In a recent discussion with the Maharashtra Herald’s Sunanda Mehta, Benninger reveals some of the important lessons life has taught him.
“To gain something beautiful, one may have to give up something beautiful.”
One day, sitting in my garden campus in near Pune, surrounded by fifteen acres of fruit trees, flowering plants and lawns, a young architecture student came unannounced to meet me, insisting to have our picture taken together. Like many students who visited my campus at CDSA 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 policy papers!
At about the moment we said “cheese” I immediately decided to quit my post as Founder-Director of the institute, and to devote my remaining life’s efforts to architecture. Amongst other things, I had to give up the sprawling campus I had created and move into a tiny 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 years of toil, to seek transcendence in through my art. By giving up something beautiful, I found something more beautiful!
“It is better to BE what you are than to SEEM what you are not!”
In October 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 arms high in the air just like several thousand other conforming youth, pretending to be “free!” To be different, unique, free 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 the 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 to share with young students, it is to BE, not SEEM!
“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, 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 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. 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 must 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!” 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 or never at all! In your love life don’t be too passionate, or too neglectful! The Good Life, or the Sweet Life, is all about 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 themselves happy, or spread that happiness to those nearby them. Art and Architecture are but spiritual paths to “the good!” They stimulate enjoyment, delight and balance...la dolce vita…the sweet life! It is better to search this life than to think one can know the truth!
Yes, “it is better to search the good, than to know the truth!”
“There is only one form of good luck, which is having good teachers!”
Years ago Adi Bathena, the founder of Wansan Industries that morphed over the years into giant Thermax, introduced me to his ninety year old teacher. Adi himself was nearing eighty! 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 here in Pune. 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 following years, and I realize that all my teachers in India and America have been my “good luck.”
*Christopher Benninger’s early career was as a teacher at Harvard University and in India, where he founded the School of Planning at Ahmedabad and the Center for Development Studies and Activities under the University of Pune. Thirteen years ago, well past the age of fifty, he gave up a thriving academic and United Nations consulting career, starting an architectural studio nearly from scratch. Along with his partner, Akkisetti Ramprasad and colleagues Rahul Sathe and Daraius Choksi an architectural studio was quickly turned into an internationally acclaimed “design house,” winning the prestigious American Institute of Architect’s Award, India’s Designer of the Year Award amongst others. Their studio’s patrons have ranged from the King of Bhutan, Queen Noor of Jordan, Nelson Mandela, to corporates like the Kirloskar’s, Suzlon, the Bajaj’s, Cochin Refineries, the Taj Hotels, the Mahindras, Tata Technologies, Executive ship Management and many more. They have served voluntary agencies like the YMCA, Arthabod, the Good Shepard Homes and the TGBMS. Their present focus is on the new campus of the Indian Institute of Management at Kolkata, and on the new National Capitol Complex in Bhutan. Benninger’s career has brought him in contact with a spectrum of world leaders, intellectuals and artists.
He believes that every person has a right to experience the “sweet life,” for which architecture acts as a path!