The Importance of Curiosity – Christopher Charles Benninger
My passion for life has not really come from architecture. It has come from adventure and exploration, and I see architecture as just one vehicle through which I can explore the human condition. It is a way to study culture, history, society and our place in civilization.
I feel one can be an explorer sitting in their study, or in their living room. Exploring is searching within unknown contexts, finding things new, different, or maybe just appropriate. A train of ants moving up the wall could lead to speculations and evoke curiosity. Where do they come from and where are they going? What brings consistency into their work and processes? What are they carrying and who tells them to do so; maybe no one? Maybe I am like one of the ants climbing up some wall mindlessly doing the work of civilization, thinking it is very important, while maybe that is not so? As with those ants so with peoples, I am driven in my inquiries by a curiosity about their traditions and the environments that support them. Architectural design is a composite analysis of those things, leading to alternative options for sheltering and maybe inspiring people. The work of writers and journalists is very much like mine as an architect. They too are looking at life, analyzing the human condition and chronicling it. Maybe curious people wonder if we are just trying to amuse them through small gestures of uniqueness or something ‘new’. If life were so mundane then there would be no purpose in our being or in our existence. As people who do things and ‘make things’ we should be asking many questions whose answers would temper our thoughts, ideas and designs. We are not factory workers, bankers, or accountants who just sit at a work place and repeat routine functions. We are supposed to be designing a transforming culture and tempering the structure and nature of civilization. Our tiny gestures hold vast implications for mankind.
When I take up a new design, it is that same sense of challenge, of curiosity and exploration which drives me. The people who patronize my studio are my real work. They are the ‘stuff’ of my passion. Their design briefs, their sites and the patterns of human behavior expressed in their lists of functional spatial requirements, and the relations between them become a kind of pattern which organizes complex materiality and building systems. It also raises questions about the implicit functions and purposes that are not explicitly stated in the brief, the building programs and the budgets. A good functional solution for an office or a factory becomes the template through which non-programmatic ends are realized. These are the unseen truths of architecture. They are the nonverbal, unspoken necessities of humanity; call it conviviality, community or the social patterns that our template facilitates and empowers. Call it a sense of place, a feeling of belonging or gifting identity, but these are all part of the measure of immeasurable architecture. No one is going to tell an architect about these hidden dimensions and secret attributes. An architect has to be driven by curiosity to observe the ants and wonder what drives them. An architect has to look behind the material requirements and create immaterial experiences.
A curious person who is creating spaces for many users has to imagine what it is like for the users to enter and to walk through his building. Then the designer has to become the man who cleans the building and the secretary who smiles at the boss as he grimaces on his brisk morning walk to his chamber. He has to be the visitor who is asked to sit and wait and think what that visitor will think while he is sitting alone, concerned about the impending meeting. He has to be the youngsters working in the building and consider whether they can feel the seasons change and live the day with the sun as their timekeeper. Do they know it is raining and does it bring them a sense of joy? Do the spacesof the inanimate structure come alive as one moves through them, under a low ceiling that emotionally explodes into a large hall, and then directs one’s attention to a landscaped garden where a patient, alert kingfisher waits to swoop on his prey in a silent pool of water? Did all of these experiential emotions just happen, or were they the orchestrated choreography of some thinking mind that was curious to know of all of these imaginary people and their behavior in the designed spaces? Did the designer talk to them in his mind and walk with them through the spaces, like an actor who plays all of the roles in a one-man performance? This, my young friends, is the essence of being an architect. It is grounded in curiosity and in imagination.
I fear that the internet generation is being robbed of their curiosity, discovery and wonderment. Instead of having to search for things and the connections between them, young minds are overwhelmed by images, emotions, ideas and facts. As every young man knows, whatever is left of his curiosity is instantly gratified by the click of his forefinger and like magic the most forbidden fruits can be tasted, at least in his jaded imagination. The luxury of boredom does not challenge him to think and to seek. He was born into a hyper-world. Like a chef in a restaurant, he no longer yearns to taste food; only to produce a flood of new menus and exotic dishes and thrust them ad nauseam onto a client’s plate. Drawing and drafting software have robbed our youth of the talent and the skills of sketching; the ability to instantly juxtapose one design idea over another on transparent sketch paper has gone. Architects have ceased to be designers and are now clever machine operators, unless they arrest themselves and start to think with their hands. The real problem is that drafting is not architecture and buildings are not architecture either. Architecture is the magical spatial aura and the experientialism contained in the material shell; it is not the shell.
In the United World College of India the Mahindras wanted to create a new learning culture in which people from various societies would seek common values and a common vision to which they could devote themselves later, in their adult lives, through various callings. On the face of it they wanted some buildings in which they could teach some courses.
Though they could not articulate the other dimensions, they were sophisticated patrons who could step beyond materiality and imagine the unspoken, the unseen and hope for transcendental experiences in spatial complexity. This shared curiosity about the nature of a campus, of a designed community and of a little society we would all create generated a vibrant dialogue and an adventure.
In the new capital of Bhutan and the buildings that make up the National Capitol Complex, the Royal Government seeks an abode for democracy organized within the Buddhist and Bhutanese tradition. It is a country with living traditions of Himalayan culture. It is unlike many of its neighbors where more powerful nations have taken over and created fossilized ‘museum piece’ cultures – a kind of a static amusement park for tourists; a physical shell with no soul. The bane of globalization is that it tends to homogenize dynamic vernacular experiences into preordained amusement park experiences, like the New Urbanist townscapes in America referring back to a romantic small town past that existed only on Hollywood sets. In the valleys of Bhutan culture is live, with its own style and vernacular. Vernaculars are always changing, morphing and unfolding as new technologies, information and functions diffuse within the society. What is important as democracy and its related new institutions emerge, along with the buildings that house them, is to conserve the essence of Bhutanese culture, while expressing it through contemporary buildings. This challenge was not articulated in the architect’s brief, but this problematique was certainly in the mind of Lyonchen Jigme Thinley, the country’s first elected Prime Minister. It drove my thinking too. But none of this was ever written down or expressed in budgets, bills of quantities or specifications. This most important aspect of the work lay in the realm of curiosity, speculation and a bit of magic. Much of the work we are doing employs wonderful traditional woodcarving, massive white masonry walls, overhanging roofs to protect the walls from rain, and the traditional iconography that instills meaning. We are speaking a clear Bhutanese architectural language that has grown out of a particular history, climate, economy and society. We have to speak that language while designing.
In the mainstream, ‘cutting edge’ architecture of the West these concerns are no longer central to architectural dialogue. Architects there are arguing about isms – modernism and postmodernism. The debate does not conceal the fact that most of the architects are into self-projection and bent upon becoming famous by making spectacular stunts, like a fire-eating trapeze artist in a circus, or like a thrill ride in Disneyland. Put together, all of the notable buildings of the past two decades are nothing but a giant amusement park littered across the global landscape, or perhaps a junkyard of worn out stunts and wrecks left over from megalomaniacal follies. The issues of vernacular, of experientiality and of just plain conviviality are lost to these creatures who are very concerned about their visibility, being watched, being talked about and just plain being famous. It is good to be well known, but let us not smother humanity with the garbage dump we are creating.
I must confess that at a vulgar level I also enjoy a bit of pornography and spectacularly contorted structures doing things that are not meant to be possible or affordable. I also derive a perverse pleasure from the garish displays of ill-earned wealth and ill-spent income flaunted by rude film stars, corrupt politicians and spoilt princes. But something inside me makes me catch myself and ask, ‘What am I doing?’ An inner voice tells me to step back and think. Architecture over the past few decades has lost that inner voice, and all the critics and art historians have become sycophants of the tastemakers. Even the universities and the museums have become stooges of the global amusement park.
This vulgar aspect of the human spirit, call it a need for ‘thrill’, triggers a rush of excitement that replaces true curiosity. The crowds that mob to the wreck of an auto crash are driven by a crass desire to see spilt blood, not by any curiosity of what could be done to prevent more such accidents, or even a concern for the fate of the victims. The thrill of the tallest tower, of the most sensuous and seductive curved form and the most audacious structural feat are all ghoulish responses from the animal in us, not the refined considerations of a well tempered mind and a focused society.
Architecture is not a structural feat, an amusement or a spectacular personal statement. It is a considered, thoughtfully articulated, well-tempered response to diverse desirables, not the least of which is uplifting the human spirit. To discover this truth one must be able to analyze and understand complex situations. The cut-and-paste and the rubber-stamp solutions that typify our urban landscape and the stunts that draw crowds are a travesty of architecture.
What I am hinting at is what I described earlier as the element of exploration and discovery that architecture entails. It could be the intense curiosity of solving a specific problem right on the drawing board, or it could be the thrill of a serendipitous discovery while browsing through books. Intense curiosity can emerge from travel, writing, reading and just meeting people and exploring one another’s minds. Meetings can be causal encounters. Intellectual companionships can emerge, grow and later fade away. But the element of mutual discovery is what it is all about. In architecture there is always that moment of discovery in each project, where one defines the essence of the work of art, experiencing transcendence and achieving a moment of epiphany.
My personal interests and hobbies have all revolved around this central theme and passion. Architecture is just my formal work, merely one form of this search that comes in different manifestations. So my personal life involves a number of compelling initiatives in my need to understand what I do not know and do not understand. I want to enter unknown territory, dissect it, take it apart and put it back together again. That ‘territory’ could be a new friend, a vast sand desert, or a novel. Surely each new design problem is a passionate form of exploration, driven by curiosity.
I find people my most intriguing pastime. Every person presents a new conundrum or puzzle: what are the values which motivate them to be passive or active? What makes them reactive to their context, or proactive to change it? What are their personal visions and their objectives, and what path have they chosen to get there? What gives them a ‘lift’? What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? Why are they afraid to be themselves? I like hard working and focused people who know where they are going and are developing the skills and techniques to get there. I like people who have a grasp of who they are and what their living and working environment is actually like. I like ‘in-your-face’ kind of lively people who wear their emotions on their sleeves. Friendship becomes a kind of mutual exploration of values, patterns of thought and structure of behavior. Friendship is emotional attachment, but most of all it is intellectual companionship, driven by questioning the nature of human existence and by an honesty in proposing answers. From a base of honest expression one can share ideas and study how one idea relates to another. One can see such relationships between ideas as concepts; concepts about the human condition and society shared by intellectual companions. Friendship is my main hobby and I have friends from all walks of life: owners of great industries; drivers; socialites; cooks; professors; attendants; artists and inventors. What they earn, where they come from and how much they are worth are just interesting facts that decorate their search for meaning. Income and social status can be very boring attributes if they constitute a person’s totality. The ‘search’ is where the fire of friendship burns and what we share. At India House that search is a quiet one; it is in the whispers over a drawing; in the annoyed glares exchanged over errors; and in the smiles confirming something beautiful. It is through work and sincere effort that companionship is shared. Everything else is irrelevant.
My interest in people leads me to a love of reading about them, because good literature is a study of human nature and of perseverance within the human condition. I like works like The General in His Labyrinth, Love in the Time of Cholera and Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez; or Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; or Kenzaburo Oe’s narratives, A Personal Matter and Nip the Bud; Shoot the Kids. These are profound as they drag one into new worlds, new situations, sentiments and nuances. Through their characters we find ourselves dealing with their world. Through our curiosity we evolve a worldview.
I also like the study of economics and behavioral sciences, because they speak of collective human aspirations and action; of how larger groups of people organize themselves and their behavior for the common good or even self-destruction. Literature and the behavioral sciences often deal with collective amnesia regarding the huge failures of the human race, and the horrid stereotypes we cast on groups in order to ignore and suppress them. If I pick up The Economist I first look in the back to read their page long obituaries. I learn about such fantastic lives, times, struggles, achievements and failures. I always finish the article thinking ‘I wish I had known that person.’
Reading about people leads one to writing about them. I yearn to be a writer and that would logically be another of my hobbies, time permitting. My short story Akhada appeared in Femina, which made me happy. Akhada is about a Nepali woman who mistakenly wanders into the all-male world of a traditional gymnastics ground, hidden within a deep overgrown forest. It is an encounter between the fragile personas of the immodest male ego and protected female pride. It explores societal boundaries and limits, which are things I do not like. I have written a novel over the past ten years just for the fun of it, not to publish it. It is called Samsara and deals with the evolution of a woman’s soul and her self-discovery, against great odds in a traditional patriarchal society.
Writing is an opportunity for me to explore the relations between the central, controlling mainstream of society, and its less defined creative edges. It allows me to analyze things strange, queer, transforming, and unusual and perhaps to discover the unknown. Art lies out there on the unfettered periphery of the mainstream. The core in metropolitan centers appears stagnant and polluted, the more so as one approaches the Eurocentric universe.
The literary journal Biblio gave me the opportunity to publish many of my ideas, including a review of Kenzaburo Oe’s literature when he won the Nobel Prize, and an analysis called Queer Words that reviewed the rich history of gay and lesbian literature in India. Vikram Seth, Bupen Khakkar, R. Raj Rao and many others have contributed to this very Indian tradition, allowing multiple images of normal, yet ‘different’, existences to emerge, unlike the cutting-edge West that has stereotyped gay life into a stale pop culture. Again everything becomes Disney World, an amusement, a stereotype and a trap. By exploring the ‘edge’ one gets back to the potentials of the center. India offers its people a huge variety of personal identities and paths in life. Our culture in India is not uniform, but what Milan Kundera calls a ‘pluraform’. What we wear and build is expression coming from many pluraforms deep inside pushing up and out, while the global culture of ‘the center’ is a uniform pushing in onto people, smothering their unique identity and sense of individuality.
Such playing about with ideas about people leads to critical analysis and proposals, and new models and paths for looking at the human condition. In The Science of the Absurd, a critical review I wrote of Ruth Vanita’s translation of Chocolate by Pandeya Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’, I could employ her wonderful introductory essay to explore ‘common wisdom’, stereotypes, prejudices and biases to explain how empiricism and science have been perverted to the misplaced cause of suppressing and marginalizing minorities. Medicine, law, the family construct, advertising, religion, politics, education and other ‘institutions’ are more often used to ply untruths about minorities than truths. We started the twentieth century with erroneous ideas about women, blacks and Jews, and we ended it with erroneous views of Muslims, gays and Africa. Through reading and writing one can climb up the tree trunk of life and walk out to the ends of life’s branches and twigs, exploring worlds and realities hidden from the average mind. Young architects, go out there on the fringe and explore yourselves.
People, reading and writing and a little daring leads to my most favorite hobby: being a traveler. A tourist is not a traveler. A traveler has no plan, no bookings, no train reservations and no guides. A traveler moves on instinct and according to intuition in a general direction toward a vague destination. Fate and turns of events shape their paths. The movement and journey is their search. The people met and encountered, the incidents and the experiences are the goal. When I first visited Bhutan in the late 1970s I was the only Caucasian in Thimphu and maybe one of five or six in the Kingdom. I was able to traverse the entire mountainous country over dirt roads and mule tracts. I slept under vast skies filled with a blanket of glittering stars. I fell in love with the land and with the people. Its culture, for me, has been a deep well of learning and a source of wisdom and mental peace. The greatest honor in my life was being commissioned to design their new Capitol Complex, within the Capital City Plan I prepared. In this work I am dealing with the most sacred artifacts and icons of Bhutanese culture. I am overwhelmed by this. It is a continuation of a search that began in the Himalayas many decades ago. So, to be commissioned to design a new building is like embarking on a new adventure. It is setting off on a search for the real and the true. A good architect must be a good traveler, at least in his mind.
Another expedition, referred to in an earlier letter, was my travel overland from London to Mumbai in 1971. I had no itinerary or clear idea of how I would do it. I learned survival along the way and took the help, protection and shelter of pure strangers. This adventure was my education about the greatness of humanity and our common values and concerns. It was my rite of passage from a boy to a man. I flew from Boston to London and took a train down to Dover, then the Channel ferry across to France. From there it was mostly overland: trains, buses, walking at times, camels, vans and hitch-hiking. I just traveled from one city to the next and made friendships along the way. All I knew was that I was moving toward India and that I must ‘move’ and I must ‘survive’. I came to love the Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Afghan and sub-continental peoples. They are at once earthy and erudite. They are steeped in great cultures fostering a love for humanity; a will to persist and to survive. These are the people from whom the West can learn a great deal, but there has to be humility and submission to learn anything from anyone.
To travel like this you have to put your fate totally in the hands of others – unknown others! You are not a tourist; you are traveling in totally unknown territory. You need a basic faith in human nature. You have to see the good in each person, respect that good, and you will get respect in return. Concerns about water, food, shelter and physical security then vanish. All those flow toward you as part of the relationships you build along life’s way. My love for and friendships with these people are born of moving with them, eating with them, sharing a few drops of water from a desert well, sleeping under the stars at night, and always laughter. India has always been the destination of my explorations and travels.
On my first visit to India I flew with stops in Alaska, Japan, China, Taiwan, Cambodia and Thailand. When I landed in Phnom Penh I was told I could not enter because there were no diplomatic relations between America and Cambodia. By the time the argument was over the plane had deserted me in the small airport and they had no choice but to allow me to stay. Adversaries became friends. The one or two taxis had left the airstrip and the soldiers got me a ride on an elephant up to the edge of town, from where I took a cycle rickshaw at dusk into the strange city with red dust roads. They were of a grand scale, lined with white stones and swept neatly into order every morning. I spent ten days in the country and was the only American who was not in jail. There were fourteen imprisoned US Air Force pilots, who had been shot down for illegally intruding into Cambodian airspace while flying out of South Vietnam toward the North. There were Viet Cong soldiers strolling about the streets off duty; young men of my age enjoying a respite from their battle against capitalism and from the invading American forces. That was an encounter with a society and a culture that was soon after lost to the ravages of the Khmer Rouge terror. It was my privilege to move freely amongst these beautiful, ancient people, sharing with them their simple and dignified lives before their culture was destroyed, vanishing into the pages of history books.
My youth is now an antique land drifting away into memories. It is a secret place that only a few can enter through our dreams and recollections. But the passions, dreams and hopes of those I met way back then persist as a force within me today.
Now in India I am an architect, living a dream with my life partner, my fellow architects and my wonderful patrons, working in India House at Balewadi on the edge of Pune, an emerging metropolis in this chaotically changing world. Change is all around me. Yesterday is becoming an antique land of memories and we are thinking of tomorrow in terms of bits and pieces, in the form of designed little enclaves that hopefully will act as models for a better future. All of us, young architects and old, students and teachers face huge challenges.
India, like America, is a land of individuals. Like America, its composite parts are diverse. India is composed of a billion initiatives of a billion people. These are sometimes in conflict and sometimes in alignment. Living in India is a huge challenge demanding understanding, patience and perseverance. This vast complexity of personalities, multiple visions, values and ways of doing things is a continuous source of inspiration and motivation. The very name of the country sparks my imagination and my curiosity even after living more than half a century amongst its wonderful people. The search here is to find the common thread that weaves all of these strands into one cloth. That is the fun of it all. What is amazing is that within all of this diversity there are so many threads that tie everything together into a stable pattern; always in flux, always in transition, always changing, yet dependable and unified.
Somehow I have always felt most at home in India; more so even than in America or Europe. I love the chaos, the dynamic synergy and the way things settle into their own unique order. I love the warmth of the people, expressed through smiles and laughter. I love the variety of characters and the complexity of the society. I love the smell of rain on parched earth, wafted on the breeze from the distant mountains as the monsoon approaches. I love the sounds of insects at dusk and the songs of birds at dawn, when the sun peeks over the horizon onto verdant fields.
I love the early morning chatter of the boys who run India House, as they prepare for yet another day. I have loved people and people have loved me, making India my natural abode. But most of all I love the inherent curiosity of Indians. They never leave you alone until they have queried every aspect of your private and family life. Probably I am just the avatar of another traveler from a previous life here in what is now an antique land. My soul knows this place! Perhaps I was a migratory bird living winters on the shores of Sri Lanka and summers in the high Himalayas! I find a harmony between the soil and myself, enjoying friendships with people of many communities, religions, castes, and ethnic groups from across India. It is surely my destined home. The passion behind my plans and designs for India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan emanate from being a part of this harmony and vibrating within it. As an architect I am merely a hand following its innate force, giving materiality to India’s deep well of wisdom.
Having said all of this, having shared my stray thoughts and emotions, I feel in the end life is all about being a perpetual student, finding good teachers and walking starry-eyed under the continuous spell of curiosity.
As I have said to you several times in these letters, there is only one kind of good luck in life and that is to have good teachers. I have had more than my share of them, dating way back to the 1960s when I studied under Jose Lluís Sert, and when Walter Gropius strolled through the studios at Harvard, where I was a young student. I can go back further as a teenager studying under unknown masters like Harry Merritt and Robert Tucker, or I can go back to my childhood of green lawns, flowering trees, rolling hills, clear streams filling lucid lakes, adorned with water lilies, turtles, alligators and blessed with yellow butterflies hovering above.
Within one’s memory lies a vast treasure house of images, puzzles, nostalgia, possibilities, constructs, values, ideas and thoughts of the future. It is the unique ability of the human race that we live primarily in the past, using the present to forge images and scenarios of the future. Unlike other animals we lack the peace of living only in the present, intuitively resolving the challenges of the moment that our instincts are prepared for. We are restless by nature, concerned with multiple future scenarios, both good and bad. Nothing in the future seems certain to us, which makes us curious to know what tomorrow will bring. Every sunset forebodes a hundred sunrises. The setting sun makes us contemplate what will be our contribution for a better tomorrow.
Christopher Benninger’s early architectural works were highly influenced by his association with modernist architects, under who he studied, and the modernist pioneers of India who were his mentors in the 1960’s and 70’s. His early work like the Centre for Development Studies and Activities, and the United World College of India gave way to a more individualistic and robust style in the recent decade through works like the Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies, the Suzlon One Earth and the Indian Institute of Management at Kolkata.
Multiple award winning Master Architect, Christopher’s interest in urbanism took him to Sri Lanka, across India and up to the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. His Supreme Court of Bhutan, National Ceremonial Plaza, UN House and other civic institutions in Bhutan continue the strong traditions of craftsmanship in Bhutan, applying them to modern programmatic contexts.
He is presently engaged in the design of the Azim Premji University, the Indian Institute of Technology at Hyderabad, and many institutions around the city of Pune where his center, India House is situated. Christopher began his teaching career at The School of Architecture at Ahmedabad (1968), Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (1969-71), The School of Planning at Ahmedabad (which he founded with Balkrishna Doshi in late 1971), and at the Centre for Development Studies and Activities .His book, Letters To A Young Architect, won the Best Architecture Book of the Year Award 2012 and was on the Top Ten Best Selling Non-fiction Books List for many months.
His latest book, Architecture for Modern India was published in Italy by Skira-Rizzole.