Why slow architecture matters: Anupama Kundoo writes on the power of time
by Anupama Kundoo Nov 28, 2020
•make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend
by Zohra KhanPublished on : Feb 24, 2023
Are dreams ever fully realised? Is utopia an illusion, or a pseudo-reality far from our fragile real lives? Where does one draw a line, or is the effort even needed? Conceived in the 60s, Auroville was envisioned as the 'City of Dawn' by The Mother— Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973)—the founder of the experimental township in south India. It is meant to be a place for like-minded people to live in close proximity, where they were liberated from daily chores, and instead invested their time in the nourishment of higher consciousness. French architect Roger Anger responded to The Mother's vision by conceptualising a forward-looking urban plan for the city. His design, dubbed as 'The Galaxy Plan,' proposed a balance between high population density and a green environment, and a granular focus on collaboration and the human scale. But, as per Anupama Kundoo, things didn't go as planned after The Mother passed away. The project faced resistance. Many local architects and engineers refused to collaborate with Anger and residents started contesting the plan, questioning whether such a city should even exist in the first place. As time progressed, what slowly manifested was contrary to the fundamental idea of The Mother's vision, that this was not an ordinary city for people to merely live and satisfy individual whims.
Berlin and India-based architect Anupama Kundoo was one of those who worked under the guidance of Anger on Auroville’s Master Plan, and co-signatory of the government approved document Perspective Plan 2025. Cognizant of the essence of the Mother’s vision and exposed to Anger’s relentless dedication to realising it, Kundoo witnessed the highs and lows of the project. As someone who unflinchingly believes in the values and the purpose of what Auroville stands for, she continues her efforts in manifesting The Galaxy.
Her ongoing exhibition at the India Space in Auroville traces the journey of Auroville and looks forward to what comes NEXT. STIR connected with her over a video call to know more.
The following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Zohra Khan: What was your idea behind this architectural showcase that is being presented in Auroville?
Anupama Kundoo: I have called this exhibition, Auroville: The Vision Takes Shape, and what I mean is that when something is envisioned, if you persist, it takes shape. It should not be given up just because it's idealistic or difficult. The exhibition was part of the nationwide celebration of Sri Aurobindo’s 150th birth anniversary (August 15, 2022), the day that coincides with the 75th Indian independence.
Auroville was proposed by The Mother as a concrete action of Sri Aurobindo for the world, in order to enact that dream that there should be a place on earth where an experiment city can take place, in which all nations of the world would participate to create a new kind of collective life. The Mother had said that India represents all human difficulties and that it is there that there will be a cure. The idea of Auroville was meant as India's offering to the world.
In Auroville, the Bharat Nivas is the Indian Pavilion, where the exhibition is. Presented within the building’s exhibition and event area called The India Space, with this showcase I wanted to recall the history, to zoom out a little and look at the big picture and see, where are we vis a vis the big vision and the whole purpose of it. The exhibition is also a tribute to Auroville’s Chief Architect Roger Anger as this year, March 24, will be his birth centenary.
To create this exhibition, we envisaged a 1:100 scale city plan of Auroville so that people can actually walk around to get a concrete sense of the urban vision rather than romanticising the commune-like low-density settlement that is so scattered. I wanted to make it an experiential encounter, and as most architects build in 1:100, the planned city printed on the floor has been made as a backdrop that people can come and keep adding to it, by putting their conceptual buildings which are in 1:100 scale on the plan, and make it an interactive experience.
If you are working towards a vision, and if you don't audit yourself, you could be misusing the occasion.
Zohra: It has been 32 years since you graduated. A year after college, you went to Auroville and worked there on many projects for over 12 years. This was also the time when you worked under the Chief Architect of Auroville, Roger Anger, in developing the urban vision of the 'City of Dawn.' I have read that you had to work 'undercover' when you came to Auroville. Tell us what the early days were like, and what resistances did you face?
Anupama: Probably coming from Bombay and having a direction towards city planning and urban design, I felt that in certain circles there was a misinterpretation of the idea of Auroville as a place for freedom from bylaws and other responsibilities that are necessitated by organised collective life. Auroville has many unique aspects, one of them being that land cannot be individually owned. The city was meant to be a unique example of a future society where the land belongs to the commons and is collectively managed for the benefit of all, beyond ownership. But observing over the years, fencing off of houses or creating gated communities even before the city having seriously taken off, for me as an intellectual, it made me feel very clear that certain things don't belong in such an incredible project. It’s not for individual consumption is what I felt.
If you are working towards a vision, and if you don't audit yourself regularly, you could be misusing the occasion. I felt there were people at that time who were questioning the chief architect’s role or acting against any form of authority including the involvement of the government and the specifications of the Auroville Foundation Act of Parliament under which Auroville is regulated, and were getting away with it because of the trend and defacto lifestyle and culture that was developing over the years in denial of the outcome of the Supreme Court case after the founders passing, when the assets previously owned by the Sri Aurobindo Society presided by the Mother, were handed over to the Auroville Foundation in 1988 along with a new governance structure. The bottoms-up day-to-day community life in Auroville, meanwhile, was not without the regular frustrations of other communes where hidden power structures between residents are as oppressive as the behaviours of clans and privileged individuals. If you have read the book Animal Farm by George Orwell, you'll know what I mean.
Even today I believe in Auroville's city plan as an incredibly forward-looking plan. Many people assume that just because it's 50-years-old, it'll be redundant, like Brasilia and Chandigarh. But I used to argue that there is a big difference. Brasilia and Chandigarh combined modernism with motorism, and those cities were based on celebrating the car and individual mobility. On the contrary, Auroville is absolutely intentionally car-free and pedestrian centric. In 1965, in his first report to the Mother, Roger had predicted and suggested: "The traffic principle needs to be defined right now. Should we allow the presence of cars: It is likely that in hardly a few years, India will witness, like Europe and the US, the major urban problem posed by the automobile… The choice to be made now is, therefore, to forbid the use of this means of transportation within the town and replace it with another one—more healthy, less clumsy and noisy and more aesthetical, maybe more recent, if possible.” The Mother commented on the margin: “Small size electrically powered vehicles, capable of transporting about 200kg at a speed of 15km/h.”
But mobility is just one such aspect that was so visionary and is still ahead of its times. Various other foundational principles of the city plan are as forward-looking and holistic even today 54 years later. I suggest that everyone read that 1965 report to understand the basic assumptions embedded in the Galaxy Plan. The Mother wanted a compact city where like-minded people would live in proximity in a certain concentration and collective lifestyle, where they would be liberated from daily chores and be able to dedicate their time to the development of their consciousness in an environment of collaboration, where each one’s advances would help the others. Roger responded by designing a compact, walkable city, where the buildings would be intimately interconnected. Furthermore, he addressed the harsh sun and monsoon and included climatic comfort for pedestrians' daily life through multilevel shaded walkways. This is another reason why the fabric of the Galaxy looks so compact.
For me as an environmentally concerned holistic architect, I have yet to come across any urban project that beats that vision. So out of choice, I gave my time to it. That’s what I may have meant by 'undercover,' it was not the most popular thing to be done, but if I hadn't done it, I knew what gets built wouldn’t be different from any unplanned area, and India has thousands of examples of what happens when you don’t plan.
Zohra: So the collaboration and people's participation were only considered into account once the scheme was put in place?
Anupama: The Mother explained to us that collaboration means to approach collective work with goodwill, and that includes withholding your ego and personal preferred ideas. You can contribute, but you cannot be the centre of the universe and block things because of your own resistance to the vision. People’s participation without their own work to align themselves with the larger good can result in further discord and paralysing tug-of-war situations. You have to have the goodwill to collaborate. And in that sense, she was very clear as she invited men of goodwill.
Nowadays it's very popular to talk about participatory processes. Take a very practical thing. Auroville has committed to being a car-free city. So, if someone wants to sprawl and insist on having a car in the name of freedom and participation, that should not be okay. After all, there is an act of parliament to ensure that this experiment is not misused. There is a mission and a vision, and hence people’s ongoing contribution to this project must honour previously made commitments and not deviate from that due to other vested interests. In the case of Auroville, which is a planned city, everyone who joined the project knew the plan and then if the next generation does not like the essential vision it could become problematic. If every issue is decided by the majority, for instance, that we will have cars because it's convenient, how does one hold one’s integrity? How would they face the various donors if they shift the goalpost midway?
Zohra: Speaking of resistances, I read that as your years proceeded in Auroville, you faced not only collective resistances but also individual hindrances. What were some of these constraints that affected your own purpose as an architect?
Anupama: I noticed that whenever you want to evolve or do something difficult, a lot of inner resistances arise, and these resistances are actually habitual. Merely resistance should not be discouraging because any novel idea or good aim will not necessarily be easy to implement externally. There are resistances in the community and within ourselves. It's all in the nature of evolution.
I think being with Roger influenced me in raising the bar of what I expect from myself and how an architect can be instrumental in seeing the city as one organism.
Zohra: "I am trying to save what can still be saved," Roger Anger had said. What were the things that he was holding on to amid the burgeoning polarities?
Anupama: Roger wanted everybody to build Auroville with an urban mindset and not look upon it with disdain. To be urban means you create a civic sense and foster collaboration. If Auroville got reduced to small gated clusters on campus, it would never fulfil Auroville's real purpose as a laboratory for the human experiment; the Mother wanted a critical mass of people to rethink all aspects of habitat and to create a new society. I saw him struggle with certain residents because after the Mother passed away, people were all interpreting things however it suited them. I used to see him dealing with the opposite of Auroville that was setting in, and becoming normalised by some people. But Roger used to work with the Mother closely, who called it 'The City of Dawn' and 'The City the Earth Needs,' and for cities, the first thing is to be urban. To not make each neighbour's opinion so important; in cities, we don’t decide who should live next door to us. So in the midst of this climate of do-what-you-want, Roger became the 'figure' who was the steady reminder of the aims and objectives of this unprecedented city envisioned in South India, with affiliations to UNESCO and other national and international institutions that were awaiting its fruition.
Zohra: How has working with Anger influenced your practice in the years that followed? What have been some of the key learnings?
Anupama: I think most of all, learning to see the big picture, but not at the cost of the small details. To be absolutely aware of the space, but not unaware of the material. To think in, say, 1:2000 scale, and simultaneously also in 1:1.
I think being with Roger influenced me in raising the bar of what I expect from myself and how an architect can be instrumental in seeing the city as one organism. One of the things he would always tell me was, "Be simple." It sounds very contradictory to say that because his things were very elaborate but he was a very simple and clear person. So I learnt this connection between clarity of thought and simplicity from him, along with the quest for beauty. And lastly, that you don’t compromise on the vision. Even if you encounter difficulties along the way, you just persist and keep working.
Zohra: What do you think helped transpire that clarity for Anger while he was working for Auroville? Had the project become personal to him?
Anupama: It’s a beautiful question and even I have given it a lot of thought. Though he was a very successful architect who built hundreds of housing projects after he took up Auroville and as he used to meet The Mother regularly, I think he got very challenged by this beautiful project.
Roger was not ambitious or obsessive in the way I typically know architects to be, although he was somebody, in my opinion, with the highest standard. He was a very secure man, a genius guy, great at chess. He had a very sharp and cultivated eye, and a refined sense of material, geometry, and space. He was a man of integrity and a few words. If you showed him something, he would come to the essence of the problem instantly. I think that kind of clarity, what I later learned, brings simplicity. You start out simple, but to remain simple is something of a challenge. It has to be part of your being, and it has to do with a sense of truth and integrity when you have nothing to hide, and you are just as much at ease with others as with yourself.
Zohra: I came across a powerful statement in which you said, "Those of us who worked for the city of Auroville had to pay a big price, but today we are ready to pay double." Could you elaborate?
Anupama: I think now the polarity we used to face has become visible to all, and its confrontations are going on. When things that are hidden get exposed, it looks more turbulent. But for me, it's more healing that opinions are now out in the open and polarised feelings are being addressed. I think the price I was talking about is that when you work on something where others don't see the relevance of it, you find yourself on a lonely path. So in that sense, you pay a big price because it's not the popular opinion of what you are doing, somewhat like swimming against the current. In reality, I felt that even though those who believed in the planned city were fewer, there was a sense of ease when working on it, as if we were going downstream effortlessly as the river simply flows into the sea. I felt on the contrary that the majority doesn’t automatically mean that is the better stance, and I believed that that kind of resistance required more energy and felt to me like they were going against the current. You need enormous energy to deny the inevitable. Working on Auroville’s plan has been rewarding in multiple ways, which are not for the external world to see. When you pursue something which you deeply feel about, you develop not only resilience, you develop a certain detachment. You do it because you believe in it and because you discover how much you are ready to dedicate yourself to what you believe in and feel needs to be done. That is what I meant by being 'ready to pay double the price.'
Utopia means without topia (without topography), and it shows that we are leaning towards a dream. But if a dream is intended to take shape and be materialised, it's not utopia. […] For me, a laboratory is a much more exciting word than utopia when it comes to describing the city.
Zohra: Utopia, as we know it, is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. Could you tell us why you emphasise that Auroville is not a utopia? Do you think connecting it to the meaning of utopia diverts it from the human side of it?
Anupama: I would rather use the word idealistic than utopian. I don't like when people use the word utopia too easily as if idealism equals utopia, as for them perhaps ideals and not something they intend to realise. Sometimes, it's a way of saying that makes utopia equal to some fictional world of fairies and unique unicorns. I don't like Auroville to be put under that label. Utopia means without topia (without topography), and it shows that we are leaning towards a dream. But if a dream is intended to take shape and be materialised, it's not utopia. In all the writings of The Mother, I never found the word utopia, but I found everywhere words like 'site for spiritual and material research,' a place for experimentation, and the word laboratory.
What happens in the laboratory is that you take the next immediate step towards the ideal. You could fail or you could be wrong, but you continue making new experiments. But what happens in a utopian society? You can get hypocritical. You create double standards, increasing the gap between what you idealise and the banal life you actually lead that you remain in denial about. And I don't subscribe to that.
Auroville, as The Mother envisioned, was to be a site of physical, material and spiritual research, and a laboratory for human society. For me, a laboratory is a much more exciting word than utopia when it comes to describing the city.
Zohra: Where do you see Auroville today with respect to the vision of The Mother and the efforts of Roger Anger? Where do you see it headed in the future?
Anupama: I think the next step is to build mobility and infrastructure. Up until now, it was the lands that were being consolidated and 50 years have gone by in inhabiting the first settlers and letting people in the world know about the project. As the lands are almost consolidated, we can begin with how cities start to put mobility in place, build a public transport system, the green mobility network that runs through Auroville’s interconnected parks and gardens, to get the green infrastructure in place, and begin one or two urban projects which are concentrated on certain areas so that while you live there with a small population, the urban life can be a lived reality. A reality with shared facilities and collective housing that doesn’t need to be individually financed, based on equity and careful strategies for co-existence between humans and the natural environment beyond them. And that is genuinely a replicable model for other cities the world over.
Right now we are building the Central Crown Road, which is the central ring road of public services; without that, we can't have public transport. Building this will be a big step towards collective life and connecting people who live far off. Cycle paths, an integral part of Auroville’s unique green mobility, are also underway, and once these developments are done along with the new housing projects and collective facilities, we will be in a position to invite more people to join Auroville.
Zohra: Does your presentation for the exhibition also showcase the upcoming infrastructural interventions for the city?
Anupama: Yes, it includes some of the upcoming interventions.
Zohra: What is NEXT for you?
Anupama: I am mostly focussing on my role as Head of Urban Design at Auroville, and I am looking forward to assisting in its realisation. On the other hand, as Professor, I like to give as much of my time to the people of the next generation, the ones who are really longing for it. I would like to encourage the idealism of the next generation and carve out my time for that. But for me, in the personal creative space that I have created in Berlin, in my practice Anupama Kundoo Atelier, I see my creative role as more than just being an architect. I see myself more as a creator and as someone who has the strength of imagination and perseverance to manifest some of those imaginations. I am not so attracted to doing just any project because a client wants it done or in order to run a business. I would like to do more special things—things that are relevant for our future, which don’t occupy my time but rather saves it to create new things collaboratively. I am also designing a line of interior objects, including furniture drawing, from my encounters with a wide variety of materials and skills, that demonstrate my approach to thinking with my hands.
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