Interview: In Conversation with the Internationally-recognized and award-winning Architect Anupama Kundoo

Tete-A-Tete with Experts Dated:  Dec. 8, 2015
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Architect Anupama Kundoo

Anupama Kundoo is an Internationally-recognized and award-winning Architect who has been practising architecture since 1990. The veteran architect who has more than 100 projects to her credit has been known for her strong focus on material research and experimentation towards an architecture that has low environmental impact and and is appropriate to the socio-economic context. 

She has worked extensively in India and has brought several innovations in the projects she designed adopting “sustainable building technologies and infrastructural systems”.  Her experiments across projects ranging from baked mud houses to high rise buildings are worth archiving as case studies for future references. 

Kundoo has been working, researching and teaching at various renowned institutes including TU Berlin, AA School of Architecture London, Parsons New School of Design New York, University of Queensland Brisbane, IUAV Venice and ETSAB Barcelona. She is currently a Professor at UCJC Madrid where she is Chair of ‘Affordable Habitat’. She is also the Strauch Visiting Critic at Cornell University. Her work extends to urban design and planning projects, with her background in rapid urbanization related development issues, about which she has written extensively. 

The library of lost books BarcelonaThe library of lost books Barcelona
photo credit: Javier Callejas

Anupama Kundoo, who was born in Pune, India in 1967, graduated from Sir JJ College of Architecture, University of Mumbai in 1989 and holds a PhD degree from the TU Berlin. She is a recipient of prestigious awards such as  NDTV Commercial Interior of the Year For Samskara, Made in India ( 2015 ),  Dr. V. D. Joshi award for the best Ferrocement Structure (FSI) For Light Matters ( 2013 ), Arc Vision Women Architect of the Year, Honourable Mention ( 2013 ), Architect of the Year, Category Group Housing, JK, India ( 2003 ), Young Enthused Architect Category, A + D Awards, Honourable Mention ( 2001 ). Architect of the Future, Indian Architect & Builder Award ( 2000 ) and Architect of the Year, Category Young Architect, Focus State Tamil Nadu, JK, India ( 1999 ). 

Kundoo has written a book and published a number of technical papers in Magazines and Newspapers. Her published book is Roger Anger: Research on Beauty/Recherche sur la beauté Architecture 1958–2008, jovis Verlag GmbH, Berlin, 2009. 

This is a must-read interview in which she discusses about various topics ranging from the place Auroville from where she started her career to her architectural journey so far, sustainability to affordable housing, current state of architectural education in India and suggestions for improvement and lot more. 

25 years, 100+ projects ranging from baked mud houses to high rise buildings. How has the journey been so far?

The journey has certainly been a very adventurous and exciting one, but not without its share of struggles and challenges. It has been about ‘Building Knowledge’ in both its meanings, one being the focus on knowledge about buildings and context-appropriateness; and the other, where ‘building’ is meant as a verb, and each architectural project was seen as the opportunity to advance knowledge among those of us involved, but also among the other experts from related fields, craftsmen who produce buildings as well as the others who are affected by them directly or indirectly. 

I have had one foot in practice and another in academia, and each area of my engagement has enriched the other. I have had a research-oriented practice, and a practice-oriented teaching approach. I have taught architecture at a number of reputed institutions across various continents: TU Berlin, AA School of Architecture London, TU Darmstadt, Parsons New School in New York, UQ Brisbane, Cornell University, and am currently Professor at UCJC Madrid. So I have had a very exciting 25 years, involving extensive research and experimentation, in various cultural contexts, and yet it has been quite rewarding since I have been contributing to mainstream projects rather than remaining under the ‘alternative practice’ label that I was initially given. I have crossed paths with many architects and ingenious practitioners and architecture theorists and critics whom I have admired, and these personal exchanges on the way, have been probably the highlight of my architectural journey.

You are known to work with unskilled labour and waste materials. For youngsters wanting to follow your path, what would your tips be to counter the challenges that come with using waste materials and unskilled labour?

Architecture is never an easy matter, and if one cannot counter challenges (whatever they may be) then one is not likely to ever create something new and relevant to the current context. Architecture is about achieving a synthesis of all kinds of complex concerns ranging from structural, to climatic, to environmental and social, financial etc. It is important to be able to work with what is there. If unskilled labour is need to be engaged or waste materials need to be spent then these challenges should be seen as genuine constraints that could rather inspire more creativity. It’s more exciting to shape everything including the building technologies, rather than passively ordering standardised materials and products from manufacturers catalogues. After all we are interested in the negative spaces and voids that are created with these materials, as it is only the voids that are useful for human habitation. As the old saying goes, ‘the function of the pot lies in its nothingness’, the focus of good architecture lies in achieving quality spaces with whatever materials and skills/technologies make sense in the given context. The success of the architecture thereafter is about the way harmony is achieved among all these elements, in accordance with the human scale and material proportions, so that the spatial experience and sense of wellbeing will make the perception of architecture transcend its materiality. 

Homes for homeless childrenHomes for homeless children
photo credit: Andres Herzog

Sustainability is suddenly the flavor of the season. You have however been practicing it long before it became fashionable. Can sustainability and globalised architectural style go hand in hand?

There is no reason why deeper values of healthy building practice would result in anything less good looking. Flashy designs could be seductive and surprising when they just appear, but fashions and styles are always a temporary phase that pass by quickly and have a very momentarily gratifying wow factor. Then there is the timeless beauty that is eternal. I see no contradiction between benign materials and technologies being used for achieving good and contemporary architecture. It is a myth to think that architecture that is informed by the unsustainable trends is necessarily a nostalgic return to the past. It is rather one, which continues to be envisioning a better future that is aware of follies of the past and present, with long-term gains in mind rather than short-term impulsive reactions.

You have researched a lot on materials. Are any of these available on a commercial scale?

Through my research I have emphasised the new ways of using natural building materials, rather than researching new manufactured materials. Natural materials are available everywhere and these differ depending on the local context. Usually these are not standardised and not marketed in the same way as manufactured materials. For example earth, lime, wood or stone as building materials have a great variation in their characteristics and properties unlike say Portland cement, which is a standardised material that is manufactured and processed to be uniform regardless of where it is used in the world. This means that a lot more local knowledge, as well as study and analysis is involved in the use of natural materials in each new setting.

Natural materials such as stone, wood, earth etc., do not require huge quantities of energy consumption in order to transform them into standardised, manufactured materials that can be ordered from factories. Further, locally sourced natural materials significantly reduce transportation energy and may keep the material depletion in some kind of balance compared to the environmental impact that industrial quarries have on the territory, where materials are produced in bulk and transported to far away destinations. There are also growing health concerns in the case of several manufactured materials that exude harmful compounds and impact health. Then there is the pollution aspect. The choice when opting for manufactured materials must be made judiciously knowing these facts, and in cases where natural materials cannot be achieve the spatial needs, but unfortunately the trend of selecting materials for contemporary buildings is usually an unconscious act. They could result out of habitual practice, ignorance and personal convenience for those who decide rather than for the actual betterment of those who inhabit the buildings and spend all their life in them.

As there will be a renewed demand for natural materials these will also become commercially available. In Spain it is possible to buy natural clay plasters and surface finishes as ready mixes, for instance.

As someone who has been so closely associated with the soul of Auroville, how do you think the model could be replicated in other parts of the country?

There are many aspects of Auroville that can be seen as replicable such as its successful reafforestation program, and its efforts towards integral management of water and wastewater or its renewable energy applications. However as far as the project of Auroville as a whole is concerned, I think that we are far from being a replicable model in terms of urbanism. Auroville was conceived as a model new city in the Indian context for 50,000 people. Forty-seven years later there are still only a little over 2000 people occupying proportionately large areas of land, which in the case of India particularly, seems to be a very wrong model of land use or urbanisation. There are many reasons for this, and a lot has to do with working towards a common vision of the city. Auroville was conceived with the aim of achieving human unity, and its no wonder that people are struggling there with finding consensus. However there is a general agreement that what was envisaged, has yet to be achieved.

And as someone who has taught in architectural schools across continents, what changes would you like to see in architectural education in the country?

I would hesitate to make any hasty generalisations, as there is a big difference in the standards that range from very good schools, to weaker schools of architecture in India. There is need for many schools of architecture, they are sprouting at a fast pace and it is probably a challenge to draw the proportionate number of good teachers at an equally fast pace. In general I have seen that in the teaching of design studio there is sometimes insufficient structure or focus on developing design methodology, and student designs often result mostly from critiques of what the student spontaneously produced. In the theory classes too, there maybe the need to review and update course literature and reference books, given the rapidly changing scenario of urbanisation in the country. Also subjects like structural design, construction and history could be taught in more creative ways so that architecture students learn how to apply this knowledge in their design thinking rather than know these for their own sake. Ideally architecture schools could generate new research and proposals that could help improve the urban development challenges in the country. These new visions developed here together with the faculty and experts could be presented to the local authorities and perhaps facilitate the much needed discussion on urbanisation bringing various concerned people together and enrich the students understanding of the current context of rapid urbanisation and rapid resource depletion, which is surely quite overwhelming.

Affordable housing is your forte. When are we likely to see fired mud houses mushrooming around us? :)

Full Fill homesFull Fill homes
photo credit: Sebastiano Giannesini

The fired mud houses were the result of my fascination with Californian ceramist Ray Meeker and his relentless engagement with such radical experimentation. I believe that given the growing concerns of affordability issues around housing for all, any technology that has any chance of contributing to the cause is worth pursuing. I do not imagine a scenario of fired mud houses sprouting across the country, no. In any case all technologies are appropriate to certain contexts and apart from other challenges in this technology, the minimum condition to consider it would be the onsite (or very nearby) earth would be clayey and conducive for brick making. I continue to work with various affordable technologies for different contexts depending on the climatic, urban, geographic and other local conditions. I am now developing a prefab ferrocement housing system called Full Fill homes that can be assembled on site in less than a week.

Could you elaborate on your experience while working on Light Matters?

Light MattersLight Matters
photo credit: Anupama Kundoo

The ‘Light Matters’ investigation was about generating the form of roofing systems based on crease patterns seen frequently in origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. The idea is that such forms are very efficient and can allow the use of much thinner elements. Reinforced cement concrete that is very steel intensive can be replaced by an inch thick ferrocement element, which instead uses mostly chicken mesh and significantly reduces the quantity of high energy building materials. Also as the element is much thinner, this leads to savings in cement as well. Moreover shell structures although efficient, are often not used, as they require complicated and expensive formwork. In this project the structure was so light, the formwork being considered was recycled corrugated cartons rather than wood or steel formwork. This makes the structure very cost-efficient. I am relying on knowledge of geometry and engineering to significantly reduce the material consumption. Light Matters was therefore about using knowledge (light) to achieve efficient light structures, not only in terms of weight but also in terms of environmental impact.

Where did the inspiration for Samskara come from?

The project centred on the display of a wide range of handcrafted designed products. I was asked to make a statement about the luxury potential of craft, and I wanted to express the idea that luxury is time. Having surplus time is a universal idea of luxury regardless of economic background. The real luxury in handcrafted products is the sheer time devoted to the making process; where neither the craftsmen nor the users have any sense that they are ‘wasting’ time. 

photo credit: Anshika Varma

The architectural elements such as shelves are envisioned as part of a new undulating landscape, which recedes in the background to set the objects to be displayed, so that the designed products including furniture are seen without competing with installation design for attention. This design focuses on the negative space, which is contemporary, and establishes the mood and the context for defining the brand image rather than being perceived as very ‘visible’ design. The only elements that are perceived as stand-alone objects are the designed products that are being exhibited.

The materiality contributes to the spatial experience recalling references to Indian culture in a contemporary application with the focus on the particular crafting of the material, rather than the material itself. Patterns and textures are not merely overlaid as if existing for themselves but strongly connected to the lines and surfaces that emerge from the spatial movement in a three dimensional application. A substantial area is designed as ‘empty’ relief spaces that contribute to the overall atmosphere of luxury by including ‘surplus’ space consisting of water basins, bench seating alongside water basins and circulation space. The skills of a Tamil Nadu stonecutters community lend themselves to produce a landscape of undulating floors shelves and benches in solid textured granite that make the flat and otherwise heavy material look fluid and elegant, almost losing its materiality. 

My last question is a follow-up of sorts to the first one...Is there anything you would want to do differently, looking back?

I guess I would take better care of my archives and notes that I extensively jotted. I would also archive the physical material samples better, especially the ones that didn’t work out, as they hold the key to questions yet to be resolved. I would generally have photographed the process and early projects more thoroughly. 

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