positive values of Modernism. From this point of view, his work may be associated with that of Rafael Moneo in Spain, within the milieu of the Indian subcontinent. Like his mentors Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi, and Achyut Kanvinde, working a generation before him, and very few of his contemporaries, such as Romi Khosla, Christopher executes his designs in terms of meaningful spaces, as opposed to drawing kitsch from folklore. Obviously, this attitude demands the power of abstract interpretations of space, and in doing so his architecture engages a wide spectrum of solutions. Indeed, his approach in India House celebrates the Indian courtyard, open to the sky, with a light covering as found in Chettinad houses in Tamil Nadu, Southern India. The multiple functions, typical of South Asian habitats, bring people together in the salubrious environment of an enclosed courtyard. India House encapsulates Benninger’s ideas for a regional identity. It is a relatively small building complex compared to his large campus projects, however it deserves to be considered his opus magnum, given its spatial configurations, passive climatic solutions, and the warm colours of abundant native building materials. The founder and curator of the India House Art Gallery, Ramprasad Akkisetti, sees the project as “synonymous with the creative energy of the metropolis of Pune; a city of great cultural heritage.”

It is important to note that many projects of quality that are documented in the book [especially the earlier works] are buildings built at a very low budget and for a unique demographic: the community.

Christopher Benninger writes in the introduction: “We had more important issues and concerns in our minds. We were not interested in debates about style. We were concerned with debates about the human condition!”.

This is one of the most significant statements in the book and perhaps the one which defines his origins in India as a planner and an architect working on concerns of site, budget, aspirations of users while negotiating with his ‘modern’ beginnings in the States.

Drawing of the House for Christopher Benninger's Parents: Benninger's Essay in the book talks about his time in India, his encounters with people and contains intriguing archival material and anecdotes
Drawing of the House for Christopher Benninger’s Parents: Benninger’s Essay in the Book Contains Archival Material and Anecdotes.

Order, Geometry and Structure

What then is the merit of the architecture of Christopher Benninger? One of the most significant contributions of the work is the sense of rigour in detail – from articulation of materials to patterns in flooring and motifs on the walls; from water spouts and gargoyles to parallel bays and wall sections.

In some of these works, one finds a unique spatial order and a structural discipline that is much desired in a lot of contemporary work we encounter today. It is also important to study how buildings respond to the site: we find a wonderful relationship the buildings have with their location, geometry and lay of the land, and the immediate surroundings. In these site plans, the reasons for many architectural gestures are made clear.

The echo of Prof. Benninger’s engagement with the global modern movement is clearly heard but is not apparent or obvious. It is this lack of the obvious relationship between this architecture and values of modernism, one finds most intriguing. While the structure forms the rule-book and the governing code, the enclosures and the experience of architecture in materials, open spaces, scales and light makes some space wonderful human environments.

The drawings in the book are the elements of delight – plans, exploded isometrics, wall sections and sketches complement the photos in clear and comprehensive explanation of projects.

The matter-of-fact descriptions of each project make the purpose of building clear and articulate the reasons behind many of Christopher Benninger’s decisions in design. And it is in this clear, determined and convincing relationship between drawing of architecture, the intention and its experience, the value of his work lies.

Christopher Charles Benninger Architects have had an incredible opportunity to work on a diverse portfolio – from institutional housing to campuses, from factory buildings to national complexes. While this work is diverse in its expression, a cohesive manifesto and a culture of rigorous production of work binds this portfolio in the monograph.

The Monograph

Monographs have become an important cultural product of many studios that have a significant body of work. In recent times, we have seen many chronicles of work from architects in India and the South Asia. These books not only form a great archive and study in the concerns and struggles of practice when they are published but collectively form a counter-narrative that distinguishes architecture of the Global South from the work of American and European endeavours. Monographs also help architects and design practitioners reflect on their practice and their position. This 380-page book published by SKIRA chronicles some of Christopher Benninger’s most important works. In the process of doing that, it also forms an important record of ideas and issues that his practice deals with and which are of larger interest and academic significance.

This book is also a biographical record – an important reading on the origins of the author of these works and a glimpse into the moments in history that shaped this work.♦

Christopher Benninger

Christopher Benninger is one of India’s most respected architects. His firm, Christopher Charles Benninger Architects has produced some of the most admired edifices in India. Benninger’s city and regional planning works range from Sri Lanka, across India to Bhutan. His narrative presents a language that lies between modernist ideals and sacred notions enshrined within Indian courtyards, generating a unique approach to architecture and place. His first book, Letters To A Young Architect, focuses on the practice of architecture in developing societies and has been widely read amongst students and professionals in the Indian subcontinent. Christopher Benninger lives and works in Pune from the India House.

Title: Christopher Benninger; Architecture for Modern India
Author: Christopher Benninger with contributions by Ramprasad Akkisetti, Rosa Maria Falvo, Fumihiko Maki, Suha Özkan and Liane Lefaivre
Publisher: SKIRA
Language: English
ISBN: 978-88-572-2687-3
Year of Publication: 2015
Reviewed by: Ruturaj Parikh
Photographs: From the book; Courtesy CCBA

Spreads: From the book; © The Publishers

To Order

India House Art Gallery Pvt. Ltd.
India House, 53 Sopan Bagh, Balewadi,
Pune – 411045, Maharashtra.
Ph: 020-6410 8885 / 86

Amazon: Architecture for Modern India

Motif on one of the walls.
Motif on one of the walls.

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