Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"In Search of Architecture" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Architecture through history has always been a part of mentalities which criticize, question and ultimately rule the society. Architects have always left the lasting images of the societies which patronized them. As societies fade away it is the architect’s foot prints which remain as the patrons. They leave the final images by which each era is remembered---made into a myth.


Contemporary Architecture

The dominating role of the architect is fading in the fashion-driven market that gives form to most of our environment. Modern civilization seems to be enchanted by the realm of the image, by projecting the values of “packaging” to the determent of architectural contexts. Contemporary architecture is seen as a permanent surface decoration; the wrapping of materials around functional interiors. Urban deterioration and “ugliness” reside in the interaction between economy and politics in a manner which determines the role of architects in society. Mostly, contemporary architecture is a kind of escape from the vapid world of materialism, into a shallow amusement, or at best into self indulgent deception. It is aiming at a new creative statement which actually discloses a wide spread dearth of ideas. The architect is driven by tasteless clients to provide forms, colours and textures which are understood in the media of fashion as “being there,” when in fact the resultant buildings are nowhere. The architect has merely put his signature of approval on a client who craves for social recognition. Beyond the graphic frenzy; somewhere past the Babylon of symbols and signs, the abiding force of architecture demands a commitment to human dignity, an honest expression of materials and technology and a search for meaning, as opposed to the frantic stimulation promoted by current design trends.


On the Role of Patrons

One must add that goodness lies deep in the human soul and there are patrons [as opposed to clients] who call forth the good in the architect, and from such a relationship beauty can emerge. Whatever good we can achieve, lies deep in our patron’s faith in architecture and the free hand they give to “create something beautiful, which would be a lasting gift to the world.” Inundated by the desensitized environment, the
thrust of architecture constantly struggles to create precincts of peace and meditation. In such a sanctuary, protected and free from time---architecture exchanges its mechanical

form, and its crass packaging, for a poetic and mysterious one. The immediacy of contexts and their poetic ambiance reveales what is most real and fundamental. The architect must aspire to construct a sustaining spatial domain that goes beyond the allure of mere packaging.


Architecture and Fashion

Architecture reimpassions a world whose values have been destroyed. In an era when civilization has deployed its most devastating forces against man and his environment, architecture must maintain faith in a transcending future: a future that can mend a wounded world, crippled by the onslaught of signs, symbols, images, tricks and flippant styles; a future that challenges a society immersed in self-indulgent visions. Architecture ceases to be a mere “package” when it ceases to conjure fashion, and it begins to unfold its unique pursuit. It is in the bliss of its presence that architecture deducts from all the chaos a life - affirming reality.


Architecture and Context

My own pursuit for architecture was rekindled in the vast Sahayadris Mountains; in nature; where trees meet the sky; a place of unencumbered horizons, yet where nature dominates each possible view. There is a resolute beauty in the profusely barren hills of this dispersed environment, haunting in its solitude---not a solitude filled irreverently with the urbane glamour of disposability. The ever present mountains tenaciously project fantastic architectures of shade and form. During the hot seasons the mountains offer no shade from the relentless sun. During the monsoon the mountains offer no protection to push back the storm unleashed. In this natural setting one can not hide in fashions.

The mountains cast cool radiant shadows over villages, over lakes; across rivers and vast territories. Each shadow pointing to another; not contrived on economic impetuses [like a city], not devoid of any shared, transcending vision [like a city]. This is not a setting for the fabricated urban packaging, all wrapped in yesterday’s new idea. Architecture in such a setting must take a stance resisting alien, urban conditions, rather than a perpetuating attitude towards them. In this context I built my own institute, CDSA and more recently the Mahindra United World College of India.


Principles which Guide Design

The task of struggling in this awesome landscape, trying to find a meaningful way to build, drew me toward some abiding principles. It was under the cover of these principles that I felt prepared to address the mountains; to work with nature and to reject fashion. Let me be more specific about these principles---what values I feel should rule architecture:

Context

A building should be part of its context. It should reflect and extend the scale, proportions, textures and colours of the parent area. It should integrate into the existing movement system, into the contours, and into the visual back drop.

Scale

Buildings should engender a human scale. An inhabitant, or a visitor, should be greeted by a low-level landscape and entrance; move in under low spaces, or through a small foyer, and then be introduced to larger spaces which emphasize the human scale through counter-point. There should be motifs, like windows and doors, which scale down massive walls; or motifs like water spouts---which are almost antropromophic---which throw poetic shadows over strong stone walls.

Proportion

Buildings are assemblies of elements and motifs. These must all relate to one another. The sizes, measurers, placement of things, and locations of elements, must all fit into a system. Like a human body everything has its place, its proper size, its relationship to all the other parts. What appears to be fanciful must have some deeper logic.

Simplicity

“Genius,” Albert Einstein said, “is making the complex simple, not the simple complex.” In architecture this means one defines a language. For each element [support/
span/enclosure] of a building, or a campus, one must define the simple “words” one wants to use and stick to them. For “support” one could use the word stone bearing wall; for enclosure, one could use the word glass sliding walls; for span one could use the word sloped tile roof. What ever the words, choose them carefully and stick to them.

Nature

As far as possible we should use natural materials, expressing their inherent beauty. Climate, budget and context may temper this; we may have to dress a brick wall in plaster clothes and colour the plaster with paint. But we should seek out natural colours---earthen hues! Our buildings should not appear like over-decorated and painted hardequins. The natural beauty should come out. This aspect can be enhanced by merging landscape with built form---bringing the outside into the building. Courtyards, quadrangles, verandahs and porches all work toward this end.
Function

Buildings have specific functions, and more important generic functional systems as well. They demand to be divided into long spans and short spans; into noisy areas and quite areas; into public areas and private areas. The “zones” must be connected by an appropriate circulation system, dividing pedestrians from vehicles; service areas from user areas; etc.

Motifs/Decoration

Buildings are not mere machines to live in. They transcend mechanical necessity. But the spirit of transcendence must not be confused with the glitter of costume jewelry, with gaudy make-up---a kind of interior decoration turned inside out! A more relevant search may be for “motifs” or “objects” which solve little problems, and in doing so add an element of delight to our work. These could be water spouts; columns; steps; ottas; little windows, doors, statues, reliefs and lintels. These could be incidental, yet powerful adjectives and adverbs which describe and embellish our architectural language. These details must be used with constraint and consistency. They must play against the strong “nouns” and “verbs” of the architectural language [support enclosure, and span].

When I faced the Sahaydri Mountains; when I was constrained to speak in their hills; both humbled by their immensity, and encouraged by my ego, these principles became my code and with a certain confidence I attempted to create architecture
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