Christopher Charles Benninger

Interviews with Thought Leaders Dated:  May 6, 2014
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Architect: Christopher Charles Benninger

Christopher Benninger is a highly celebrated American Indian architect whose works have taken into account complex design and sustainability issues and simultaneously have added many awards to his kitty.

Meeting the famous architect in person was an honor I will cherish forever. Situated on a mountainous terrain, his office, the Indian House portrayed a very eclectic picture. I stepped inside a huge entrance Dwar and was enthralled by artistic murals everywhere. 

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview. 

Please tell us something about your journey till now.

I arrived in India in 1968 on account of the Fulbright fellowship as a student and then I went to Ahmedabad to study the problems of the slum dwellers - the people who lived in slums. While I was studying there, I met a social worker with whom I designed a low cost housing while working with the Hyderabad Urban Development Authority. It was their first Low Income Housing Township at Yousufguda that shelters more than two thousand low-income households. Since that was an academic project, I went back to teach at Harvard after that. Soon, I was invited to the School of Urban Planning, Ahmedabad at CEPT University in 1971. When I came back after nine months, there was a new minister of urban development. And it became the first Government initiated low cost housing to be provided in India. for low cost housing. 

After that, while I was still here at the School of planning, I built a huge tent which can be bought on a very low EMI. People who used to live in huts could shift there as it had communal toilets and other basic amenities for them to sustain. This was actually cheaper than their real houses. So I had a lot of experience in building projects for very low income group

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and that too in a lesser budget. I also did thousands of such houses for Hyderabad Urban Development in 1976. So when I came to India, I got involved in so many projects which were all built for a cause and were new starts. Everything at that time was very exciting with new projects and approaches to develop urban buildings and landscapes.

My architectural career is more like a hobby. In 1976, I started my institution at Pune which goes by the name - Centre for Development Studies and Activities. The time since I have come here, I have been involved in various public issues and social issues. I had a mini office then, of merely four to five people. I remained here and worked on projects that addressed various design and sustainability issues.

Where did you and your work get your inspirations from?

During my childhood, I loved reading Frank Wright’s books like An American Architecture, The Story of a Tower and so on. I would read anything written by Wright. These books in a way inspired me and expanded my sea of wisdom and thus I was introduced to architecture. 

Later I learnt true meaning of life and friends from

travel. I had traveled to various places. But the epic one was my overland journey from London to Mumbai where I met several people along the way and was introduced to diverse cultures. 

In Ahmedabad, it was Balkrishna Doshi who inspired me and called me back after my fellowship to start the school of planning at CEPT in late 1971. He was the one who motivated me to stay here in India. During my project in Calcutta, I was being called Krishna Banerjee by the localities because of their difficulty in pronouncing my name. At that time, Mrs. Gandhi was very active and hence many small and large institutions were initiated and HUDCO was set up as a financial institution to fund those projects. Lot of such funding was done for these urban development authorities for restructuring the urban space.

The projects I did for lower income group in Hyderabad drew lessons from the housing townships for the Gujarat Housing Boards and Services Scheme of Chennai and thus with these funds I started my own institute - Centre for Development Studies and Activities in Pune and I shifted there. I was a professor there for twenty years and was busy doing research work. 

What defines your style?

I like doing institutions like I did for the Kirloskar Institute of Management Studies and the IIM Calcutta, the IIT Hyderabad, the Samundra Institute of Maritime studies. 

Is there any special project you are emotionally attached to?

There are several because every project is mine but yes when it comes to the one I am most attached to, it could be the Mahindra United World College because it was a kind of breakthrough. 

Could you tell us whats special about the Mahindra United World college project?

We built it with a very unique style and broke away from the rectilinear walls. There are very few right angles. And the landscape was very beautiful and was on a mountainous terrain so everything was very angular - the room, the walls, and the entrance. It also won the American Institute of Architects Award and many Indian awards. Recently we finished Suzlon One Earth. It is one of the most sustainable large buildings in India. 

What has been your most defining moment?

I think it’s right now because currently I am building Azim Premji’s University in Bangalore and it is a very large campus with large number of students. The student’s hall will be about 50 storeys tall and also the faculty housing will be huge. All the classrooms will be on the ground floor with the walkable campus and no vehicle parking. I think it is one of the largest gifts to India from a great philanthropist who has donated thousands of crores to build that university. This is an important project because it will be helping students to pursue their studies further. But every project is a moment of excitement. 

What’s your take on green architecture?

For me, Green Architecture is all about producing buildings without poisonous materials and about using sustainable materials. It’s all about using resources from the same area that means recycling water available outside and using waste outside the area. And not to forget, using zero carbon print as far as possible while constructing a building. For instance, when we built Suzlon One Earth, we produced 10 percent of the energy from the wind mills we have set up there and 30 percent from the sun insulation.

What drives you through this process?
Artistic design drives me throughout.  

What’s your message to the younger generation?

In my generation there were many limited resources be it financial or intellectual. Today, people are ready to train people with new ideas. Now things happen at a lot faster pace and for youngsters should grab this opportunity and work on it. 


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