The Great Master - Christopher Charles Benninger speaks to CW Interiors about his design philosophy, materials and more…
A man who needs no introduction, Christopher Charles Benninger added another feather to his cap with the coveted ‘The Great Master Architect’ title, which was recently conferred upon him for his lifetime contribution to architecture at a ceremony in Kolkata. And this modest ‘master’ continues to express his design philosophy with astonishing clarity of thought. For instance, in his sustained effort to reach out to fellow architects, students and everyone interested in the science of design, Benninger expresses his concern about false styles that impale a fashion from the past upon modern technology in a manner that hides the true technology under stylised decoration. “What you see is not what you get!” exclaims the Harvard and MIT-educated architect, describing this commercial, false style as effetism. He also points that, over the course of history, there has been a concern with new materials and technologies and an equal concern with contemporary problems and issues. So what are the materials that have shaped and informed his remarkable oeuvre? Here’s what Benninger tells us….
Can you give us a brief of the innovative materials and techniques that have moulded your design philosophy?
In my work we are evolving a language from flat slabs, roofing systems and enclosure envelopes that create a relevant, expressive architecture. Many architects, working closely with engineers and high-tech vendors, are doing this.
The workshop at Samundra Institute of Maritime Studies is an example of close cooperation between an architect and engineer. In this structure I first prepared an intuitive design of how I wanted the structural members to be placed. Then my engineer Bal Kulkarni worked with me on the gauges and diameters of the steel tubes and the kinds and sizes of welding and bolts based on my designs of fastenings. We played back and forth and finally settled upon a solution. Then we vetted it with the client’s structural engineers and added crossbars for side wind loads and stabilised the joint between the columns and floor connections. We created a 90 m × 8 m photovoltaic wall to the south that both generates electricity and filters light through the jaali-like wall, cutting the cost of lighting drastically. Our design for the new indoor air-conditioned stadium in Ahmedabad is another tour de force in the exploitation of steel and tensile structures in the roof canopy.
Tell us something about your experience with the use of the flat slab.
At the multi-storeyed Tain Square we explored the flat slab where previously only concrete frame structures had been used. The idea was to allow all home owners within a labyrinth of apartments to move and lay out their own room plans. At Suzlon World Headquarters, we worked on an 8.4 m × 8.4 m grid with concrete columns 750 mm in diameter. This resolved both the parking grid in the basement and allowed the use of open-landscape modular office systems within the main halls.
What inspires you to use louvres?
At Kochi Refineries Ltd, we introduced the idea of aluminium louvres to shield a glass wall office building from the blazing sun. We were inspired by the traditional wood louvres in Kerala temples and palaces. The system keeps the hot sun away from the building envelope and results in saving of energy used for cooling. It also reflects sunlight up to the interior ceilings, saving on lighting costs.
Glass is a commonly used material. Have you experimented with it too?
Glass is a complex material that can be used with films, by laminating two pieces and by providing an air gap between two sheets that reduces heat gain and glare. Low E-glass cuts heat gain in one sheet. We have exploited glass by facing the vast areas to the north and northeast; by shading them from the sun with louvres; and through the application of films, laminating and toughening.
What are your favourite roofing systems?
Steel roofs are becoming more common in our vocabulary. In areas of heavy rainfall, like Bhutan and in the Western Ghats, we have found a new solution for waterproofing. New laminated aluminium sheets with insulation are changing the way we address elementary shelter problems and are having an impact on the way we express ourselves.
Exposed concrete is seen in most of your designs. Is it a part of your philosophy?
I have always tried to use exposed reinforced concrete as a pure aesthetic material in my buildings. But the construction profession finds it difficult to produce the kinds of finishes we get in Japan or Europe. It is simply a matter of discipline. The vibration must be right, the additives correct and the shuttering and formwork must be clean and well supported to prevent sagging.
What do you suggest is the best cladding system?
ACP sheets are an easy, relatively inexpensive and fast way to complete a building.
All these materials offer exciting solutions and creative potentials. So what are the hitches?
No doubt all these materials offer exciting solutions and creative potentials, but vendors are slow to come on board our journey. When we bend glass, there are often small bubbles; plate glass bulges out from the frame creating wavy surfaces, and we still find marks on toughened glass where clamps were used. Many suppliers can not supply the colours we require in the LEED rating we need. Roofing suppliers are ignorant of LEED ratings of their materials, have ugly ridge joints and employ a very limited vocabulary of sheets, ridges and sofits. Sanitary fittings are difficult for our plumbers to fit and even toilet seats are complicated to attach and expensive to replace. Suppliers of structural steel tubes and sections are limited and what is specified, though in the catalogue, may not be available. Foreign suppliers are not dependable in their lead times and a few totally fail in delivery.
How do you think can we overcome these shortcomings?
What we lack is backward and forward integration within the industry. Our vendors
are still dalals or traders! They are just picking something up in China and selling it ‘as it is’ in India. They should be working out how the material joins with itself in different corners and shapes! They should be exploring how it is actually applied on sites and how it attaches to other building components. They should be working on waterproofing problems where their materials join others. They should be interested in how their systems behave in the Indian sun and chilly nights, and how they connect to the main structure allowing it to expand and contract! But they are not interested. They cannot meet the demand. They are just trading and selling items picked up there and sold here. There must be a dialogue between our traditional materials and our new materials and methods. Sandstone cladding can be fixed to a wall in a number of ways. Dry or wet? Stainless steel or brass? A wet-dry combination? Who knows the truth? It can be integrated with aluminium louvres and wood fenestration.
That’s so true. So what do you think would be the ideal situation?
In Latin America, an architect is a designer, an engineer, and a contractor! The clients come to one place and the product is delivered to the users according to performance criteria. We have to learn from that system where all of the ‘builda-bility’, performance, and economic and aesthetic considerations are rolled into one.
Contact: Christopher Charles Benninger Architects Private Limited, India House, 53 Sopan Bagh, Opp. Bharatiya Vidyapeeth School, Balewadi, Pune 411 045. Tel: 020 6510 2331/ 32. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.ccba.in