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Christopher Benninger said designing the Azim Premji University near Bangalore could well be his ‘magnum opus’. He told Pune Mirror of his plans to make the university such that it will ‘impress even after 100 years’
Posted On Friday, October 08, 2010 at 12:30:02 AM
The Azim Premji University, being established under the Karnataka government’s Azim Premji University Act, 2010, is a gesture of philanthropy by the Wipro founder.
The residential university campus being constructed on the outskirts of Bangalore near Sarjapur, across 25 lakh sq ft, is being designed by Benninger, who described the opportunity as the “ultimate project for a senior architect”, while speaking exclusively to Pune Mirror.
Benninger, who already has several notable projects to his name, including the Mahindra United World College of India, Suzlon One Earth, and ongoing work in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, said designing this university which has been been instituted to undertake teaching, training and R&D in fields like elementary and secondary education, education management and education policy, is a “magnum opus”.
An American, Benninger (67) has made Pune his home since many years.
“When education looks to create great people, ‘new’ Indian citizens, we have to question whether even a 100 schools will make a difference to 500,000 villages — it’s like throwing honey in the sea.
So we start at the bottom with a unique mission, which is the purpose of this enterprise, backed by a team of passionate individuals.
Clients want buildings, but patrons want architecture, and that is what I am here to provide — to create a thing of lasting beauty, not short-term functionality, as a gift to India,” Benninger said.
Confirming the Foundation's decision, Anurag Behar, CEO, Azim Premji Foundation, said, “We are thrilled to have Chris on board, not just because he is a great architect, but also because he is one of the few who have an understanding of education.
This university is being built with a specific purpose — to contribute towards a better society, and the campus will be an embodiment of those principles and that purpose.”
Benninger added: “I believe this will be a place for critical thinking and analysis. The focus is not the classic way we think of education. A campus plan is a mirror of the minds of the people who run it.
What we aim for is a place of self-discovery, to create intellectuals who question, every step of the way.”
The Azim Premji University website says the campus will be fully functional in 2012, while interim facilities will be provided for students for courses that commence in 2011.
However, Benninger says the project — work on it began on September 6 this year — would take about five years to complete.
He said, “An architect looking at this university a 100 years from now should be impressed by its powerful foundations. I would look to deconstruct the architectural concept of universities we have in the country today.
The inspiration for 19th century University campuses has been along cantonment and ‘civil lines’, segregation of classes, nationalities, genders and other hierarchies being the norm, where we see a creation of barriers between knowledge groups.
Residential areas are separated away from the academic areas, as if there is a big split between living and thinking.”
Benninger cites the example of his one of his gurus, Achut Kanvinde, who showed how a university campus can be made different to existing norms when he designed the IIT Kanpur campus in a way that made it compact and walkable.
“However, forces of habit in this country are strong, and his design was overruled by this eventually. Pune still has much to learn in education planning.
As of now, it is more of a production house of degrees than of any tangible intellectual activity, where I can barely identify even 10 pieces of good architecture,” he said.
On his plans for the Azim Premji University, Benninger said: “Universities exist to create ‘pluraforms’ or ideas put together pluralistically. We need to look to creating an atmosphere of conviviality.
To put some of these theories simply, vehicles, for example, have to be out. This is a university, not a cantonment.
We look at a pedestrian ambience, make available places of congregation — cafes, courtyards, spaces to contemplate alone, to seek intellectual companionship, to meet in small groups or even amphitheatre-like areas where one can speak to thousands of people at a time.
The kernel of what we are looking to build is an ancient concept — the Greeks pioneered it thousands of years ago, Nalanda was established on similar lines, and in more modern times, Tagore’s Shantiniketan.”
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