Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Evidences" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

As a child I spent my days drifting in confusion. Nothing particularly inspired me, nor did my studies, or my teachers, enthuse me to seek knowledge. My parents were of the opinion that by putting me in a school I would be educated! They made half-hearted attempts to introduce me to the Christian church, believing that religion and spiritualism were one and the same. School, church, gymnasia, auditoria, the playing fields and most of what transpired within them seemed a dull cloud hovering over me with no respite.

What did move me were the autumn trees in yellows, reds and oranges, and their winter nude, black fingers reaching for the sky, with the fresh white snows of winter covering the fields. Then the black fingers frosted with white powder snow, with the warm sun momentarily melting them to water, turning the stick trees to huge, gleaming, crystal candelabras of ice-glass glittering in the sun. The setting on of spring, with the last snows of early April; the first flowers spurting through the soft white carpets, turning to the green carpets of nature claiming the earth as its own. The grey, angry skies of winter, breaking loose to the pink and violet morning heavens of spring….these were the things which grabbed at me and drew my attention! Dulled by my school hours, I was awed by small discoveries on my walks to and from my school. My personal life was composed of all things natural and my friends were the chipmunks, squirrels in the trees and the rabbits in the forests. My grades were poor and my parents sent me for counseling!

Post-war America in the early 1950’s; the social and economic milieu of a nation starved by decades of depression and war; the institutional ambiance left over from decades of neglect; all reflected themselves in the soulless, cold institutional architecture where I studied, lived and played. The regimented lessons, competitive sports, the organized Boy Scouts, and the moralistic church all imparted biases, prejudices and a judgmental bent of mind! These institutions of opportunity, were actually the machines of conformity, all designed to churn out little copies of one another, entrapping the new citizens in molds of pretended individualism. We all wore Levis, “T-shirts,” tennis shoes and white socks. Even our underwear was a choice between Fruit of the Loom for slacks, or a Bike jock under jeans! When pink shirts, little pink suede belts, black pants and pink suede shoes were “in,” we all felt very different, all wearing the same uniforms! And even Elvis Presley crooned, “Don’t step on my pink suede shoes!” How different we all thought we were, wearing the same uniforms and listening to the same music.

As a youth, I once boarded the “Tube” in London to Wimbledon, immediately focusing on three very individualistic looking skin heads, with black unkempt jeans, black “T-shirts” and black leather jackets. Just over from the States they looked weird and unusual! With their shaven heads and casual, sloppy black attire, these boys seemed very idiosyncratic and individualistic! At the next stop five more boys dressed in exactly the same attire boarded the Tube, then at the next stop ten more, and finally the entire train was packed by these uniformed clones, all packaged and decorated to be individuals. At Wimbledon thousands of these robots were vomited out onto the platform, courtesy the London Metropolitan Transport Authority! In my childhood one needed a uniform, even to be an individual! Later my teacher John Kenneth Galbraith described our society as the “military-industrial complex,” and explained how a vast “free enterprise” was controlled and directed toward the construction of a powerful nation state vectored to rule the world. My boyhood friends were becoming narrow minded, ethnocentric and sour hearted souls, molded to work in factories, in banks, in schools, in hospitals and ready to die for mother, country and apple pie in foreign lands!

Thus, my childhood was composed of two very different parts, each giving meaning and distinctness to the other. Like the Yin and the Yang, a white and a black force intertwined within me, chasing after one another. The black made the white more pure and beautiful, and the white made the black more foreboding and ominous! I suppose, even today there seems to be a contradiction in me. On the one side there is my love of beauty and pleasure, my search for volume, space and form all defined in light. On the other side there is my concern with poverty, inequality and environmental deterioration. I am often asked how one balances, or even justifies, these two apparently variant natures?


One Christmas morning, the myth of Santa Claus, and the ritual of giving gifts was to begin, with the usual tree all decorated in tensile, blinking colored lights and glass bulbs uncrated a few days earlier, to be repacked a few days later for the years to come. My eyes were quickly drawn to a gift I had not foraged in my parent’s usual pre-Christmas hiding places. I knew the others from looking under their bed, in the attic or in the high shelf over my father’s cupboard, where he hid his condoms and porn magazines. Strange, I thought, that I’d somehow missed this in my stealthful investigations of the previous week! It was in green paper with a bright red ribbon, flat and rectangular. So I reached for it first, as our small family of parents and one sister took turns about the tree with gasps of surprises, opening boxes we’d surreptitiously uncovered just a few days before. I suppose the real fun of Christmas was the cheating, the sneaking into others’ private hiding places, finding out what we’d get and the charade of surprise! But I’d missed this one! Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, who’d clearly flown in the night before on his sled, pulled by reindeer, slid down our chimney and snuck into our living room to leave this special gift for me.

Like millions of Americans on that fateful morning, I reached out for the most intriguing of gifts with my name on it, not realizing that it would change my life forever. It was a book from my favorite aunt, Roxanne Eberlein. She was my favorite because of all my three aunts she traveled the most; she was the most thoughtful, and she was having an affair with Adlai Stevenson, who insisted on running for President of the United States twice and loosing. The guise of their relationship was her being his confident, executive secretary and advisor. As a child, this was particularly embarrassing on the day after the elections! It happened twice in about four years! He redeemed his position in my childish mind when President Kennedy made him the United States Ambassador to the United Nations! This came along with the Ambassador’s residence on the top of the Waldorf-Astoria Towers, about forty-two floors over Park Avenue, which he used perhaps twenty days in a year, leaving it to the nieces and nephews of his lover, and even to his own children from a past marriage. Besides my sister and I, who were regular freeloaders at the Waldorf, were Sir Robert Jackson, who was re-organizing the United Nations, and his wife, the economist-Chairperson of the BBC, and the once-upon-a time editor of the Economist, Barbara Ward. Natalie Owings, daughter of the famous architect Nathaniel Owings, along with Stevenson’s son, John Fell, also dropped by. I slept under huge water lilies rendered by Claude Monet in oils from his garden at Giverny, loaned to the Embassy by the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

Back to the book! It was written by the architect called Frank Lloyd Wright, and though in black and white (this was in the mid-1950s) every picture and every drawing grasped my imagination. As I read the first words, sentences, paragraphs and pages, I became catalyzed and moved! As I read through The Natural House I discovered who I was and what I wanted to be. At least I gained the first insight to what my life’s search would be all about. Reading the pages, I felt like a reincarnated avatar discovering who he had been in previous lives, and what he’d be in this one! It was not just that I liked the designs and the drawings and the photographs, and that I found meaning in the words. It was a testament that unfolded a truth to me that actually already dwelled deep within me! Something that had always been there inside of me, concealed from me, was now unfolded. I suppose this is what is called INSPIRATION?

From the moment I opened The Natural House, I did not put it down until I completed the last page. In a sense I have never put it down and I am still reading it, discovering and searching for what inspired me on that Christmas Day. When I closed the book and walked out of my house, I was living in a different world. It was after midnight and the black sky was clear with thousands of stars gleaming in the heavens. Everything I saw looked different. It was not only nature which was singing a song in my heart, but my soul had switched on and my mind had begun to think! I saw things which I had never noticed before. Finely carved balustrades caught my fancy! Sculpted stone gargoyles made me smile. I noticed that one wood was different from another in its color, grains, nature and use. I was drawn to feel wood and to slide my fingers across it, appreciating its inner soul. I noted that a wood floor was warm in the winter and cozy to look at, while a marble floor was cool in the summer and soothing to sit upon. Stained glass windows, fine brass handles, well thought out paving patterns were my friends. I spoke to them, and I argued with sloppy workmanship and clumsy details.

Wright taught me that the human mind is a huge analogue for all things beautiful and all things ugly. He taught me that a human being is both a monster and a saint all rolled up into one; capable of creating incredible beauty, or of inflicting deplorable destruction. It is the human mind which separates humans form other animals, which makes us the monsters of terror and the creators of poetry, art and architecture. We alone can know the exhilaration of transcendence!

After The Natural House, the Yin and the Yang in me merged into one presence. Instead of playing each other out and exhausting me in confusion, the black force empowered the white beauty! I was now driven in whatever I did. And, good luck played an important role in my life too!

I gave up on education and embarked on a search! Something magical had grasped me. I stopped attending church and I forsook religion, finding spiritual moments in fits of creative discovery. I quit the Boy Scouts and began scouting for the real boy I was. I began a search for myself, which continues.

There is a story in Hindu mythology that when Yasoda opened Krishna’s mouth and looked into it she gasped with amazement, seeing the entire universe! She also saw a glimpse of herself! In Wright’s words and works I saw a glimpse of my own creative possibilities and I was galvanized to go forth and seek! I saw that there was a chance that I too may one day search and discover something of my own, which is but a small slice of the universe.


What Wright taught me was very simple: seek out the truth, find the generic order in things! See beauty in the TRUTH! What he meant by The Natural House was the natural self and the natural life! Buildings are merely mirrors of the people who live in them. They reflect how people behave, how people think, what their aspirations are and how they deal with materiality! They illustrate how evolved people are in their spiritual realizations; whether they live for material things, or they manipulate material things to reach transcendence? They place people and societies somewhere along a scale between beasts grabbing at survival to saints blessed with transcendental awareness. They distinguish people who only “take,” from patrons who nurture and “give.” Buildings indicate the extent to which people are in touch with the environment they live in; part of the context of the places within which they build, and harmonious with the social traditions and modalities which bring bliss and peace. Teachers like Liane Lefaivre and Alex Tzonis reinforced my credo, through their work on what they call Critical Regionalism, in which new functions and technologies are integrated with places, climates and cultures.

I believe there is something called GENERIC ARCHITECTURE: that is architecture of carefully composed fabrics, of structures, of systems, of materials that all participate in a common order of nature, tradition, appropriate technology and social harmony. There is some rational stream of thought, some common process of analysis, some general considerations and modalities of study, which are always the precursors of beauty! In this there are eternal principles, truths and modalities, bringing all architecture into one immense realm of knowledge. In this sense we all belong to one huge “gharana” of architecture whose past masters are Michelangelo, Leonardo de Vinci, the Emperor Akbar and Thomas Jefferson!

Today we live in a world dominated by contrivers, posing as architects, who are just screaming and shouting for personal attention. Our “architectural world” is like a crèche full of anal retentive babies all whining and screaming to be noticed by anyone who will look at them. I would say these charlatans are less famous, and more notorious. Like the Bandit Queen, they are well known for their outrageous acts, rather than understood and appreciated for their contributions in a common search. As urban planners they carve out their own city blocks and surround them with walls, turning once friendly public domains into private spaces one pays to get in to. Inside of these secured, commercial turfs stuntmen are employed to amaze us with things bizarre! We live in an age when “being different” is mistaken for “being creative.” Ours is a time when “doing something new is mistaken for creating beauty! Being different often means being a conformist of a specific nature. The skin heads of my youth were seeking non-conformity through uniforms, so that they would be accepted into a larger group! Instead of seeking to be different, we should seek to be ourselves and to be happy with ourselves, whoever we are. Only when we are happy with ourselves, can we make other people happy with the honest products of our honest toil.

In October 2001 I was invited to make a presentation at the European Biennale at Graz. I noticed something very interesting! To be a “creative artist” in Europe, you need not create anything, but you must wear the black uniform of the artist! You must dress totally in black. You must wear black shoes, black socks, black pants, black belts, black shirts with black buttons and black ties. When the cold rains blow in you must wear a black jacket and a black hat. I found that the super creative Europeans (as opposed to the merely creative ones) wear black capes! For these people creativity is not a form of liberation, or the finding of the truth. It is the creation of a lie in the form of a self imposed trap, and a make-believe world. There are people in America and in Europe who never design anything, never search, never question, but who dress in the costume of creators. They worry over finding just the right black g-strings and bikinis! They are seeming and not being! If I were to speak out any advice to a young student, I would say, BE NOT SEEM! Carrying this paradigm further, there is an entire industry in the West creating images and promoting the “uniforms of creativity,” at the cost of the truth. This is called the media, the fashion industry, public relations and notoriety! The taste makers are telling thoughtless people what is “beautiful” and what “art” is. The taste makers are telling people to drop the names of fakers who can not even paint! There are people who pay to be photographed drunk at parties, standing about with illiterate chatterati, thinking of nothing, making no contributions to this world. This projects an image to the youth of our times, that these notorious personalities have achieved something.

It would be better to live as ones own self in oblivion, than to be notorious for living in a trap! And this is exactly what the modern world is becoming: a trap! Brilliant professionals and artists are leaving their friends and native places finding wealth and huge spaces, but emptiness. They work in cold offices to be granted two weeks of vacation in a year when they can “be themselves.” They wear “correct uniforms” and speak politically correct statements, dropping the right names and muttering endless clichés! From dreaming of creating beauty, they end up worrying how they will pay their house loan installments and their credit card bills! They think by wearing black, that they can live the make-believe life of a creator, when in fact they are slaves of conformity. I hope that all young artists, poets and architects who read this will avoid all of the uniforms and traps. Be yourselves and never seem to be what you are not.


So my life as an architect, which began in my early teens, has been a life of searching for truth. At first, when Wright visited me, I felt I had been visited by the Archangel and that I was the only anointed one! How wrong I was. Revisiting Wright some years later I realized that most of what one learns is learned from others. One cannot know everything and need not know anything! But one must search! One can learn from a leaf by studying its shape, its veins and its tapestry. One can learn from the spiral of a sea shell. One can watch birds in flight as they glide in the sky, or just study cloud patterns meandering about, for subtle structure and illusive orders in our minds. One will learn through search and not through mugging up knowledge!

I have known Buddhists who frown on kicking stones, because they know that even stones have souls. There is structure and beauty in everything on this earth. In each part of the universe is the entire universe! Pick up any stone and study it and you will discover the truth of its texture, shape and strength. Perhaps a good teacher just teaches us to look down our own mouths and to see the universe. A good teacher never teaches facts or knowledge; they open windows on how to search, or maybe even just to search. Maybe the “how” and the “what” should be left to each student? Teachers, I realize, do not tell us of techniques, or put facts in our heads. What they do is inspire us to search for the nature of things, the truth in matters, which is where beauty dwells. They often do this by revealing a glimpse of beauty through humor, through a bit of unexpected love, or maybe in some quick sketch revealing the rudimentary simplicity of some highly complex system. “Genius,” Einstein said, “is making the complex simple; not making the simple complex!”

My true gurus have always been able to cast such unexpected light on the world. I remember the great architect Anant Raje taking me to meet his mentor one Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia. Luis Kahn had privileged us several hours alone with him in his studio. A bit of good luck! At one point he crumpled up a sheet of A4 paper and handed me a pencil and asked me to quickly sketch it! As a young professor of architecture at Harvard, I was keen to impress Kahn, so I immediately began creating a brain like image, trying to get in all of the impossible complexity. Pretty good I thought, not knowing I had entered the Master’s labyrinth! He threw a fatherly laugh at me, grabbing my pencil and making four quick line strokes into a rectangle of the A4 proportions! He had showed me a nature of myself to overlook obvious simplicity, in search of wrong, complex truths!

Creative attempts, exploratory acts and processes of discovery are modes that search for self! I have heard Kahn talking to bricks in Ahmedabad and philosophizing at the Fogg Gallery about the sky being the ceiling of his grand courtyard in the Salk Institute. But this one “teacher’s trick” was a personal gift to me, that I shall never forget. Inspirations are always in the form of gifts of one kind or the other. Gifts of inspiration are perhaps in the form of an image such as a quick sketch, or a gesture (like a smile, just when we need encouragement), but it is always in a sign of what we can be, what we can envision and what we can become. My own attempts at architecture are but small analogues of something I yearn to discover, to draw into myself, and to make a part of me. These are my feeble attempts at becoming something, which is already there within me, yet undiscovered.

In the early 1970’s I founded the School of Planning at the Centre for Environmental Planning in Ahmedabad, India. There my friend and mentor, Balkrishna Doshi, had just returned from a visit to Venkateshwara Temple at Tirupati. I was eager to hear of his experiences and what had transpired within him on his pilgrimage there. He whipped out a thick, old fashioned ink pen and drew three instant lines, which captured the entire essence of the mountain top temple in a second. Again, amazed at seeing the entire universe revealed to me at one instance, I saw in Doshi the true genius that he is. But I also saw something that was within me that I did not know. I could read his abstraction, because the nature of the temple, the generic character of its simplicity, and therefore the beauty, was already a part of the catalogue of my mind. Doshi had merely revealed this existing truth to me. In fact when I went to Tirupati years later I was a bit disappointed. The clarity which Doshi had revealed to me lay hidden in the complexity of the masses of pilgrims and the chaos of the management of the place. Temporary shamiyanas hid much of the temple’s form. I understood that the “truth of Venkateshwara Temple” was not something one just looked at and saw. It took a deeper understanding of the elemental structure of the complex composition and the ability to see through the chaos and the managerial machinations to get at the root of what was there. Once more the lesson of simplicity, of the elemental, of the generic!

Again, I would repeat that my own architecture is but an analogue of something I yearn to know, a utopia I desire to create; a glimpse of paradise in its pristine reality; maybe some bit of heaven; or a small glimpse of the universe I’d see if I could gaze into Krishna’s mouth, revealing my own vast truth, proving the larger conceptualization possible! Whatever the search, we must keep in our minds that what we are searching for is already there; something deep inside of us, undiscovered waiting to be found. We also have to realize that all humans participate in that discovery and we are often shocked to see something and feel, “Hey, I’ve been hitting at exactly the same idea!” T. S. Elliot seemed to understand that we are all part of the same endless search for truth, when he wrote in The Sacred Wood, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” In that sense there is just one large studio and we are all the draftsmen of its inspiration! We work with the same vision and the same passion for truth and beauty.

Thus, searching often deals with the study of precedents, with study tours to classical monuments and seeking truth in prototypes. As a young architect I thought each design was a unique creation! Great designers just reached into the sky and pulled ingenious confabulations down from the heavens. I was thus disappointed one day when my teacher Jose Luis Sert gave me the unusual privileged of visiting the “model room” where he explored new concepts through Styrofoam models at different scales. Too busy himself to explain things to me he asked Joseph Zelewski, his Senior Associate, to do the honors. As my past teacher at Harvard, and though thirty years older to me, Joseph was my best friend at the time and was very keen to hear what a younger designer thought of the new town Sert was creating on an island, just off the coast of Marseille in France.

The opportunity to create a new town, on a craggy mountain island grabbed my imagination. I could see all kinds of new forms jutting out of the huge rocks over the sea! But to my disappointment Sert chose to make this work into a kind of summation of all of his past principles and prototypes! It was to me a terribly rational, collection of years of work. Each part could be seen in Sert’s publications and he had seemingly just assembled all of these parts in to a large, no doubt beautiful, landscape! Joseph could sense the disappointment on my face, and as he suggested we go to lunch he asked for my thoughts. Headed down the long, double running flight of stairs to Church Street, a sudden flash of light ran up the dark chasm, and the short, round figure of Sert made a black image in the light ascending the stairs. At a kind of moment of truth, a few steps below us Sert asked, “So what did he think of it?” Being truthful and putting me in an awkward position, Joseph said, (just as Sert passing me, looking me straight in the eye) “He says that there’s nothing new!” My fears that this would anger the master to call me to his office immediately evaporated as he burst out laughing! A few steps further up he turned back and said, “You know Christopher, this is not California!” He was mocking a place famous for having to be different; for everyday craving to be new; and in a frenzy to be unique. Now even Joseph smiled realizing that all was right in the heavens, and that this young upstart had been put in his place!

The search and struggle for discovery are a difficult set of processes. But one can struggle, and should not sit waiting for miracles to fall from the heavens. As Le Corbusier said, “Creation is a patient search.” Le Corbusier used to tell his protégés to start thinking over a design problem, then to put it away in the head, and like a computer in hibernation the head keeps secretly working on the design! My teacher Jerzy Soltan, who wrote Le Modular with Le Corbusier, has always been a firm believer in this. He always encouraged me to take up two or three designs at one time, and to move my conscious mind between them. But a little inspiration always helps!

Many young designers doubt if that magic called “inspiration” actually exists. If I mention music and ask them the name of their favorite song and then why they like it, they know they have been inspired! Some people get inspired hearing a romantic song that touches their heart and they yearn to sing and they do sing! Noise becomes music. Some people get inspired reading poetry and they yearn to write sonnets and they do create lyrics! Scattered sounds, miscellaneous words, a melody and some tones become magical moods!


A wise sage I once met in his cave-retreat somewhere on the rocky slopes of Mount Abu preferred to read my fate from my palm! As a young student of the empirical school of thought, I withdrew from his inane suggestion, thinking what my teachers at Harvard and MIT would think of a protégé who curried the favors of sages for their fate? But he charmed me with his flashing eyes and warm smile, and questioned my logical abilities to reject his findings, should I find them so whimsical? I suppose his charisma, directed at me through his piercing eyes, and the lyrical landscape of the forested mountain slopes, perched high over the desert of Rajasthan, swayed me like some magical potion.

He told me that I was a person of little wealth, but of great fortune! He declared that luck was my life’s companion.

Tempted further, I coaxed him, “But what do you mean by good luck?”

With an incredulous sneer on his face, he informed me that there is only one kind of good luck in life and that such good luck is to have good teachers!

I felt a chill spread over my skin, as if a sudden wave of cold air blasted the desert air, leaving goose pimples momentarily all about me. He had unraveled a truth within me that he could never have made out from my appearance or from his imagination! I knew he was correct and that I would be a fool to reject what wealth may come my way! From that day on, what had been a youth’s good fortune became a life’s endless search! To meet wise people became a passion.

I believe that passion, and my fated trajectory of good luck, have navigated my life’s story from a childhood Christmas gift to friendships, chance meetings, teacher-student relationships, professional associations, chancing an encounter with my life partner, and to work with some of the most inspiring people of our times. Most of the great teachers I have had are anonymous, little known and often my own students and studio associates.I must admit that I have been fortunate to have had many, many inspiring mentors.

As a teenager four young teachers touched me and motivated me. One, Norman Jensen, a little known but great painter, would laugh at my aerial view sketches and ask me, “Why don’t you draw what you see?” Harry Merritt was a classic modernist, building unpublished masterpieces in North Florida. Though shy for publicity, he carried the stature of a Master. He made us proud to be young architects. He was an “architect’s architect” who made us follow strict rules. He preached a truth in every decision, shooting rational questions at our every line. “If a closet projects out of the wall on this elevation and it’s doing the same thing on another, than the expression has to be the same!” He called this “honesty of expression.” Robert Tucker was a teacher to the core. Thoughtful, humorous, probing and penetrating, he knew how to take us down into the depths of our weaknesses, only to pick us up to euphoria of some small strength the next day. He knew the craft of creation; he saw within each student their own little nugget of gold; and taught us all how to become small jewelers, crafting within the limitations of what we had, instead of wishing to be something we were not! Blair Reeves was a father image who nurtured young architects, having them by the dozens to his beautiful modern wood and glass house for food and slide shows of the masters’ works. His own house was a living example which he need not talk of…it was there! He taught the introductory course to architecture hopefuls, wherein about two hundred aspirants were registered for his lectures. In the first lecture he would ask everyone to stand up. Then he’d ask the front half of the students to sit down, stating “this is how many of you who will be left at the end of this course!” Then he’d ask half of the hundred left to sit down, saying, “This is how many of you who will be here at the end of this first year!” Finally, he’d have twenty of us standing and say this is perhaps how many of you who will graduate as architects; of whom half of you may ever build a structure you design!” But Reeves was not the terrorist this story makes him out to be. He was a thoughtful nurse to the survivors! As the semester wore on, and the number of empty seats grew, he introduced to us the huge canvas of modern art, architecture, design and the people who created the modern movement. His true love though was the preservation of historic buildings and he introduced us modernist fundamentalists to the fact that we have a history, that we live in a history, and that we are a part of the continuum of history.

Many of my mentors were my classmates and contemporaries. Marc Trieb who teaches at Berkeley and I shared a small “match-box” cottage in Gainesville. His recent books analyze what makes modern landscape architecture what it is, how the Bay Area Style emerged from its context and how Le Corbusier conceived the Electronic Poem! At the 1962 American Institute of Architects Annual Convention in Miami, we ignored the thousands of commercial architects down for the party, seeking out Paulo Solari and Buckminster Fuller who were there to win Gold Medals and give major lectures. Solari was very approachable, walking about in leather shorts and barefooted in the grand Americana Hotel. On the last night there was a huge dinner on the open grounds of the Hialeah Race Course where thousands of happy architects ate and drank, catching up with old friends. Aged only nineteen, Marc and I had yet to discover the miracles of hallucinates! Totally sober we walked bored about the tables of drunkards, laughing and singing merely! With some amazement we noticed Fuller and his wife surrounded by admirers, but alas drunk admirers! We joined the table and managed to move the discussion from boisterous questions, into things more to Fuller’s interest! After a few minutes he turned to us and said, would you like to join my wife and I back at the Americana? Bright eyed youth that we were, we jumped at the opportunity. In the coffee shop we stayed up until two in the morning, asking a few questions and getting long answers. Some years later on Doxiadis’ yacht in the Aegean Sea I was amazed when the great man walked up to me, shaking my hand, and asking what I had been doing over the past five years. This was the kind of personal touch, which today seems unbelievable. Marc Trieb has gone on to be a great teacher too. Bruce Creager and Gene Hayes, just a few years our seniors kept us spell bound with their seemingly vast experience readily shared with us over candle lit dinners and wine. Peter Wilson has continued through the years to be my alter ego. Daniel Williams has become America’s leading Green Architect. Thomas Cooper is a devoted New Urbanist with whom I can openly argue a counterblast. Edward Popko creates the IBM software from which great ships are built, and many others who were my classmates from those times have gone on to gain recognition in their chosen paths. At MIT and Harvard my classmates and later my students were great sources of inspiration. Urs Gauchat has gone on to turn the New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture from no place to some place, giving up a successful practice in Boston to do so! Michael Pyatok, my closest confidant in Sert’s Masters Class, is America’s leading proponent of affordable housing. He builds what he talks about! Christine Boyer, at Princeton, has written the profound analysis on planning and capitalism, which is required reading in every school of planning. Anna Hardman carries on our tradition at MIT, enriching students and fellow faculty. What I am trying to emphasize here is that like sand on the beach, gurus are everywhere. It is for us to find them and to learn from them.

In Herman Hess’s classic Siddhartha, a student walking in the forest seeking The Great Teacher, happens upon Lord Buddha and asks him if he knows where The Teacher is. Lord Buddha explains to the boy that there are no teachers, only seekers of truth!

When I went to Harvard University to do my master’s degree in architecture and to study urban planning at MIT, I was surrounded great teachers, who had loomed in my head like rock stars did in my contemporaries! Walter Gropius was actually a real person! He walked and talked in our midst. His wife, Alda Mahler Gropius, was a mother figure to young students. Sert, then Dean, had started the world’s first urban design course, and was a pioneer in the dialogue between architects and urban planners, being both himself! Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, founding editor of Ekistics, would never leave a bad idea alone! Gerhard Kallman, architect of the new Boston City Hall, was an icon of the 1960’s for his bold and daring statements. Jerzy Soltan, who built Jacqueline Tyrwhitt’s lovely home Spiros in Attica, and co-author of Le Modular, challenged students, faculty and guest critiques on any topic possible. Juan Miro, the Catalonian painter, was often in residence as Sert’s childhood friend. He painted amazing black forms on Sert’s patio walls, turning them into masterpieces! My Master’s Class of twenty candidates dwindled down to sixteen within the first month! That was before the days when Harvard filled chairs to collect its humongous fees! There were high standards, ruthless performance expectations, and a family atmosphere amongst the survivors! The sixteen of us were privileged to have our own time and friendships with Yona Friedman, a colleague of Soltan’s in
Team Ten, Louis Mumford, Fuhimiko Maki, Dolf Schnebli, and other past students of Sert, who came back to crit and jury our works. At MIT we had Kevin Lynch who wrote the Image of the City, John F. C. Turner who wrote Freedom to Build, Herbert Gans who wrote The Urban Villagers, Lisa Pittie who invented Advocacy Planning and Lloyd Rodwin who was the Master Regional planner! Shadrack Woods at Harvard, who had just won the competition to design the Free University in Berlin, and was preparing the new plan for Toulouse, was notorious for his fiery arguments at juries, usually ending in his apartment at Peabody Terrace at three in the morning, with loving students and young faculty still throwing hypothesis. These were all people who took us students into their homes and hearts and invested their time into our personal development, as well as our academic and intellectual molding! We worked, studied, questioned, analyzed, drank, partied and ate together. Their combined intellectual and human force was like a juggernaut plowing through all obstacles! They understood the necessity of carrying students along with them, as their investment in the next generations. They knew that they did not live for the moment, but for the future. Some of the people who had the most profound impact on me were not my formal teachers. Teaching design studios with Roger Montgomery, Gerhard Kallman, and Jane Drew, who all became guides in my search, left me with a personal legacy.

Sir Robert Jackson gifted me a life subscription of the Ekistics journal in January of 1963 when we met briefly at Adlai Stevenson’s apartment. From that journal I came to know of a larger world, and one not as happy as that I had grown up in. Some years later when I was a student at Harvard, Jackson’s wife, Barbara Ward, took me under her wing as a protégé. She thoughtfully invited me, at her expense, to attend the Delos Symposium in Greece. I flew to Paris and bought a Mercier ten speed bicycle and proceeded the next fifteen hundred kilometers via road, with my Harvard roommate, Christopher Winters. Reaching a bit exhausted, but in great spirits, I was yet again welcomed into a new world. Constantinos Doxiadis, Margaret Mead, Arnold Toynbee, Philippe Hera, Roger Gregore, Edmond Bacon, Katherine Bateson and many others were aboard Doxiadis’ yacht which meandered through the Aegean Sea, stopping at Mount Athos, Samothrace, Thebes, Mikanos and finally at the Delos amphitheatre, where the Charter we had all worked on was read out by Margaret Mead with the sun setting over the Aegean Sea behind her. At Samothrace Toynbee and his life companion, Veronica, asked me to accompany them up a steep hill behind the Samothrace Temple, from which the Winged Victory of Samothrace had come. Toynbee surmised that there should be the ruins of an ancient Crusader Fort there, which did not figure in any of the literature. Surely when we ascended to the peak of a small mountain, the walls stood testament to his academic prowess! In his eighties at the time, the small mountain climb was no easy task for Toynbee! Looking toward the east I saw an amazing sight. The entire horizon was covered in an ominous, dark pall of haze! “My God, what’s that, I exclaimed!” Toynbee laughed and said, “Oh, that’s Asia!” Having spent most of my life in Asia I always think of that day as prophetic! I didn’t know then that my life’s work would centre east of that pall!

Alex Tzonis, who was a young professor of architecture with me at the Graduate School of Design, along with his brilliant life partner Liane Lefaivre, have continued to encourage and teach me all at the same time. Their publication of my work, the Mahindra United World College of India, in their recent book called Critical Regionalism, has been a source of encouragement. At the risk of boring my readers I have searched over my past with fond memories. I feel there is a lesson in this small review, which is that teachers challenge one, fire one’s will to struggle for truth and become good friends too. Maxwell Fry founded the modern movement in Britain in the late 1920’s. On each journey traveling back and forth between America and India in the 1960’s and 1970’s, I always relaxed for several days at Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry’s Gloucester Place townhouse. As Jane’s life partner, I fell under Max’s influence. He and Jane, along with Le Corbusier, had designed Chandigarh, living in India. We had much to discuss and share. Maxwell Fry was the man who offered Gropius half his thriving practice so that the master could escape from Germany, getting out while he was still alive! “Come and take half my practice, but for God’s sake get out!” Gropius was instructed by all well wishers at the CIAM meeting in Venice. Without packing their bags they just left for London, leaving the Bauhaus behind along with their precious art works and personal effects! Maybe the Second World War was a great cauldron which molded giants out of midgets. But the humane nature of these giants, were the distinguishing features separating them from the midgets around them.


I suppose these friends, teachers and gurus, were actually examples and role models. Just as the Olympic Torch is passed from one runner to the next and is kept burning forever, through their humanity and brilliance, a spark of inspiration is passed on. Some people get inspired to support other people watching a good mother, or a devoted nurse. They do nurture others. What we may consider mundane becomes profound and it generates a meaningful life style.

Against this scenario of inspiration and “natural teaching,” we have the present day mockery of education. In Schools of Architecture we have people teaching who have never seriously worked in a studio, or even built a building. Some have done esoteric Ph.D.s and in America that seems to be the entry point qualification! Gone are the days when the teachers were great builders and expansive thinkers. Expansive thinkers do not waste their time getting Ph.D.s! People who get Ph.D.s are “pluggers” and survivors who are looking for a secure job. They know if they go through the motions toward a doctoral degree, like a good Xerox machine, their universities will vomit out their dream degrees. Every school of architecture reaches a threshold point where there are more dilatants and esoterics than real teachers. This mob of inexperienced fakers now makes the decisions. Political correctness, replaces poetics! The consensus of the ignorant replaces the direction of the wise! Just hard labor replaces insight and questioning. Writing a book, any book, raises one’s value! We must never loose site of the fact that an architect is the master craftsman! She, or he, is the inheritor of the Middle Ages guildsmen and the great sculptors of the Renaissance. Ours is a profession whose roots lie in the master craftsmen-student relationship, where even large canvases were labored over by Masters together with their understudies. No more! It is with a great deal of nostalgia that I look back to my youth and the kind of learning catalyzed even in isolated state universities, to which the present elite colleges of architecture can not even aspire. This is because today the engine that motivates the education of an architect is fees! The drivers of this engine are survivors! They are people who are just waiting for their next promotion and salary increase. They will jump jobs with any better offer! In India the situation is similar. We have people creating new schools of architecture that inspire no one. There are no libraries, seasoned teachers, or even proper studios. These educational industries produce graduates like Toyota produces vehicles! We are mass producing hollow individuals who merely hold a certificate and who can be registered. But they can not design, sing, and write poetry or nurture others!


Education today has no link with inspiration and creation. Creating architecture, music, poetry or love, are all the media of inspiration. These tangible products of creation inspire others. Some great wheel of motion begins to turn. The moment of inspiration is a moment of transcendence; an instance of discovery and self realization all in one.
It is when human intellect and emotion combine and take flight in a euphoric world of beauty and revelation. If there is a religion, it is a vehicle for such transcendence. For me architecture is that religion. It is meditation, it is truth and it leads to spiritual moments of enlightenment and revelation.

Still another lesson from The Natural House is that architecture is a language! Stone, wood, bricks, clay tiles, brass, luminaries, glass, steel trusses, paving blocks, sanitary fittings are all like the sounds which have to be transformed into the auditable words of a language! The language of architecture is composed of elements of “support,” of “span,” and of “enclosure.”

In the Alliance Francase we evolved a very clear system of “support,” employing fourteen inch brick bearing walls, insulating the interiors form the heat of Ahmedabad. We used a small two feet, six inches square grid as a module to make square windows, or larger multiples to make larger square doors, or medium multiples to place exposed concrete beams five feet on centre, which also defined a large square volumes below. This became a simple statement of “span.” These same “words” were further used to create north facing skylights on the northern façade and to lift skylights up, over the roof, bringing indirect light into the spaces. A square grid on the floor, in the ceiling and on the walls, using the human scale module, ordered the entire ensemble into a system of spatial cubes and graphic squares. Giving poetry and playfulness to the language are the idiosyncratic “motifs” we introduced. In the Alliance Francaise we set a tall column in the centre of the main space. This was so contrived that when a person moves in the space, they can see the walls behind the column move! This simple visual device makes the space “move,” and makes architecture experiential! Water spouts became motifs to add accent to the over all structure. Square, modular window shade boxes protected small vistas from glare. A small balcony into the main space was left floating by pulling the supporting column off to the side! These became the signature parts and components which evolved through the design process into a language. All of these emotive acts must be realized through built form, or as parts of materiality. Brick, exposed concrete, mild steel frames for square fenestration and glass were all the material vehicles to reach emotive experiences. Like written poetry, which uses printed words to reach emotions, we use “built words,” so that those who experience the spaces we create step out of the material world and into one of lyrical experiences. In this sense, buildings are the material poems that architects fabricate. Architecture is an experience of a place and not the built form! Construction is merely a vehicle for us to pick up people and move them through experiences into milieus of new experiences. In this respect there is a commonality between stage set design and the design of places. Architects confabulate material things, to make non-material experiences happen in their built compositions. These “experiences” are often related to the visual and psychological impacts of moving through space. They can also be the fall of light through space and onto textured surfaces. It may be the way the first morning sunlight slowly falls from a skylight drifting across a rugged stone wall. It is not the wall, or the light which is architecture. It is the experience of phenomena that is the architecture. It is the realization of the universe turning; it is the morning revealing yet a new day in our existence; it is the anticipation of what the new day may bring and our realization that we exist! We confabulate experiences through the medium of building fabrics. Again, these fabrics are woven from a language!

Much of what is transcendental; much of what is experiential; is created through putting together planned events, as people move through and experience space. In this sense architecture is carefully contrived. We “set people up” through ground textures which are rough on the outside, but become smooth on the inside; through a dimmed entrance opening into a well lit main space. We welcome a visitor first with paving texture, then hold him by a wall, then cover him in a porch and finally embrace him in a low ceiling entrance foyer. Then the space “explodes!” Just by raising the ceiling we can make him feel WOW!

People who manipulate emotions and feelings better than we do are song writers and those who sing them. In a romantic composition we are enticed into a mood by a light melody; a silent beat slowly becomes more auditable, and we start to tap our foot without even knowing what we are doing. A soulful voice begins to tell a story of sorrow, and we empathize with the human condition. Poetic lyrics lights the allure of love and our emotions swell! Within a few moments, the human mind, worried about all of the little irritations of life, leaves the day to day banality of existence, and is lifted up into an illusory ambiance of profound emotions. This is transcendence! Feelings of compassion and beauty are created!

How do architects achieve this? What are the visual and graphic mechanisms at our disposal? How can we manipulate peoples’ feelings, moods and temperaments? Are there modalities of color, texture and light which we can employ? Can we use scale and proportion to inject a stimulus and get a predictable response? What is the impact of a shape or a form? Do they draw people in, make them step aside, focus their attention in a direction, and what do they discover when they change their glance to the focal point we have enticed them to? Architects are masters of seduction, enticement, transformation and the transcendence of the human spirit! How is this achieved? This is the search I call architecture.


People often ask me how my design approach was affected by the diversity of the Asian environment and how this milieu differs from the western context I grew up in? With the exponential expansion of the media, with globalization at our doorstep and with cultural imperialism a reality, we all have to all consider such a question. What has happened to me over the past four decades may be a movie played backwards in the life of young Asian architects! So this is a good and difficult question.

When I left America in 1971 the great masters still influenced young architects. Kahn, Sert, Van Eyke, Sterling and so many others were still active and we could meet with them and discuss ideas. We believed in “credos,” value systems and principles. We were taught that design grew out of the rational application of these! In America all of that changed by the early 1980s. Individualism and publicity were what began to drive designers. By that time the great masters had passed away. In India we were isolated from the mass media, the magazine articles from the West, and from all of the hype! We more or less continued to follow what we had always believed in. The “new economy,” the “new urbanism,” the “stab them in the back and get rich culture of management,” had not reached us! It is like there was a fork in the road and we never saw the divergent one and kept right on going!

But the Indian context had its own logic too! First of all the huge choice of materials available in the States and Europe was not available here. Our techniques and methods were very simple. This allowed us to concentrate on light, spaces and forms. After mastering that we could get carried away by technology. The museum in Paris by Piano and Rogers brought the west back in touch with technology. This did not “grab me” until much later when I was ready to deal with it on my own terms. Unlike the villages of Greece and our work in India, technology was becoming a “look at me,” gymnastics platform for stunts. An entire school of charlatans emerged, taking technology off into the world of Disney Land! Thus, the new hype of technology and also the importance of expression of mechanical equipment, did not reach us in India, until years after it had started to mold design in the west. In retrospect, we were actually working in the same ‘technology guided’ mould of architecture, but we did not realize it, simply due to our limited choices. The design process remained a very simple visual one, allowing for innocence. I see a correlation between our simple stone and brick bearing walls and the work of Foster, Piano and to a lesser extent Rogers. In the case of Rogers, technology is no longer a means, it has become the end! Our isolation, gave us the “distance” to keep this new tool in its place. Though we do see “space frames” floating around just for the sake of floating around and with no common sense or purpose!

Fortunately, I missed out on Post Modernism! Since even those who contrived it never understood it really, they missed out too! I will analyze this in a later part of this book, but my contention is that small elite in America and in Britain fabricated Post Modernist Architecture so that a tiny group of critics would have something new to write about and a small group of their designer friends could be written about. Post Modernism in architecture and the New Urbanism in planning are kind of conspiracies! The New Urbanism is neither new, nor very much related to urbanism. The new economy had less to do with economics than “fixing” the prices of IT shares and making quick money trading in a mirage. These trends had a lot to do with the “get rich quick” and “get famous quick” culture of the West, which is still in vogue. Attention grabbing, fashion driven packaging is what I missed!

India allowed me to find myself and work in my own contextual world. I could continue my search without the distraction of all the hoop-la and hollering! As an aside, many Indian motifs influenced me: Khund-like steps; ottas, sitting walls, niches in walls for statues, and the placement of lights on small projections….so many unique Indian details. These began to enter my work as regional motifs. The Indian climate also allowed the kind of opening out into nature that I loved, and bringing the out-of-doors indoors! This is so evident my Centre for Development Studies and Activities, in the United World College and others. In the YMCA International Retreat structures are literally “in the ground.” This could only happen in India. In the west structures were becoming hermetically sealed, centrally air conditioned boxes! These “boxes” were only to be cleverly decorated. A global architecture was emerging with no roots in climate, history, context, or landscape. In the United World College the angular walls and roof slants are all drawn from the mountain forms in the distance. In the west a building would use glass walls in the hot sun of Miami, or in the dark, freezing cold of New York City. If Greek columns were this year’s fad, they would pop up like mushrooms in LA, in Bangkok and in Hamburg! This is Globalism at its worst. In India we could follow what Liane Lefaivre calls Critical Regionalism. We could deal with the issues of people moving through space; we could deal with the tactile interaction of people with materials; we could make scale changes out of stone and brick and help people to experience them.


Post a Comment