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Sanganam, a low-cost housing scheme in Auroville by Anupama Kundoo

In August, Anupama Kundoo, the Indian architect who has integrated traditional building customs, crafts and materials into her over-30-year career was recognized by the 2021 RIBA Charles Jencks Award, presented to architects who “have made a major contribution simultaneously to the theory and practice of architecture.” The prize was more than deserved: Kundoo‘s projects, mainly concentrated in South India, exemplify how designers around the world could be more sensitive to local culture and place, use less and question architectural standards.

Kundoo grew up in Mumbai and studied at its university’s Sir JJ College of Architecture, the first architecture school in India set up by the British. Upon graduation in 1989, she traveled to Auroville, an experimental town on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in South India. Conceived in the late 1960s as a universal place for people from all nations to live in harmony, the utopian community intrigued Kundoo enough to commit to its idealistic project: She started her practice there at the age of 23, seeking to find her own place in the profession by learning from builders and craftsmen directly and intuitively and utilizing local resources while exploring modes of improvement. She would go on to collaborate with the town’s chief architect and planner, France’s Roger Anger, on the development of his plan for a visionary city supported by UNESCO and the Indian government. In its making, many of her early public buildings, including Town Hall, Mitra Youth Hostel, Creativity Co-housing, as well as numerous private homes, were realized.   

Portrait of Anupama Kundoo
Anupama Kundoo

The architect’s first built work, however, was her own house: The two-storey Hut in Petite Ferme, completed in 1990, blended into nature and was entirely dependent on sunlight for electricity and water heating. The rudimentary-looking structure featured a thatch roof infilled with local trees and shrubs tied together with coconut ropes. A decade later she created and moved into the Wall House, which doubled as a testing ground for her design concepts; today, the celebrated project’s original drawings and models are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Kundoo’s practice now comprises three offices: one in Berlin, where the architect also teaches (at TU Berlin), and two in India — in Pune and in Pondicherry, close to Auroville. And her entire oeuvre was recently given the mid-career retrospective treatment in “Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time,” on view earlier this year at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

New York-based architectural critic and curator Vladimir Belogolovsky connected with Anupama Kundoo over Zoom. They discussed her resistance to anything systematized and standardized, her avoidance of the comfort zone, and the importance of not indiscriminately repeating what our ancestors, parents and professors have told us.

You’ve been labeled an alternative architect, but are not too keen on that. I wonder why: Personally, I am only interested in alternative architecture, not in the mainstream. Anything that’s worth being called architecture is an alternative to what we see from day to day on our streets, is it not? In a way, all architecture is a subculture.

Anupama Kundoo

In that sense, I agree with you. And it is important to realize that architecture is a part of evolution and it is about continuity. Yet, it’s not simply about repeating habits, but about evolving. To me, to be alive means not to be safe and secure but to be adventurous. I want to push for things that are outside of the comfort zone. I don’t want to treat architecture as a product. I am more interested in the process and how architecture can adapt to new challenges. Architecture is a process of inquiry. How do we maintain relevance of such process over time?

The Shah Houses in Pune.

This notion of not being in the comfort zone – could you define what that means for you? Does this position worry your clients?

Regardless whether you are a client, a craftsman, or an architect, if you remain in the comfort zone, you’re going to be bored. You will develop an apathy. Well, I pick my battles. I work with the climate conditions. For example, I never contest gravity, unlike some other architects. I surrender humbly to the forces of nature. My way is based on recognizing that we are part of an evolving universe – I pick where I should surrender and adapt, and where to be pioneering. I want to facilitate human society’s evolution.

Reconsidering standardized solutions is a part of that evolutionary thinking. I want to surrender to the laws of nature but question the laws made by man. I don’t want to play along with the established culture where everything from a cup of coffee to architecture becomes systematized, corporatized and standardized. That’s a passive and disengaged position, not adventurous nor enjoyable.

Shah Houses in Pune by Anupama Kundoo
Inside the Shah Houses in Pune.

In a way, that’s how architecture has developed for centuries – going against what’s expected and questioning what’s already established. That’s why there is progress, right?

Sure. Otherwise, we would be stagnant and there would be no reason to design anything other than reproduce what we already know. I just don’t like to design new things just for the sake of being novel. The world is full of things that call for genuine rethinking and innovation.

Volontariat Homes for Homeless Children in Pondicherry.

Could you touch on your design process? Where do you begin?

I start with sketches. But simultaneously, I initiate applied research, explore different material choices, and I never forget that the purpose of architecture is to create a built environment and to serve people in this environment. I want to always remember – what is the purpose of architecture? To me, architecture is always a background for celebrating life. What I also always begin to think about is the maker, whether various elements are made individually or industrially. I make my choices based on that knowledge and on negotiating the degree to which handmade meets machine-made.

Making the Volontariat Homes for Homeless Children in Pondicherry.

In the past you have said that “architects are becoming puppets of market forces and product catalogues.” Do you see your architecture as a resistance to the expected standard?

Well, it would defeat the whole purpose if my work becomes another standard, right? In that sense, I feel that architecture was always a personalized service. I just want to be able to respond and address individual issues, places and people. I want to be able to be spontaneous and individual. And that’s the reason I never scaled up my office: I want to keep this spirit of individual contact. I want to spread my ideas widely rather than distribute them from top to bottom.

Architecture is a stage on which human stories are lived out; these stages don’t have to be constructed only by professionals. Otherwise, there is going to be an erosion of human capacities. My practice resists that. I feel that over-standardization and mass supply of architecture is responsible for creating urban ugliness at a fast pace. One example of that is when bigger studios are buying smaller ones. In the end, our freedom is taken away, we get paid less, while the service we provide is getting more expensive without being as useful. We can’t simply follow these processes mindlessly. But there are so many people that love to rely on their Starbucks coffee wherever they are instead of venturing into the local cafe. That’s what I call the comfort zone that prevents people from being adventurous.

You have expressed a desire to use significantly less material in your projects, but how that then becomes a challenge for the engineers you work with. What prompted this concern?

You know, I don’t think anyone ever asked me this question before. Well, when I was working on my early structures during the first decade, trying to rethink traditional techniques, I noticed that the engineers I was working with were very tense. They tried to push me into using more widely acceptable techniques. But the craftsmen did not have the same engineering fear because they used their intuition and empirical testing. So, I was guided by the craftsmen and their confidence. They would never say, “I don’t know.” But professional engineers who are educated in a bookish way and not in an embodied knowledge way would often be hesitant about using uncustomary ideas. That would prevent us from experimenting. And my idea of using less would make them nervous because they wanted to use more just to be safe. Subsequently, I began working with very good engineers, but it was a process.

Sanganam, a low-cost housing scheme in Auroville by Anupama Kundoo
Sanganam, a low-cost housing scheme located in Auroville. (Here and top of article).

You’re a big proponent of thinking with your hands – as a way of expanding the imagination.

It is so true. Whenever you plan something on a piece of paper, once you go to the site, you always have to make adjustments. So, you need to go back and forth. If I haven’t put two bricks together or stitched two pieces of fabric with my own hands I won’t have learned anything. This directness is very important, especially in such regions as India where every place is very particular. There is no homogeneity. And I want to learn from every place and every situation.

I learned a lot from observing nature. Nature wants to test many possibilities. It wants to try everything out. There is such an incredible variety and richness. Why should we restrict ourselves? Look at the evolution of any process – at every point you have 10 different options and for every one of those 10 you have another 10. I also enjoy when what I plan does not happen on site. I want to know about my limits. Of course, it can be very unsettling in the beginning. But then you realize that there is a new expansion possible here and there. If you take a road and, suddenly, you see something wonderful, wouldn’t you want to stop and enjoy it, or you will blindly follow your path and schedule? You need to stop and think and explore what’s possible right now.

Kranti House in Pune.

I want to agree with you but, in the current moment, there is so much mass construction happening — and it’s to keep up with the growing demand for housing, for example. It seems there is no time to stop and think. It’s either too expensive or too time-consuming for that approach to become a part of the mainstream.

Well, maybe I am too optimistic. What I know is that every bird makes its own nest and there is no governance for how to do that. And humans used to build habitats for generations. Perhaps you are right, and it’s partly because of that that I did not want to scale up my practice. Anything over 20 people would be too large and even at that scale there is a lot of overhead — you need to have a management staff and pay more attention to the operation issues than to the design itself.

Also, you say there is a growing demand for building, but a lot of that is speculative. In fact, there is a study showing that there are as many unsold apartments now as there is shortage. And that’s because those apartments are out of reach for most people.

Town Hall in Auroville.

Fair enough. Returning to how nature is an influence for you, in the past you’ve said that you might look at a dragonfly wing’s structure or a leaf pattern and that could inspire you. You even compared leaf patterns to old cities’ street patterns. Are there any specific examples of such approaches in your work?

I learned a lot from observing nature. Nature wants to test many possibilities, try everything out. There is such an incredible variety and richness. Why should we restrict ourselves?
Anupama Kundoo

That’s true, but I would not say that all my architecture is inspired by this knowledge. Yet it is important to pay attention to how nature finds its solutions, particularly when we design anything that has to do with flow patterns. In addition to the examples you just cited, we look at all kinds of circulation systems, such as the pattern of blood vessels or the Mississippi River Delta. And I am also interested in the imprints that the passage of time leaves on matter such as stone and shells. A shell has a spiral form but if you cut it, you will have cones within cones. It is a complex geometry of circles coexisting with triangles. So, I am fascinated with the notion of time playing the role of architect. I want to overlap these notions of architecture of time in three areas that I classified as architecture of matter, architecture of life, and architecture of mind. They’ve become a part of our unconscious constructs.

And to answer your question, I don’t try to ape those solutions at all. But if I come up with solutions that don’t yet appear to be beautifully resolved, I try to stop and think, and I look at how nature found those elegant solutions. And it is hard to come up with a question that nature has not solved. I think materials make non-material forces visible to us. A bird’s beak may inspire you to design a hinge, you know?

Details of the Town Hall in Auroville.

You never look for hinges in catalogues?

I may. But that’s not how I start. Just like in the Bauhaus school building in Dessau, not every doorknob needs to be individually designed. But if you have a unique problem, such as the need to open louvered windows in unison, you would come up with a unique solution of linking them together with a pully and chain system. I should be able to decide when to rely on standard products and when I need to design something unique.

A courtyard at Auroville’s Town Hall.

Could you talk about your Wall House in Auroville? Do you still use it as an ongoing laboratory?

Absolutely. I go there many times a year. I never burn bridges with the places where I have lived or taught – Mumbai, Brisbane, Madrid, New York. I work in a borderless sort of way. And the Wall House was always treated as a true laboratory. In fact, if something had to be proven to a client I would do it in my own house first. For example, in one public building we did, we constructed the filler slab ceiling with terracotta bowl-like inserts for its 13-metre span, so I tested that kind of slab with my craftsmen. If I failed it would stay in my own house, but I would have still learned my lessons. [Laughs.]

I worked on the design and construction of Wall House whenever I had time, while living in a hut that I had also designed. I didn’t rush to finish it, instead I used it as a site for experimentation at my own expense where I could change things as needed. I started Wall House in 1996 and every time I ran out either of money, time or ideas, I would pause until the next right moment. Even after the first phase was finished, in 2000, I continued to adapt it, first when my parents moved in with me, and later, after they passed away, for my two children. To me a house is like a second skin – you need to keep altering it. I never see this house or, for that matter, any architecture as a fixed, complete thing. Architecture is not like changing your shoes, which you must throw away every few years or when your feet outgrow them; it gets altered all the time.

Anupama Kundoo’s own residence, Wall House, is located right outside the boundaries of Auroville.
Kundoo’s own residence, Wall House, is located right outside the boundaries of Auroville.

It is a very different approach from what modernists used to believe, right?

And I used to be like that and, initially, it was very hard for me to deal with all the changes and chaos. But rather than being a control freak I learned how to cope and celebrate change. You may have a vision, but you can’t control life. I am also a mother and it is the same with children. At one point, you realize that your child is a person with their own mind and preferences. So, the umbilical cord must be cut.

How important is beauty in architecture?

It is extremely important. So much so that when I wrote my book on Roger Anger, I titled it Research on Beauty. Because I didn’t want people to treat beauty as a frivolous matter. Beauty is so serious to me; it helps me to survive all miseries. To look for it and to find it is an important pursuit. We need it for the soul.

And what I particularly like is not to construct it but to reveal it in things that are layered and already there. I try to work with materials only after I find their inherent beauty. Also, engineering systems can be beautiful in how they are designed or assembled. Buckminster Fuller said, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” That’s my measure as well. If the house is not beautiful then it is not quite ready. Not until you strike that sense of beauty – which you know, which we all know.

People may have different tastes, but they tend to agree on what beauty is. Beauty is something much deeper and more universal. And, for example, Roger Anger used to say, “Beauty has the power to raise our consciousness spontaneously.” To me, this means that beauty may not be appreciated for what it is but may depend on the moment, your state of mind, mood, and so on. Of course, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder; it is something that the mind cultivates a sense for. Yet, I insist that beauty is universal.

Inside Wall House.

That’s a powerful maxim. So is another phrase that you’ve been known to use: “Time is the architect.”

Because architects think that we are so important. But if you step back and look at the vast cosmos of our universe, you will realize how insignificant we are. I think we can learn from how towns or churches were created over long periods of time with the contributions of many building upon the work of others. I think what is important in architecture is continuity. So, by time I also mean evolution, traditions, heritage. There are so many architects who think they can just start from scratch or that their existence is central to projects. Time passes and the built environment is left behind as a cumulative creation of the humans that inhabited the earth.

Very interesting. But your architecture looks nothing like the architecture of your ancestors and professors. Isn’t your work also about establishing your own voice?

Sure! But it was not so willful. It was not because I wanted to invent my own signature style. I think it was about having courage not to blindly repeat what our ancestors, parents and professors did and told us. And, by the way, my father did tell me to question everything, all assumptions. Evolution is part of tradition. We need to ask questions and have courage not to sweep them under the carpet.

That’s why my projects look different. They are not the same answers either: There is diversity. My work is about purpose, refuge and social engagement. My architecture speaks through details that foster intimacy, variety and spatiality, and that nurture the senses. It is where builders and craftsmen engage with their hands and minds to produce objects that they can be proud of. And doing that they often exceed their own expectations. The very act of building produces knowledge that makes architecture richer. This process is imprecise and intuitive. And each project informs the next.

“Architecture is a Stage”: A Q&A With Anupama Kundoo

An interview with the Indian architect, who recently won the 2021 RIBA Charles Jencks Award.

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