Saturday, December 25, 2010

"Omens of a magic gift" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

As a child I spent my days drifting in confusion. Nothing inspired me. Neither my teachers nor my studies enthused me to seek knowledge. My parents thought by putting me in school I’d be educated; by putting me in sports I’d become athletic; by putting me in a church I’d be in touch with the ultimate truth! They confused religion with spirituality! Most of what transpired in these institutions seemed like a dull black cloud hovering over me, with no respite.

What did move me were the autumn leaves in reds, yellows and oranges and their winter nude fingers reaching into moody skies. Come snowfall and the black fingers would frost into white powder, momentarily melting, and then freezing stick trees into gleaming crystal candelabras of ice-glass, glittering up-side-down in the bright sun. These were the things that grabbed me and drew my attention. My personal life was composed of all things natural and my friends were the squirrels in the trees and the rabbits in the forests. These were all omens of an organic truth to be revealed!

Thus, I was composed of two different parts, each amplifying the meaning and the meaningless of 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!

One Christmas Day morning my eyes were drawn to the one gift I had not foraged in my parents’ usual hiding places. I knew all of the others from looking under beds, in the attic, or on the high shelf over my father’s cupboards where he hid his condoms and porn magazines. So I reached for the unknown first, as my family members all gasped with hypocritical surprise opening boxes they’d all secretly discovered only a few days before. Like all children that fateful morning I reached out for the most intriguing gift first, but unlike the others this portended to be a talisman of my future! It was a magic book that would change my life forever.

As I read the first words, sentences, paragraphs and pages of Frank Lloyd Wright’s The Natural House I discovered who I was, and what I wanted to be. I gained my first insight into 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 would be in the future.

It was not just that I liked the designs, the drawings and the photographs, or that I gleaned meanings from the words; it was a testament that unfolded a truth in me that in fact had always dwelt deep within me! Something that had always been there slumbering inside of me, concealed from my consciousness, was now unfolding. I suppose this is called inspiration, or even self discovery. From the moment I opened The Natural House I did not put it down until I had completed the last page. In a sense I have never put it down and I am still reading it in my soul, discovering and searching for what inspired me on that Christmas Day more than a half century ago.

When I closed the book just past midnight I was living in a different world. I walked out of my house into the freezing air with thousands of stars glistening in the vast heavens. Everything I saw looked different. It was not only nature that was singing a song in my heart, but my soul had switched on and my mind had started to think. I saw things I had never comprehended before. Finely carved balustrades caught my fancy. Sculptured stone gargoyles made me smile. Sliding my fingers over materials I could sense their inner souls and I spoke to them. I argued with sloppy workmanship and clumsy details.

Wright taught me that the human mind is an 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 and ugliness. It is only the mind that separates us from other animals making us the monsters of terror and the creators of poetry, art and architecture. We alone may know the exhilaration of transcendence!

After reading The Natural House the yin and the yang within me merged into one presence, instead of playing against each other, exhausting me, the black force empowered the white beauty. I was now driven in whatever I did. I gave up on education and embarked on an inner search! Something magical had grasped me. I stopped attending church and I found spiritual moments in fits of creative discovery.

Such a moment of self discovery is what I call INSPIRATION!

It is a flash of wisdom that calls out to us, telling us what we want to be and forces us to yearn to be that. It catalyses life’s search; it embeds an urge; it creates a desperate need to seek what we do not possess; it beckons us to know our inner soul; it sets us upon a path from which we can not return.

Wright taught me in that simple book to seek the generic order in things; see beauty in the truth! I understood that 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 employ material artifacts to reach transcendence. They place people and societies somewhere along a scale between beasts grabbing at survival and saints blessed with transcendental awareness. Architecture distinguishes people who only “take,” from patrons who nurture and “give.” Buildings indicate the extent to which people are in touch with the environment in which they live; the extent to which they are a part of the places within which they build; and are harmonious with the social traditions and modalities which bring bliss and peace.

But life is not a fairy tale story. It is a maze of choices and we have to learn as we go. We make some good decisions and some bad ones. But I believe we are driven by our GENERIC INSPIRATION to learn from our mistakes and move on. We are guided to recognize lessons when they come our way and to learn from them! With the fire of inspiration inside of us, life itself becomes a great university of learning. We are learning lessons all the time.

Let me share some lessons that life has taught me. I feel my rendezvous with Wright, his inspiration, made it possible for me to learn from them.

ONE: To gain something beautiful, one may have to give up something beautiful.
Until age fifty-two I was immersed in an academic career. I was designing buildings only for my friends who were social workers, and for myself I designed a campus. One day sitting in my lush green garden campus in near Pune, surrounded by fifteen acres of fruit trees, flowering plants and verdant lawns, a young architecture student came unannounced to meet me, insisting to have our picture taken together. Like many students who visit the Center for Development Studies and Activities he was studying my designs and my campus layout!

At that moment I was completing the fiftieth policy paper I had written on “development” and it struck me that no student had ever come to have a photo session after reading one of my hefty papers!

At about the moment we said “cheese” I immediately decided to quit my post as Founder-Director of CDSA, and to devote my remaining life’s efforts to architecture. Amongst other things, I had to give up the sprawling campus I had created for myself and move into a tiny rented apartment studio with modest equipment. The decade since that fleeting decision has never allowed me time for regrets, or even to look back with nostalgia! But I had to give up my very own little dream world, created over twenty-five years, to seek transcendence through my art. By giving up something beautiful, I found something more beautiful!

TWO: It is better to BE what you are than to SEEM what you are not!
Human beings are conformists by nature. We feel comfortable when we look like and act like the people around us! We seek norms and standards, instead our inner reality! We think we are searching individuality and freedom when in fact we are mimicking personalities and images we aspire to be like. We are seeming to be what we are not!

In 2001 I made a presentation of my new capital plan for Bhutan at the European Biennale, along with some of the greatest painters, cinematographers and architects of our times. I noticed something very interesting. To seem a “creative artist” in Europe you must wear the black uniform of an artist! To be a creative youth in Europe you must attend concerts waving your hands in the air just like several thousand other conforming youth, pretending to be “free!” To be different, unique, and “an individual,” you must wear the “uniform of the different!” You must wear a uniform----dress totally in black; wear black shoes; black socks; black pants; black belt; black shirt; black tie and black jacket! Even your underwear must be black. I realized that for these people, in fact for most people in the world, being creative is not a form of liberation, but is living a lie! There are people who never design anything, never write, never draw, and never search, never question, but who dress in the black uniform of creators. They are not being; they are seeming. If I have any lesson from Wright to share with young students and old men, it is to BE, and not SEEM!

THREE: Don’t be euphoric when people praise you, or depressed when people criticize you!
In Buddhist thinking there are axioms called the Sixteen Emptinesses and there are two of them where I have learned to keep my emotions “empty.” I became euphoric when my design won the American Institute of Architect’s Award: 2000, but having reached the final list for the Aga Kahn Award in 2003, I lost! I realized that my happiness should come from the process of design and from my own understanding of my efforts’ inherent beauty. About the time I settled with myself in this philosophy of emptiness, I learned that the project which won over us for the Aga Khan award was disqualified as a fraud; the authors had misrepresented it as a design created by the village people! But that did not make me happy either! I have learned that creation is a patient search, and is not some kind of competition. To be true to one’s art one must be empty to both praise and criticism and know oneself! Truth is the ultimate search of all artists.

FOUR: Even then I feel, “It is better to Search the Good, than to know the Truth!”
I suppose it took me too long in life to distinguish between Ethics and Aesthetics; Morals and Artistic Balance! Ethics is a rather exact science of rules; of right and of wrong; and there could be some generic truth within them! However this world is not black and white, but rather grey and fuzzy! On the other hand, aesthetics is the search for pleasure, which I call “The Good!” Pleasure is gained through the senses: feel, smell, taste, sight and sound. These elicit excitement, contentment, fulfillment and a range of human happiness’s! Thus, we find the good in the sound of music, in the rhythm of dance, the taste of food, the arousal of romance, the smell of flowers, the stimulation of art, the titillation of reading and discourse and the inspiration of architecture. But one can have too much of a good thing! Aesthetics is a question of balance, or what the Buddhists call the “Middle Path.” Beauty is a search for that Golden Mean, that harmony which brings all forms of visual, sensual and intellectual pleasure into balance! Harmony is the search. If you are a lover of food, don’t eat too much; don’t over do this or that spice; don’t cook too long or too less! If you love wine, don’t drink too much, but be sure to drink some! In your love life don’t be too passionate, or too neglectful!

The Good Life, or the Sweet Life, is all about balance, pleasure and the pleasure principle! I realize that most of us are trapped in our Victorian fear of pleasure and have no aesthetics! We are on an endless trip seeking the truth! We are judging others, meting out what is right and what is wrong; dying as empty drums that never made ourselves happy, or spread that happiness to those nearby them. Art and Architecture are the paths to “the good!” They stimulate enjoyment, delight and dolce vita…the sweet life! It is better to search this good life than to think one can ever know the ultimate truth!

FIVE: There is only one form of good luck: having good teachers!
Years ago the industrialist Adi Bathena, who founded Thermax Industries, introduced me to his ninety year old teacher. Adi himself was seventy-six! We were sitting on the lawn of the Turf Club and Adi went into a long story how he quit his comfortable job at age forty to risk all in a new venture making boilers. He explained to me his middle class roots and that it was not within him to adventure out so far financially. Smiling at his teacher, he noted that without his encouragement, guidance and assurance he would have continued in marketing Godrej products as a salesman. Then he turned to me and said, “Christopher, in this world there is only one kind of good luck, and that is to have good teachers!” I have never been able to forget that truth over the years that followed, and I realize that my teachers at Harvard, MIT and in India have been my only “good luck.” They gifted me inspiration, that inner need to search! They challenged me to do better, they taunted me to work harder; they opened new windows through which I could see myself in some distant future; they were role models of hard work and devotion.


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