Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Great Master’s Award: Kolkata Ceremony speech by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect (18th December 2008)

For an architect, receiving the Great Master’s Award is a watershed in his career. It is a rite of passage few can imagine. First of all it is an honor bestowed by ones fellow senior architects, who are articulate critics, as well as cautious admirers. Second this award is a unique one. Over the past two decades very few architects have received this accolade and those who did truly embrace the grate masters of South Asia. They include such names as Laurie Baker, Geoffrey Bawa, Achut Kanvinde, Charles Correa, Balkrishna V. Doshi and Raj Rewal. Who could dare to enter into such a pantheon of iconic, creative personalities? I feel humbled by the very thought! All of these men were truly masters of our art.

They understood that ‘modern architecture’ was not just an act of creating bizarre and exotic strange forms, but that ‘modern architecture’ is a social art bound within the craft of technology. They understood that it is also a ‘ethical art’ wherein there is a truth in its processes, and there must be honesty of expression to achieve transcendence. In many ways architecture is a search for the truth of a building within its setting and context. All of these former awardees fought against false ideas and bad architecture.

I reject postmodernism as a frivolous enigma and a self fulfilling ideology of personal aggrandizement. I see my personal agenda as a mere continuation of a great tradition set out by the masters who went before me back into the annals of history. I was fortunate enough to have great teachers like Walter Gropius, Jerzy Soltan, Jose Lluis Sert, Kevin Lynch and Fuhimiko Maki who laid out a strict path of struggle and self realization. They set out an agenda which I beseech all of you to make yours also. It is a mission worth our endeavors, our fellowship and our professional commitment. It includes an agenda with three thrusts:

First, the modern movement is focused on the social issues of urbanization, mass housing and the public institutions that create a civil society. A modern architect is an urbanist in this broad sense. His work must contribute to its context, be a part of its milieu and make life better for the neighborhood within which it participates. Buildings cannot turn their backs on their neighbors, be arrogant or be absurdly selfish.

Second, buildings must be true to the technology and materials and craftspeople from which they emerge. Materials must be expressed honestly and the technology must be appropriate to the context within which it is created. Modern architects, since the Nineteenth Century, have explored new materials and technologies, but nestled them within local conditions.

Finally, modern architects are crusaders, spokespersons and even revolutionaries in their fight against effetism and deceit. In India today we are bombarded with false architecture ‘cut’ from bad buildings in the West and ‘pasted’ into Indian environments, ruthlessly and carelessly. Most of this crime is committed under the false ideology of Postmodernism that is in fact a creed of greed and self aggrandizement. It is the craft of anal retentive, screaming and yelling babies out for attention. There is a wild grabbing for FSI with no concern for the creation of civic spaces, human experiences and the making of a good life for the common man. Reject this! Speak out against this!

All of our modern agendas should lead us toward more natural, more appropriate and more ‘local’ styles. The blind imitation of Western fads must come to an end. Modern Indian architecture must also be ‘regional architecture’ emerging from the climate, local materials, local traditions and crafts.

The rise of media and of science has propelled us into the straight jackets of specialized disciplines. The further we advance in knowledge, the less clearly we can see either the world around us, or understand our own selves. We have plunged into what Milind Kundera has called the ‘forgetting of being’. True modernism is an era when the ‘passion to know’ became the essence of spirituality. The essence of modern architecture is to explore that which only a piece of architecture can discover. A building which does not express some unknown segment of existence is immoral. Revealing truth is architecture’s only reality. The sequence of discovery (not the sum total of what is built) is what constitutes the history of modern architecture. It is only in such a cross-cultural, historical context that the value of any work can be fully revealed and understood.

In my life as an architect ninety percent of my work ended up in the trashcan of my dreams. Some work survived into the form of models and drawings made to scale. What got built was a mere fraction of my life’s efforts. When people praise that small evidence of my truth, I feel very nice. When they garland me, and call me a Great Master, I feel humbled, yet truly elated. All of those trashcan dreams get reborn and come to life again with new meaning.


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