Dr. Anupama Kundoo, noted architect and sustainable housing propagator is a name to reckon with. She journey spanning 25 years has been an eventful one – ranging from her love for 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…
WORDS: RINKU B
Noted Indian architect Dr. Anupama Kundoo was born in Pune in 1967. She graduated from Sir JJ College of Architecture, University of Mumbai in 1989 and holds a PhD degree from the TU Berlin. She was awarded the Vastu Shilpa Foundation Fellowship in 1996 for her thesis on “Urban Eco-Community: Design and Analysis for Sustainability”. Her architecture practice began in 1990 with a strong focus on material research with the view of reducing the environmental impact of building technologies. She set up her own firm in Auroville, Pondicherry in 1993. There, she designed and built many economically innovative buildings with “energy and water efficient infrastructure” adaptations. Since then, Anupama has spent over 25 years in 100+ projects ranging from baked mud houses to high rise buildings. Today, her firm works in all directions of building including projects in private residences, housing, public buildings, planning, installations and interiors.
Her journey has been exciting and of course, full of struggles and success or failures. She adds, “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.
She demonstrates a strong focus on material research and experimentation towards an architecture that has low environmental impact and is appropriate to the socio-economic context. Anupama is an internationally recognised and award-winning architect with her own architecture practice that started in 1990. Kundoo has built extensively in India and has had the experience of working, researching and teaching in a variety of cultural contexts across the world.
SUSTAINABILITY IN DESIGN THINKING IN A GLOBAL WORLD:
She adds that “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.”
“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. It is a 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.
FINDING INSPIRATION IN THE SOUL OF AUROVILLE:
According to her, 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, she thinks 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, she says.
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 it’s 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.
EDUCATION IN ARCHITECTURE TODAY:
She adds that she would hesitate to make any hasty generalisations about the state of education in architecture today as there is a big difference in the standards that range from very good schools, to weaker schools of architecture in India. Of course, she knows that there is a need for many schools for architecture and that they are sprouting at a fast pace however it is probably a challenge to draw the proportionate number of good teachers at an equally fast pace to cater to these schools and the general demand.
According to her, “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 may be 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.
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.
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 & MUD HOMES:
The fired mud houses were the result of Anupama’s fascination with Californian ceramist Ray Meeker and his relentless engagement with a radical experimentation such as this. She believes 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. She says, “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.
TIPS FOR BUDDING ARCHITECTS:
For youngsters wanting to follow a serious path in architecture and design, the scope is limitless. Anupama adds, “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.”
AWARDS & ACCOLADES:
In 2013, Kundoo received an honourable mention in the ArcVision International Prize for Women in Architecture for ‘her dedication when approaching the problem of affordability of construction and sustainability in all aspects.
Anupama 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 ). She has also written a book and published a number of technical papers in Magazines and Newspapers on architecture. Her published book is Roger Anger: Research on Beauty/Recherche sur la beauté Architecture 1958–2008, jovis Verlag GmbH, Berlin, 2009.
WALL HOUSE – One of the notable buildings built for her own residence is titled the “Wall House”, built in a community area of 15 acres (6.1 ha) with a built in space of 100 square metres (1,100 sq ft) constructed at a cost of one million rupees in 2000 in Auroville. This house is L-Shaped in plan, has a courtyard in the middle; while it is modern in concept it adopts traditional “vernacular” use of materials such as compressed earth, concrete and steel. The bathroom is set in open-to-sky design, with smooth merging with the interior and external spaces and landscaped in manner which gives it both a modern and a regional appearance.
LIBERTY – An interesting theme brought out in her architectural creation is titled “Liberty” which presents a reading place as a free book free library where individuals can “sit and read whatever they wish to”. This creation is built with three types of trees fixed in the centre of a square space. The trees’ “trunks and branches” are made from steel and the leaves made of salvaged books, with the floor made of concrete. Sitting under the shade of this tree people could indulge in conversation or read a book with the gentle wind blowing through the leaves.