Christopher Charles Benninger, an American-Indian architect and planner in India who is also widely respected and decorated architect in the country. Mahindra United College of India, the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies, the National ceremonial Plaza at Thimphu in Bhutan are some of the projects that have won National awards showcasing solutions to complex issues with sustainability and technology, materials, context and climate. Christopher graduated in urban planning and architecture at MIT and Harvard respectively, where he later taught in the school until 1971 when he came to India on B.V Doshi’s request to the School of Planning at Ahmedabad as Ford Foundation Advisor and Professor. Benninger, a recipient of the Great Master Architect Award, India along with Geoffrey Bawa, Charles Correa and Balkrishna Doshi.
Letters to a young architect; a book that addresses the imperative nature of architecture in the new society along with Benninger’s concern with urbanism, city planning and architectural education in India by extensively documenting these concepts, ideas and dialogues in 32 letters. These notes open doors to intimate details and incidences that the author experienced and shared about the revelations of design, conversation with architects like Anant Raje, B.V Doshi and Louis-i-Kahn. Furthermore, the book emphasizes on how teachers throughout Christopher’s life have influenced and shaped his journey to being the most adored architect today.
The letters classify their contents in six different topics based on the time and space the events took place – beginnings, conception to realization, the importance of being modern, in search of the city, remembrance and meanings. The print begins opening a window into memories from his childhood where it highlights his discovery of the natural house book by Frank Lloyd Wright which captivated his curiosity to learn and understand the design, working of buildings and develop the optimum use of materials. The legacy of an architect according to Christopher is the love and passion towards those teachers and architect’s before you as a celebration and respect of the core values, ideas, concepts and attitudes carried out by them. The author discloses five lessons that life had taught him with brief incidences; First, to gain something beautiful, one may have to give up something beautiful. Second, it is better to BE what you are than to SEEM what you are not. Third, don’t be euphoric when people praise you or depressed when people criticize you. Fourth, truth is the ultimate search for all artists, Even then I feel it is better to search for the good than to know the truth and finally, there is only one form of good luck, which is having good teachers.
Christopher throughout his letters focuses on the principles that guide design – context, scale, proportion, simplicity, nature, function and motifs/ decorations along with discussing about regionalism, how each region enshrines an architectural language and spatial character of the locality; discussing on the arrangements, approach, strategies, style of working, people and politics that influence the architectural built environment. He said, “Language of build is full of symbols which allows us to create fabrics of build-in great variety.” The author introduces the questions about architecture in education realm and if in reality, it focuses on the built, construction and technology, social action, functional needs, economic analysis and poetry in creating spaces for people to live in, interact and experience implying that architects are guardians of an intellectual tradition exploring principles of scale, proportion, materials, structural systems, choice of ornamentation as an essential art as modern architecture lies between ‘seeming and being’; where the new designs by architects based on volumetric boxes and decorative skins in the form of cladding as a branding for every client’s home.
Christopher Benninger shares his observations in the current scenarios of India’s urban fabric that need certain aspects for urbanism to thrive keeping a balance between the built environment and nature while integrating traditions that respect regional influences and materials. However, keeping in mind a model that promotes community base and low energy consumption parameters into design as a reflection on sustainable efforts for the future. The author at the end emphasises the importance given to curiosity and how that takes one to investigate and look deeper into things and not stick to façade architecture. He also adds, “…most of all I love the inherent curiosity in Indians. They never leave you alone until they have queried every aspect of your private and family life.”
The writing in the entire collection carries out each word as though it were poetry, delicately placed yet powerful in its structure to send across messages about the commonality to the human condition and the environment that dictates certain outcomes. A much-recommended book for all students and young architects to echo on the underlying messages for it covers vast details in relatable niches; these letters are redefining the young minds to choose goals beyond material demands and look at the broader picture for the future as it symbolises Benninger’s crusade for innovation and quality of design today.
“We must understand that our talents and our wealth are only loaned to us, in trusteeship, to use toward the greater good.” – Christopher Benninger.