Anupama Kundoo on her approach to time and the meaning of being an architect

Speaking with STIR, the Berlin-based Indian architect reflects on her journey and the inspiration behind her ongoing showcase at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art.

by Zohra Khan Published on : Nov 20, 2020

Kjeld Kjeldsen, the Senior Curator of the Louisiana Museum approached me in 2016. This was after he was impressed with my piece at the Venice Biennale that year, but he had earlier seen my work in 2012 when biennale curator David Chipperfield had invited me to participate in the main curated exhibition at the Arsenale. There, Kjeld said, my work caught his eye. He invited me to be a part of a series called 'The Architect’s Studio' that he was making with five architects including Wang Shu, Alejandro Aravena, and Tatiana Bilbao. This was not something I had to audition for; like in Venice you sometimes need to show what you are going to do and then you get selected. I was very honoured and delighted. I believe the right people do find you. I mean I did not even have a business card at that point.

– Anupama Kundoo

Berlin-based Indian architect Anupama Kundoo lives by the mantra, 'We cannot make time, but we can take time'. She sees time as a forgotten resource in architecture, while the latter is a process that embraces the present, the past and the future. She is a keen advocate of the idea that an architect should invest more time in thinking, researching, sharing knowledge and building, instead of only focusing on optimisation and time saving processes.

In an intimate conversation with STIR, Kundoo reminisces her architectural journey that spans 30 years of building and research and delves into the key inspiration behind her ongoing showcase at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen, titled Anupama Kundoo – Taking Time.

Anupama Kundoo - Taking Time is the fourth exhibition in the Architect’s Studio series by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Anupama Kundoo - Taking Time is the fourth exhibition in the Architect’s Studio series by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
We need to understand our insignificance and our irrelevance as much as our possible relevance. – Anupama Kundoo

Zohra Khan (ZK): What was the starting point of your intervention?

Anupama Kundoo (AK): The brief of the exhibition was to show not only the outcome, but an inside glimpse into my studio. I gave it the title Taking Time because I wanted to talk about time as one of the most underrated resources. Today humans are in such hurry that if something saves time, they value it in design. I would like to share with people that when I came out of the rat race situation, years ago from Bombay, I realised that time is a resource and I wanted to question the notion of ‘Time is Money’.

At what cost have we saved time? In the name of ‘rapid urbanisation’ aren’t we creating worse things at high speed? I do not mean ‘taking time’ in the context of delaying, I mean to proactively taking time as each action in the mini moment of now is going to dramatically shape our future.

The exhibition gives a closer view of the working process of Kundoo’s studio and offers insight into how ideas become form | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
The exhibition gives a closer view of the working process of Kundoo’s studio and offers insight into how ideas become form Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

With this exhibition, I want to show the granular nuances of my studio and my personal approach to having spent time in research and in developing processes that have contributed to who I am becoming and what my practice is becoming.

I would like us, as architects, to evaluate where we are positioned. When you zoom out over generations and look at everything, we need to understand our insignificance and our irrelevance as much as our possible relevance. We should not have too many illusions about how important we are and must know where we are impotent. I have taken certain decisions, which have shaped my personal life as well as my practice and I wanted to show through the medium of this show that I had the time to do it.

Through the lens of Kundoo’s architectural practice, the exhibition sheds light on a scarce resource in our life: Time | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Through the lens of Kundoo’s architectural practice, the exhibition sheds light on a scarce resource in our life: Time Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
Yes, time is a luxury, but I do not see it as one that is out of our reach. For me, it is the best equaliser as everyone has 24 hours a day regardless of our differences. – Anupama Kundoo

ZK: In the context of architecture, don’t you think time is a luxury that every professional cannot afford?

AK: Since last 50 years we know that there is an environmental crisis and that our cities are getting unliveable. I graduated 30 years ago, and now when I look at my city, none of those problems which worried me have been solved. They have not even been addressed.

Some architects might say that they are pressed for time. I ask: If they feel pressed for time and therefore have good reasons to ignore the real issues, 30 years later, have we advanced? Are they happy with their jobs or the buildings that they have built? What would have happened if they did half the number of projects for double the time? Would the project be worse or better? These are just some simple questions I ask myself.

A display showing the evolution of the Indian city of Auroville | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
A display showing the evolution of the Indian city of Auroville Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

Yes, time is a luxury, but I do not see it as one that is out of our reach. For me, it is the best equaliser as everyone has 24 hours a day regardless of our differences. I chose to take a lot of time to look at a problem and to try to design something in response to it even if nobody hired me. In fact, now when I think about it, it seems like a blessing that no client knocked at my door.

I do not want to put this in a polarising way but all the choices that I made were not according to the popular say. People felt that I am stepping back, giving up or disappearing, but I was working - on myself, and on my questions. Today, I am incredibly happy with the fact that though I do not have a fat portfolio of thousands of square meters to show but all the things that I did have added up to quite a lot.

If you take your time, you not only build buildings, but you also become more empowered, you build knowledge, you build community…

The exhibition brings access to Anupama Kundoo’s research archives, which include the first sources of inspiration, processed materials and architectural works | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
The exhibition brings access to Anupama Kundoo’s research archives, which include the first sources of inspiration, processed materials and architectural works Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

ZK: Do you attribute the philosophy that ‘we cannot make time, but we can take time’ to your Indian roots?

AK: I think my Indian roots cannot be uprooted. I was already an uprooted Indian because one part of my family came out of part Bangladesh. I grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai) and I was given all the tools in my Indian upbringing to be able to survive anywhere and deal with any circumstance.  

Yet I do not have a nostalgic approach to tradition. I am a future driven person and I think future is unwritten and that everything is possible.

A collection of natural building materials displayed as part of the theme, The Architecture of Time | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
A collection of natural building materials displayed as part of the theme, The Architecture of Time Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

ZK: The showcase is curated around what you call The Architecture of Time and Co-Creation. Could you elaborate these?

AK: The passage of time leaves its imprint on materials and these are left with an architecture. The first section of the exhibition called The Architecture of Time shows my perspective of the world as I have been observing it. I have categorised it under Matter, Life, and Mind, and it gives the visitor access to my research archives, which include my first sources of inspiration, processed materials, and architectural works.

I have arranged my material research on six tables. Falling into three categories - stone and wood, earth, and ferrocement and concrete - each theme is illustrated by several tectonic models, each crafted in the original material, however on a reduced scale of 1:5. I have classified the materials in such detail that instead of doing six months of specifications, one can spend six hours at the exhibition to learn the whole syllabus.

The walls have got large wallpapers of the territorial context where materials are sourced. One can also see the local territory that is impacted by each material.

  • Shown here is a prototype of ‘Easy WC’ - a project built of ferrocement by Anupama Kundoo | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    Shown here is a prototype of ‘Easy WC’ - a project built of ferrocement by Anupama Kundoo Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
  • Models showing detailed cross-sections of the project, Volontariat Home for Homeless Children which consisted of baking a mud house in situ after its construction | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    Models showing detailed cross-sections of the project, Volontariat Home for Homeless Children which consisted of baking a mud house in situ after its construction Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
  • A prototype of Full Fill Homes – a house by Anupama Kundoo that showcases the potential uses of ferrocement | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    A prototype of Full Fill Homes – a house by Anupama Kundoo that showcases the potential uses of ferrocement Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

What is incredibly special in this exhibition is that on one hand, you have 1:50 scale architectural models of select projects but there also special tectonic models in 1:5, 1:1 or 1:2 scale to explain spatial aspects alongside materiality of the architecture. So, on one side there are material palettes and on the other, it shows how each material has been used in my projects. We worked for four years for the communication to be extremely easy.

In another room curated around Co-Creation, I have showcased my vision for the future of habitat. Since the exhibition is called The Architect’s Studio, I was more interested in showing what is going on in my head, essentially the unbuilt.

A 1:50 model of an urban high-rise housing for Auroville | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
A 1:50 model of an urban high-rise housing for Auroville Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

There is a project that we have envisioned for Auroville. It is an idea of an urban high-rise housing, which is not a tower typology but an alternative approach to high density co-housing. It is challenging that such visionary concepts that are promising for the future are often met with resistance. I have used the opportunity of Louisiana Museum to be able to build a 20m long model of the urban project at the scale of 1:50, set in the background of a video projection of Auroville’s site context, so that one can really imagine it.

  • A selection of future facades to foster energy generation, waste recycling, and urban farming | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    A selection of future facades to foster energy generation, waste recycling, and urban farming Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
  • Green Screens integrate urban farming opportunities | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    Green Screens integrate urban farming opportunities Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
  • Urban Surplus Recycled uses unwanted fabric from denim industries | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    Urban Surplus Recycled uses unwanted fabric from denim industries Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020
  • A closer detail of Energy Harvesting screen | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
    A closer detail of Energy Harvesting screen Image: © Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2020

Additionally, there are many other realised collective housing projects shown in the room, concepts of which I believe could be a way forward for co-housing. Also displayed are new ideas and innovations for future facades. These are Green Screens that are literally made from vegetation, to bring the residents closer to nature, as well as integrating urban farming opportunities and cleaning the atmosphere; Urban Surplus Recycled, that reuses unwanted fabric from denim factories to create a facade screening; and Energy Harvesting involving a collaboration with climate engineers on energy-generating façade strategies.

I don’t want to sound arrogant, but now after 30 years of research, I know my capacities and I am dying to apply them. – Anupama Kundoo

ZK: At this point in your creative journey, what is it that you are seeking?

AK: What I am seeking is not as an architect, but as a person. It gives me a lot of joy to create the habitat we deserve because I feel attracted to the human potential. I believe you can find beauty and uplift yourself through what you create because when you create, you don't feel like a victim of circumstances, you just act and create something.

It is exciting for me to learn and to just look at the world with wonder. The more I study architecture, the more it cultivates my eye and my mind. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but now after 30 years of research, I know my capacities and I am dying to apply them.

ZK: Who do you look up to?

AK: I can list a lot of people who have inspired me: from Laurie Baker, whose practice had resonance to what I aspire towards, to Charles Correa who I would say is my first figure of inspiration. I appreciate architects such as Pier Luigi Nervi, Eladio Dieste, Buckminster Fuller, and Frei Otto, who have combined engineering with material and technique. Above all, it was several years of working with the chief architect of Auroville, the French modernist Roger Anger that really raised the standard for me and what I expect of myself.

Anupama Kundoo | Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time | Louisiana Museum of Modern Art | STIRworld
Anupama Kundoo Image: Andreas Deffner

ZK: How would you like to STIR up the future of architecture?

AK: I honestly feel I am not a stirring kind of person and that I am not a rebel. I like to bring calm. I believe very strongly that if your actions soothe you and if you do the right thing in alignment with your own values, it will be the best contribution to society. You might meet with resistance along the way because of current trends and habits. However, one should be patient and must go on. Change takes time especially when it involves the collective.

There are things that I do not like, but what action do I do with it? I would not stir it up more. Rather than putting my energy on rejecting it, I will put my energy on building that which I envision. As a creative person, I think you just create what you think it ought to be in whichever measure you can. I believe that if you do these mini steps, then 30 years later, you see what you have achieved and also that you have evolved yourself. Like they say in the gym, where you put your attention, those muscles develop.

Anupama Kundoo – Taking Time is on view at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art till February 28, 2021.

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