Anupama Kundoo on how to utilise people’s capacity to make things

Vladimir Belogolovsky speaks with Berlin and India-based architect, Anupama Kundoo, about the need to experiment more boldly and how good enough can be perfect.

by Vladimir BelogolovskyPublished on : Jan 13, 2022

The year 2021 was a very special one for Berlin and India-based architect Anupama Kundoo (b. 1967); her exemplary work attracted a lot of attention. The architect’s mid-career retrospective, Anupama Kundoo: Taking Time, celebrated her entire oeuvre at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark; it was accompanied by the architect’s first monograph published by Lars Müller. She also won two prestigious honours: the 2021 RIBA Charles Jencks Award, presented to architects who “have made a major contribution simultaneously to the theory and practice of architecture” and Auguste Perret Prize 2021, which was awarded “for innovative use of local building techniques, material sourcing and construction principles, and for being acutely responsive to the environment, climate, and culture.”

Shah Houses, Brahmanghar, near Pune | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Shah Houses, Brahmanghar, near Pune Image: © Javier Callejas, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

Kundoo grew up in Mumbai, where after studying architecture at the Sir JJ College of Architecture at the University of Bombay she established her practice at the age of 23 in Auroville, an experimental town in the south of India, designed by French architect, Roger Anger (1923-2008). She chose a different path from working at an office. The idea was not to learn architecture merely as a profession but to figure out her country and who she was as a person. In our recent conversation over Zoom, Kundoo told me: “Starting my practice early on happened organically. I didn’t want to fit into a system, but instead tried to learn from builders and craftsmen directly and intuitively. I paid attention to everything and everyone around me to turn all that into resources that could be utilised and improved.” Her office became question-centric and not client-centric. It became a lab, not a typical practice. In the first decade her practice grew to 25 people, and in addition to designing her projects she acted as a contractor because, as she said, “No one wanted to build my ideas. They seemed too radical.” After building local projects for a decade the architect started getting noticed by academia and publications. She was invited to teach, lecture, and participate in conferences and exhibitions all over the world. She initially moved to Madrid and later to Berlin to be closer to places where she continues to teach.

Presently, her practice numbers 12 architects—four in Berlin and the rest in two offices in India—in Pune and Pondicherry, the closest city south of Auroville. The Berlin office focuses on research, small projects in Europe, and on conceptualising projects in India. The architect’s most acclaimed built works include Town Hall (2006–ongoing) in Auroville, Volontariat Homes for Homeless Children (2008–2010) in Pondicherry, and such residences as Shah Houses, Brahmanghar, near Pune, and Wall House (1997–2000) in Auroville, for which MoMA acquired drawings and model. Ongoing projects include a restaurant in Berlin and a pavilion in Switzerland. In the following conversation with Anupama Kundoo she discussed her resistance to being framed as a vernacular architect, how to find use for the existing skills, about focusing on designs that anyone can build because good enough can be perfect, and that good design can be invisible.

Volontariat Homes for Homeless Children, Pondicherry, 2010 | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Volontariat Homes for Homeless Children, Pondicherry, 2010 Image: © Javier Callejas, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): In one of your interviews you said that you refuse to be framed as a regional or vernacular architect, which is how many critics tend to identify you. How do you see yourself and what do you focus on in your work?

Anupama Kundoo (AK): I don’t like labels because I feel architects are more common than different. I don’t want to be entangled in this debate of past versus future, global versus local, or individual versus collective. All these notions exist simultaneously. I don’t see these boundaries. I don’t see myself only as an architect and only as an Indian. To me every problem is very specific. I don’t want to be pinpointed for anything. That would limit me. For example, I designed and built houses that were fired-in-situ mud structures in Pondicherry. The process followed the technology pioneered by ceramist Ray Meeker. In principle, these structures are being built with mud bricks and mud mortar. They are stuffed with other ceramic products as if the whole thing were a kiln and fired for three to four days to achieve the strength of a brick. And now so many critics call these houses vernacular. That’s ridiculous because what I have done there was to use new materials and technology. The whole process is very high-tech, not low-tech. [Laughs.] Critics make their conclusions only based on the image without thinking what’s behind it. This is what Daniel Kahneman talked about in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. People can’t make conclusions on their biases only. Some people even call my work “contemporary vernacular". [Laughs.] Well, they used to call me a green architect. Then they called me a social architect. Now they say I am a woman architect. It is just a fad, that’s all.

Wall House, Auroville, 2000 | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Wall House, Auroville, 2000 Image: © Javier Callejas, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

VB: Here is what I read about you, “Her basic design approach is to use waste materials, unskilled labour, and local communities.” How do you typically start a project? What is your design process? You don’t start with a sketch, right?

AK: Well, of course, this is a crude simplification of what I do. You know, I started my education in a classic old-school way in Bombay [Mumbai], which was the first architecture school in India set up by the RIBA. So, I do start with sketches. But simultaneously, I initiate a 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 know—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 by hand or industrially. I make my choices based on that knowledge.  

Wall House, Auroville, 2000 - Exterior View | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Wall House, Auroville, 2000 - Exterior View Image: © Javier Callejas, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

VB: You mentioned that India experiences a dramatic loss of labour skills. What can be done about that? Should architects try to resist to that?

AK: It is not about resisting something. But what can be proactively developed. How do you find use for the existing skills? The resistance is in this action. It is like children playing with LEGO sets. In a way, your choices are predetermined. It used to be that LEGO sets were basic enough to make anything. But today they have become predetermined. You are directed at what should be built. That’s the difference and it is emblematic of how the building industry is being developed. India and China put together, constitute one third of the global population. And in terms of urban development there is an even greater portion. It is in these countries that we still have a lot of manual labour skills. I want to celebrate that instead of only celebrating the industrial capacity. Let’s focus on the capacity of people to make things. And I am not only talking about their abilities to use their hands, but also being engaged in their full capacity. Human time is a resource. Urban waste is another resource. Then there are local materials that are often being ignored. We can think of alternative use of certain materials, which means we need to experiment more boldly. Some of the techniques may be worth to be revived. What I also tend to do is, focusing on designs that anyone can build, not only qualified builders. In fact, good enough can be perfect.

Wall House, Auroville, 2000 - Interior View | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Wall House, Auroville, 2000 - Interior View Image: © Javier Callejas, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

VB: Nowadays there is a lot of talk about architecture in China, but very little about India, which is just as populous and just as dynamic. There are just a few internationally recognised names such as Balkrishna Doshi and Bijoy Jain of Studio Mumbai, and your practice is becoming more known. Yet, I read that there are now over 300 architecture schools in India. What can we expect from India in the next few years?

AK: India is a very complex and diverse civilisation. And I think it is this diversity that architecture should celebrate. You are right about the fact that India remains to be undiscovered. For example, we don’t even have our pavilion at the Venice Biennale. And what is known about our architecture is what western critics stumbled upon quite randomly that they thought would be of interest to the western audience. Well, we have so many challenges. We are not as developed as other parts of the world. Many projects would not even be called architecture in a traditional sense. Just like in literature, there are so many stories written in small communities in their own languages; many of them will never be translated and, therefore, they will not reach global conscience, which does not mean that those human stories are not being told.

And as far as what to expect from India, it is hard to say. The world is still very much Euro-centric in terms of certain expectations and judgements. I think I can say this because I am a product of entirely local education. I only pursued my PhD in Germany after becoming a successful architect in India and landing at the academic environment already after being fully developed as an architect, sharing my experience, which is very different from other well-known Indian architects. I went to academia to teach, not to learn. I learned locally and mainly by practicing and working directly with craftsmen. I never had to rediscover my roots because to me becoming a local architect was a very organic and slow process. Nevertheless, I am not nostalgic, I want to go forward. As I was discovered I began to see universal qualities in my architecture despite the fact that it is formed entirely by the local circumstances. And again, I am more interested in what makes architects common rather than different. 

Wall House, Auroville, 2000 - View of filler slab | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Wall House, Auroville, 2000 - View of filler slab Image: © Javier Callejas, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

VB: I like your quote, “I am not expanding any legacy but reacting against it. People have inspired me, but I am mostly driven by the future.”

AK: That’s right. Of course, there are people who influenced and shaped my thinking. I need to ask questions, but I also need to build on the foundations that were laid before me. I am following some of Roger Anger’s ideas, the architect and master planner of Auroville. I am examining closely experimentations by Frei Otto, or what Pier Luigi Nervi investigated. I was also influenced by the Bauhaus and the Modernist Movement. But I don’t consciously follow anyone’s legacy by specific examples. I am inspired by their attitudes, strategies, courage, and spirit of experimentation. I am against mindlessly running on autopilot. We need to set our goals clearly and pursue them. There needs to be an awareness of priorities.

Hut in Petite Ferme, Auroville, 1990 | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Hut in Petite Ferme, Auroville, 1990 Image: © Andreas Deffner, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

VB: And you said, “I would urge people to go for slow architecture.”

AK: Absolutely, you need to learn how to slow down, how to be present in the moment, take your time, and learn something before making your decision about anything. Quick decisions can be very costly for all of us.

Hut in Petite Ferme, Auroville, 1990 - Interior View | Interview with Anupama Kundoo| STIRworld
Hut in Petite Ferme, Auroville, 1990 - Interior View Image: © Andreas Deffner, Courtesy of Anupama Kundoo Architects

VB: How would you describe your architecture?

AK: Architecture is a stage for life to be celebrated. Architecture belongs to the background; it should not compete with life itself. I don’t want life to be intimidated by my buildings. Sometimes good design is invisible. What matters is a good atmosphere and feelings.

VB: But your Wall House in Auroville is not invisible, right?

AK: You know, it is photographed in a very photogenic way. But it is also very casual. And I have done so many other projects that were rejected by magazines because they lack what is expected from architecture by critics. My projects are not photogenic according to many experts. That’s what I meant when I said that the world of architecture is still Euro-centric. These buildings are not pure, they are integrated with the landscape so much so that it is not clear where the building ends and where the landscape begins. Yes, there are many moments where the material catches your eye. But the building is really about the space and experience, which is hard to relay in photography. Architecture is not only about the matter. You need to feel it. It is inviting, which is probably its key quality. There is the right alchemy, right aroma, and no one element is more important than others. They all make their important contributions.

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