Saturday, March 19, 2011

"HARISH MAHINDRA: PATRON OF THE ARTS ARCHITECTURE" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Harish Mahindra was a man one can never forget! Not because he was one of the “M’s” of M & M, but because he was a very simple man with a vast vision. I first met Harishji when I was invited for an interview of architects to design the Mahindra United World College of India. That was in September 1993. Sure that I would not be selected from amongst a panel of my seniors, I introduced myself as an architect who would refuse “to build a monument!” Harishji smiled, catching my ploy, and said “well, we don’t want to build cow sheds here!” and then laughed. But he looked through the photographs of my work carefully, and said he’d like to visit the campus I had designed for myself in Pune. Accordingly, he came to Pune.

As luck would have it my jeep broke down on my way back from Ahmednagar and I missed Harishji, who was taken around the campus by my associates. Always the optimist, Harish did not take offence. He called me the next day thanking me for not bothering him, and for giving him a chance to see things in solitude. He closed off saying, “you’ve got the project!”

My early meetings with him put me on unsure footings, and I was aware of his critical mind and his penetrating manner of looking at things. But the sheer fun of the way he viewed life, his insights, his jokes and his commentaries soon put me at ease. We spent some intense evenings over drinks and discussing the project, which I’ll never forget. We also had some great arguments over the college, with each of us declaring we’d resign from it, and then a room full of laughter when we both knew we’d called each other’s bluffs to the point of the ridiculous!

When the college Headmaster joined the team he asked me if I ever had arguments with Harishji. I said, “Not arguments---fights!” Harishji was very wound up in his work. He wanted it to be a contribution to the country, but he had to do it within a budget ceiling! We kept going over the budget ceiling! It had to be done in fourteen months! We lost our first site and we needed a new one immediately. The contractor quit half way through! All of this was very tension provoking, but Harishji knew how to light a candle, rather than curse dark!

There was not a moment I spent with him that was not stimulating, engaging and always with an element of fun. I think the fun was there because he loved life and he enjoyed life. That special spirit effused everything he did. He always used to tease me about my designs, ending a review in his office saying, “Christopher, if it’s a good design it’s mine, if it’s a bad design it’s yours” and then he’d laugh that special devious laugh of his.

At my lecture at the NCAP in July 1999 I tried to explain how Harishji was a true patron of architecture, and not a client. I gave the example of how Harishji handled meetings in the board room. During the early stage of the design, when I was literally fumbling for a concept and the ideas which would flow from it, I had to make a number of presentations. We had a large team involved in the project which included the college CEO, the Headmaster, accounts people, the construction management consultants the three main contractors, numerous advisors---not to mention the board members and many others. Harishji knew how to handle relations between team members and get the best out of them. He understood the essence of each man, what made him tick and what he yearned for. He noticed that I’d get agitated with people pin pricking the designs, and he also noticed that people were trying to get his attention by showing how clever they were in challenging what we were designing.

Without my realizing it, Harishji started calling me early to his chamber and he’d ask me to go over the designs and drawings with him. I got a feeling at these meetings that he just wanted to encourage me to do the best I could, and that when I showed him the drawings he really didn’t care what they looked like, as long as I was sure they would be something really good. Sometimes I’d catch his eyes wandering elsewhere while I was explaining the design. He’d just say “great, great, don’t make cow sheds!” Whenever I showed him sketches, he would be praising and encouraging me. Just when my ego would be floating I would realize that Harishji could not read my sketchy drawings and the doubt stuck me that I may be deceiving him! Then as we’d go to the meetings he’d say, “remember if its good it’s mine, if its bad it’s yours!” then I’d doubt who was fooling who!

At the meeting the first item on the Agenda would always be “Review of the Architect’s Plans.” People’s eyes would gleam and there would be secret smiles on their faces as they readied for the plans to unfold to their attacks! Then Harishji would say “Item One, I’ve seen the drawings …they’re great, now Item Two,” and to the disappointed faces he’d continue the meeting.

The fact is he had really not studied the plans, and he wanted me to know he had not studied them, and he wanted me to know the ominous responsibility he’d put on me. “You are alone in this,” he once told me. Then he said, “We’re all alone. Anything else people tell you is not true.”

At the meetings there would be lots of talk about details, schedules, bottlenecks and problems. People would always say, “We are going to solve this! We are looking into this.” Harishji would cut in, saying, “never say ‘we,’ always say ‘I’!” Harishji was a man who put his faith in individuals, not committees and not in groups. As an architect this was very refreshing.

If there is any aspect which distinguished Harishji---made him a true patron---it was his craftsmanship in shaping human relations around his vision and around his mission.

Being with him while he conceptualized the college, watching him deal with the profound in the idea, and the mandane in the project---all in one breadth---is something I shall never forget.

Every era raises up its art and its architecture, but architecture does not change over night---it drifts! It drifts behind techniques, behind economics and behind social trends. But most of all it drifts behind the “vision” of patrons.

I believe there are no great architects, but only great patrons of the arts. Harishji was one of the patrons and like a Renaissance prince of Florence he knew the beauty of life. He knew that life was short, so he enriched it, and he made it fun to be alive! Architecture was just one of the ways through which he celebrated life! And through this celebration he become a true patron!


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