Friday, December 31, 2010

"Companions and Early Mentors at the Beginning of a Long Journey" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

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 Harry Merritt was a classic modernist, building unpublished masterpieces in North Florida.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. Lydia Rubia was an artist and a powerful designer who mixed her Latin passion with a keen rationality to create wonderful designs. Peter Wilson has continued through the years to be my alter ego. Daniel Williams has become one of America’s leading Green Architect. Thomas Cooper is a devoted New Urbanist with whom I can openly argue a counterblast. Garry Rigdale accompanied me from Florida to Cambridge and returned to Gainesville to devote his life to teaching. Luis Kizonak joined Harvard with me, topping our first semester and became a leading designer for TAC before he prematurely died in Kuwait of a stroke. 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.
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