Slow Architecture

Ulf Meyer
15. Oktober 2020
Anupama Kundoo: Voluntariat Homes for Homeless Children in Pondicherry, India, 2008 (Photo: Javier Callejas)

A new exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, explores Anupama Kundoo’s "handmade houses" and other projects that "just take time." Ulf Meyer visited Anupama Kundoo – Taking Time, the fourth installation in the museum’s “The Architect’s Studio” series, filing this review.

How do you make a good Indian chicken masala? “You only need a quarter of a chicken, the rest is masala.” Indian architect Anupama Kundoo uses this bon mot as the basis of her “handmade architecture,” which has made her a star of contemporary architecture. Her aim is to save material in her “masala” in order to develop an architecture that is affordable for everyone. The Louisiana Museum’s monographic “The Architect’s Studio” exhibition on Kundoo, which carries the title Taking Time, secures her a place in the Alhambra of sustainable architecture.

Kundoo insists on local craftsmanship and a regional architecture that is closely linked to the place and its natural environment. Time is a central element in her eponymous firm’s way of working — her architecture can (and should!) be "slow." Taking from Indian building culture the time needed to invest in working with site-specific materials, Kundoo wants to "bring the historical legacy up to date." Architecture for her is a testimony over many generations, so Kundoo does not insist on individualism. She describes how her research, practice, and teaching as an alternative to mass production: “The inventions and production methods that we create today to save time are the same things that take our time. Creating and constructing buildings by hand just takes time.”

Full Fill Home in The Architect's Studio: Anupama Kundoo - Taking Time (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art)

The first part of the exhibition captivates visitors immediately. It presents Kundoo's “Wunderkammer,” in which snail shells, leaves and different types of rock shows what inspires the architect when transforming the forms and structures of nature into tectonic models. The second part of the Taking Time shows a full-scale version of Kundoo's “Full Fill Home,” which consists solely of thin, cheap ferrocement panels, joined to form shelves and compartments — an Indian-style furniture house.  

The museum’s large hall is filled by a giant model of Auroville, which Kundoo has been working on with students from the United States, Germany, and Denmark. It shows a tail-shaped new district of Auroville, the "City beyond all religions and peoples" that was established in 1964 by Mirra Alfassa as a social and architectural experiment dedicated to the guru Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. Auroville does not belong to anyone; it "belongs to all humanity" is the mantra of its foundation. The French architect Roger Anger (1923-2008) designed the city in the shape of a spiral galaxy as an example of "modernism without motorism," or urbanism centered around pedestrians. The settlement with 3,000 inhabitants south of Chennai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, was designed as a universal "City of Dawn," following Aurobindo’s social theories.

Auroraville in The Architect's Studio: Anupama Kundoo - Taking Time (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art)

Cities only thrive over generations, but many architects do not want to continue their predecessor’s ideas. Kundoo approaches Auroville’s hippie heritage in a fearless and pragmatic way: The Kundoo attitude is a "can-do attitude." In designs for the town hall in the city center and residential buildings elsewhere in the city, the legacy of French modernism encounters traditional Indian customs. Kundoo's own "handmade" residence in Auroville is made of bricks and a sophisticated roof vault of terracotta pots with a restrained elegance. All materials and shapes are tailored to the climate and culture in Kundoo’s “architecture for the place.” Thrift is her ethical and aesthetic point of reference in order to make optimal use of the scarce resources available on site. "Usability does not have to exclude atmosphere or beauty," she says — and who would disagree?

Anupama Kundoo" Town Hall Complex in Auroville, India, 2005 (Photo: Javier Callejas)

Beauty comes from materiality and manufacture, she claims. Artisanal work simply makes sense in this place, far away from modern manufacturing companies. Kundoo's interest in construction technology and innovations is genuine. Once again, she uses cuisine as an example, saying: “When you cook biryani, you shouldn't notice a single taste. It's about enjoying it as a mix." Kundoo develops construction techniques tailored to available materials and capabilities in situ. What she thinks out for a long time is then built quickly. 

Architecture concerns everyone, she says, and “nowhere there is nothing” that you cannot build upon. "There was architecture even before there were humans," says Kundoo. The didactically structured exhibition, curated by Kjeld Kjeldsen, very nicely shows that architecture can also appeal to laypeople and children. As always in the now four-part series, the show is particularly brilliant at teasing out the mise-en-scène, the process of thinking and designing. Countless models and studies reveal the genesis of building designs.

Materials and models in The Architect's Studio: Anupama Kundoo - Taking Time (Photo courtesy of Louisiana Museum of Modern Art)

Kundoo does not see herself as an “alternative architect,” nor primarily as a woman or Indian, and certainly not as a rebel. Likewise, she does not describe her architecture as vernacular. Kundoo’s statements, such as "I made peace with my irrelevance as much as with my possible significance," are disarming. It’s so rare to hear architects speak this way. Her architecture has limits, but she has more control over her buildings than Western counterparts, who “outsource everything.” Kundoo sees herself as part of a long evolution. It is impressive how, with just a few eloquently formulated sentences, she knows how to embed her work in the history of mankind over the last millennia — and far beyond: "Architecture is already in the DNA of a snail shell," says Kundoo. “I build upon what everyone before me has already thought up and created. Only architecture can synthesize all this. We should not simply ignore the tried and tested solutions.” Her designs celebrate the imperfect and creation as cooperative act, not the work of a lonely, brilliant heroine. During her 30-year career, Kundoo has learned how to “cultivate her eye," as she describes it. 

Kundoo's architecture is not for the modern “homo faber.” Her analogue architecture is created without devices; it is the epitome of "site-specific." She translates old building techniques into a contemporary Gestalt vocabulary. Her facades are porous, their construction is carried out without prefabricated parts, her houses are manufactured by “intelligent hands,” in Kundoo’s words. She invented a construction method for building an orphanage in which the domes made of clay are their own kilns: all bricks are burned in the clay brick shell. 

Anupama Kundoo: Shah House in Brahmangarh, India, 2003 (Photo: Javier Callejas)

Anupama Kundoo was born in 1967 in Pune, grew up in Mumbai, and currently lives in Berlin, having come to Europe via Australia. Germany fascinates her for the simultaneity of engineering know-how and love of nature. Kundoo roams history as effortlessly as she does geography. In one case, she noticed an interesting detail in architectural history: the first Bauhaus exhibition worldwide took place in Calcutta in 1922, creating cultural ties between her two worlds one hundred years ago.  

And while everyone thinks that it was Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn who first confronted India with modern architecture, she knows that it was Czech architect Antonin Raymond who built the first modern building in India long before them. The Golconde dormitory in Pondicherry from 1935 was commissioned by Sri Aurobindo, to whom Auroville was later dedicated. The intercultural architecture exchange has come full circle!  

Anupama Kundoo: Wall House in Auroville, India, 2000 (Photo: Javier Callejas)

Kundoo’s oeuvre to date may be small, but it has relevance to large parts of the world. Small details, such as avoiding air conditioning with geometrically perforated jali screens (jalis cool interiors via natural air movement and create artful patterns of light and shadow), are reminiscent of the English-Indian architect Laurie Baker, who became known for his inexpensive and energy-efficient buildings that incorporated principles of local architecture. The skill of improvisation and a deep respect for nature have resulted in diverse built portfolios for both architects.  

Kundoo's inquisitive nature relative to the primitive is a beneficial counterweight to western architecture’s supposed truisms. “It could leave ghost towns of glass skyscrapers behind if the climate changes further and affordable energy dries up,” she says. Kundoo built her first house in Auroville solely from leaves and branches.

The Architect's Studio: Anupama Kundoo - Taking Time is on display at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art until February 28, 2021.

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