May 25, 2011
by: Gregory Haley AIA AICP LEED AP

Event: Designing in Context: Ideas for 21st Century Indian Cities
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.07.11
Speakers: Christopher Charles Benninger, Assoc. AIA — Principal, Christopher Charles Benninger Architects; Arjun Appadurai — Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development; Kenneth Frampton — Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
Moderator: Victoria Marshall — Assistant Professor of Urban Design, Parsons the New School for Design & 2010-2012 Fellow, India China Institute
Welcome: Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo, AIA, LEED AP — President, AIA New York Chapter
Introduction: Umberto Dindo, AIA — Secretary, AIA New York Chapter
Organizers: AIANY; Center for Architecture Foundation; India China Institute at The New School; Indo-American Arts Council (IAAC); Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects (SIAEA)
Sponsors: Grants: Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; National Endowment for the Arts; Underwriter: Duggal Visual Solutions; Lead Sponsors: Hitachi; Robert A.M. Stern Architects; Sponsors: Grapevine Merchants; Society of Indo-American Engineers and Architects; Supporters: Bittersweet NYC; CetraRuddy; Kingfisher Lager; Friends: Arup; Benjamin Moore; IBEX Construction; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; Perkins Eastman; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; Special Thanks: Umberto Dindo, AIA; Lutz Konermann; Catherine Scharf

The contemporary tendency is to view urbanism as a “saleable product” to be “bought, with the hope of profit from resale,” according to Christopher Charles Benninger, Assoc. AIA, principal of Pune, India-based Christopher Charles Benninger Architects. In particular, he bemoans the import of western-style suburban development to India, which he believes is not urban, rejects variety, and “tells 80% of the population to please get lost!” In response, he has proposed “Ten Principles of Intelligent Urbanism,” a set of guiding axioms meant to facilitate public participation and refocus urban development as process, not product.

In his plan for Thimphu, Bhutan, for example, Benninger emphasized balancing nature and tradition with the needs for new development. His firm focused on promoting regional integration while maintaining human scale. The development of the plan began with an extensive mapping of natural resources, ecosystems, infrastructure, and heritage sites to define the character of and opportunities for the community. Once the framework was established, “neighborhood plans” were created through participatory workshops.

Recounting his efforts to understand the “cataclysmically changing urban space” of Mumbai over the last decades, Arjun Appadurai, Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, concluded that there is “no way to think of Mumbai outside of its spatial predicament.” To Appadurai, Mumbai demonstrates three broad themes that unite the growing roster of global mega-cities: its remarkable density; radical inequalities; and the strong presence of global capital, finance, and urban real estate development. Faced with this “lethal mixture” of forces, he questioned how Benninger’s principles of building upon culture and history may be applied in places where much underlying history and culture is erased daily by massive construction. Additionally, while acknowledging the economic interdependencies between informal settlements and the larger, formal economies of Indian cities, he sees the need to democratically integrate slum dwellers into the larger process of urbanization.

In response to this call for public participation, and as Appadurai put it, a “widening of who is allowed at the table,” Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, added the importance of “knowing who owns the table” in the first place. It is important to connect the divide and interdependence between the global economy and the so-called “surplus people,” to the death of the welfare state in the West, and worldwide struggles between corporate capitalism and democracy. Frampton emphasized the “spontaneous space of appearance” where democratic politics can be played out, as recently demonstrated in Cairo’s Tahir Square. Amidst the global forces at work in Indian cities, planning must “take its point of departure in the current situation as it is,” Appadurai said, and endeavor to “intervene in situ in very messy conditions.”

Note: This event was followed by a book release and talk given by Christopher Charles Benninger about his book Letters to a Young Architect (CCBA Pvt. Ltd., April 2011), a collection of autobiographical narratives and ideas reflecting his spiritual journey from America to India, and the philosophical considerations that matured from his experiences.

Gregory Haley, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, is a senior architect at Grimshaw Architects.


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