The architect Anupama Kundoo (Pune, 1967) founded her first architectural practice in the Indian city of Auroville in 1990, at just 23 years old. In the 15 years plus that she worked in the experimental city devised by Roger Anger, she consolidated some of her core concepts of architecture, such as the use of austere and economical materials, a result of virtually artisanal techniques and the conviction that people represent the most important resource for an architect. After gaining her doctorate in Berlin and teaching in London, New York, Brisbane and Venice, since 2005 she has been giving classes in the Higher School of Architecture and Technology at the Camilo José Cela University in Madrid.
What can architecture do for society and people?
Anupama Kundoo: Architecture is the manifestation of the way we live and a reflection of the values of society. Ideally architects are visionary and can integrate seemingly diverse concerns into proposed projects. They can synthesize various issues through design and produce projects that could respond to the needs of society including a projection into the future. They reflect on the broader context of space, place, time and people and their architecture and design have the capacity to steer the development of society, and ultimately to improve the lives of people in a manner that is aware of the social, environmental and economic implications of their actions. Other than the rational aspects architecture like many other arts has the capacity to provoke experiences, create emotions and create qualities of spaces. This in itself can have a huge influence on society, architecture can create peace and calm, beauty and joy.
For you, what is the architecture of social commitment, of direct participation in the quality of life of a collective of people?
A.K.: When people use their own capacities, they grow more confident and are empowered to resolve their problems without depending on others. There is a lot of enrichment and community building when people with diverse capacities and skills support or complement each other.
Do you think we are generally uncritical with the deployment of new technologies (supercomputing, artificial intelligence …) in almost all areas of our personal and professional life?
A.K.: Although technology is meant to achieve things we need or desire, we should be more critical about it, not only with which technologies we want to develop but also with the use we give to them. Nowadays we are less self-sufficient and don’t know how to do many things that we use to do in the past, and this is due to a bad use of technology, which leads to a loss of knowledge and skills and to a poorer relation with our own body. Technology is very important, but it should help to empower people, not alienate them..
I have read you refer to the concept of dualities as the basis of the operation of many human activities. Specifically refers to the duality of material and space as the determinant in architecture. How do you define your work, your conception of architecture from this duality?
A.K.: Dualities exist. It is not good or bad. There is man and woman, there is land and water, and there is industry and nature. So if they work together, then there is enrichment and progress. If they work against each other, there is going to be destruction for both. So for me the way to avoid the battle is to invest in knowledge and expand your consciousness so that you realize that both of the two exist simultaneously and are necessary to advance. So my idea is that as architects we have the knowledge and capacity to synthesize dualities. Materials and space inform each other and come together in a synthesis. Architecture challenges the limits of material not by going against their properties but by understanding them deeply and using them in their optimum applications.
Why do you consider housing to be the most relevant or defining area of an architect’s architecture or activity?
A.K.: Housing has been a major issue during these two last centuries. Before industrialisation, people developed slowly the knowledge and skills to build with whatever resources were available whereas in our industrialised society, housing has emerged as a commodity, with no engagement or participation from the citizens. Subverting this situation is one of our most important challenge, we need to allow people’s participation in at least certain tasks, but especially where housing cannot otherwise be afforded. People could use their time, knowledge and dedication to help themselves to reduce some of the costs, although this will not be possible without the collaboration with public institutions. The is a lot to be done in this field which needs to change its current direction towards a holistic and alternative approach.
Against the latest generation materials, what are the values of ferrocement?
A.K.: I have been working with ferrocement research for over 15 years as the material has great potential and plasticity. It relies on geometry and form to achieve strength and not on more material. I think that the biggest difference with some of the latest materials is that ferrocement has a great potential in developed countries as well as in developing ones due to its affordability, availability and its low environmental impact. I try to advocate the use of very little natural resources, and increase the use of human resources, such as knowledge and intelligence (geometry and engineering), leaving the human being richer. In ferrocement the use of geometry is crucial as the form gives the structure strength. Like thin elements such as paper, it has no strength until you give it a form. The fact that the form gives strength is a very architecturally appealing thing. And I think that, environmentally, you are saving massive amounts of material because you are clever with your form. So let’s rely on geometry and engineering to significantly reduce material consumption.
That was the origin of my experiment and research, because in India, we have 2.4 percent of the world’s land carrying one sixth of the world’s population, so we have to cut the cake slices thinner because we have that many more mouths to feed. However, instead of whining about the huge population and the misery, remember that the huge population means a lot of human resources, a lot of intelligence, a lot of time and joy with people etc. So I think this is the positive aspect. It’s worth exploring people’s own contribution, towards solving their own needs. This is an example of a technology where relatively few very knowledgeable people are required, and where many more can participate and contribute. Instead of alienating them from the process, masons could acquire skills and learn to produce these elements in the backyards of their houses, in their spare time, in their weekends, earn some more money, teach other people. That’s how skills develop. Everybody knows who taught them how to knit a sweater, you know, their big sister or the mother, so it could be done like that.
Another definition of your work as an architect that I think you have given and what I would ask you to develop a little: “it’s like joining the holes in a fishing net; you can make and do not equal the material used “
A.K.: Architecture is centered around the design of the ‘void’, the part that is unbuilt. The built elements are there to create the envisioned ‘unbuilt’ spaces. Just as in the old saying, ‘the function of the pot lies in its nothingness’, architecture’s essence lies in these negative spaces that are inhabited by human life appropriate to all the activities that need to take place within them. Yet, architecture is also the synthesis of various diverse concerns, such as climatic comfort, structural design, mobility and circulation, etc and the design of its materiality has social, economic and environmental impact. To achieve the best quality of spaces where human life can thrive, with the most beneficial impact and least negative implications is the mark of good design. Integrated thinking and harmonious synthesis of all concerns are key. For me good design is invisible, and understated, just like in a well cooked meal there is no ingredient that can be singled out, and the result is a good feeling experienced by all. Good architecture is about much more than basic construction, or problem solving, or personal fettishes and mere formal compositions. It is above all an uplifting experience which moves beyond the strain of structural elements involved.
Can projects like Full Fill Homes be the solution to housing problems in areas of limited resources or emergency situations (refugee camps, for example)?
A.K.: There is the big concern of an unprecedented global migration, urbanization and climate change, and frequently occurring natural disasters including earthquakes and tsunamis. This means that there will soon be a huge demand for structures that can be quickly delivered, cater to modern lifestyle needs acknowledging the migrant nature of inhabitants, that have the least negative environmental impact, building many more square meters with less materials and far significantly less energy, generating employment and improving local economy, allowing inhabitants to contribute to their house construction and therefore avoiding debt financing. Solving housing mustn’t be such a tedious process depleting life’s savings, or spending future earnings of one’s entire life. People should achieve the roof over their head as simply as possible, and move on with their lives, liberating their time to develop themselves and focus on living itself. Lack of affordable housing is becoming very stressful for individuals as well as for the collective, and we need to change this as soon as possible.
Has lived and worked in different countries and continents, in societies with probably different perceptions of housing or public space. How have these different cultures influenced your work, in your conception of architecture?
A.K.: Although we live in a global world there is a lot of cultural diversity, and we have to take advantage of it by creating synergies and exchanging knowledge.
Is teaching as important as the professional practice of architecture?
A.K.: As I often say I have a research-oriented practice and a practice-oriented teaching approach. Both inform each other, because in reality the two are part of the whole. Academia allows you to step back from your own projects and take a broader look at things. It helps to contextualise your work and also helps align the focus of one’s aims in the practice. It helps one to discuss architecture with peers and also with academics of other disciplines. There are limits to how much one can research within practice, where as in academia certain questions can be pursued in earnest and one can find the appropriate facilities and dedicated time and context to advance architectural concerns.
Academic helps to detach oneself from one’s own process of production of designs and practice, and gives the opportunity to reflect seriously about architecture through the work of other professionals and students. The journey from India to Madrid now has been rich in the sense that the changing context has given me a range of experiences and brought me in contact with practitioners and researches across the world, and I have benefitted from the many discussions that occurred. This externally changing landscape has given me opportunities to continuously reinvent myself while at the same time come to the essence of who I am, and how I see my own ongoing contribution through architecture.
What is your relationship with Auroville?
A.K.: After graduation and after a year of working in Bombay, I decided to travel there to write about some of the experimental projects that the pioneering architects have undertaken there. I had particularly wanted to cover the work of Ray Meeker a Californian ceramist who had managed to bake large size mud houses in situ after constructing them. I also wanted to write about houses built by non-architects who were experimenting with architecture. I was commissioned to write for an Indian Architecture magazine. When I visited Auroville I discovered the ambitious vision of the project for a city developed through research and experimentation in all aspects, involving participation from across the world. Even though it didn’t begin as a deliberate decision to move there, I got busy with various short term activities and soon a Frenchman commissioned me to design his house in Auroville and as I spent more time there I got naturally engaged in the place. I lived there
from 1990 to 2006 during which I designed several buildings and also got involved in Auroville’s planning. Roger Anger Auroville’s late chief architect and I worked on Auroville’s Perspective Plan and getting the Masterplan approved by India’s central government. Roger Anger had assigned me specific areas to detail out such as Auroville’s City Center planned for 5000 residents and several central facilities, Auroville’s Administrative Zone as well as Habitat Areas in the City Centre, and we are currently working on the design of Urban design studies for the high-rise residential and industrial structures called ‘Lignes de Force’. After Roger Anger passed away in 2008, I continued to work on the projects that were underway and I also continue to investigate appropriate building technologies for building construction, and produce full-scale experiments and prototypes each year. I also continue to support investigations and design requests that come to me for various projects there through a team that is based there and dedicated to Auroville projects.
I have also authored the monograph on Auroville’s Chief architect Roger Anger in 2009 and I continue to manage some of his archival material and future publications of his unbuilt projects that are still relevant for Auroville.
Seeing the final result that he had, would he have liked that the installation of the lost books of Barcelona had not had an ephemeral character?
A.K.: I think it would have been nice to keep the installation, and I appreciate the fact that the townhall was considering making it permanent, but to do so, the design would have needed to be a little different from the beginning. All the people involved learnt a lot during the process, and that is very important for us, although the Installation was meant to be temporary, the impact that had on all of us will last.
Now, what projects are you currently working on
A.K.: We have recently organized a workshop with students of Università Iuav di Venezia to work in the after-life of the installation Building Knowledge for 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. In this workshop, students explored the design that responds to social issues by bringing them in touch with the current context of migration, improving the living conditions of the refugees by reusing materials from last year installation. The installation pieces were reorganised in Marghera, in collaboration with Rebiennale and the caracol cooperative, to improve the spaces for refugees from Mali, Ghana, Bangladesh.
At the same time, as said before, we are also working on new prototypes including the urban design and architecture of high density urban eco communities for 8 to 10000 people as holistic sustainable models.