The interview with Anupama Kundoo appeared
in A&B 3'2021
In an interview with A&B readers, Anupama Kundoo talks about her approach to what matters: life, work, practice. Over a cup of freshly brewed coffee, she talks about what has shaped her, Auroville, the city of the laboratory, time as a resource, and her first and most important project.
She combines her architectural practice with her research and work as an academic lecturer. Originally from India, she studied in Mumbai. She began her professional career in Auroville, an experimental city of the future. Her projects are characterized by low environmental impact, sustainable building materials and attention to social context. She has worked with universities in London, New York, Brisbane, Madrid and Berlin, among others, where she currently lives and works.
Dominika Drozdowska: Shortly after graduating with a degree in architecture from the University of Mumbai, you moved to Auroville, a unique utopian city in the southeast of India. Your first ten years of your career are directly related to this place. I would guess that you contributed a lot to the life of the local community, but you received just as much in return. What are your memories associated with Auroville?
Anupama Kundoo: The moment of graduation was very important to me. As a young girl of twenty-three, I wanted to be independent and shape my life. I was living in Mumbai, a crazy city where everything was happening at an incredible pace. Buildings and things were being constructed that I didn't like very much. And even then, architecture was facing the challenges that are talked about so much today. In my life, it was a moment of reflection. As an idealistic architect, I noticed that modern design practice has led to creating problems instead of finding solutions. I say all this to share what was going on in my mind thirty years ago, when I started my adventure as an architect. That's why I picked up Auroville in an unusual way - this is where my backpacking journey ended.
Dominica:On the Internet you can see a photo of you from that time - a girl on a motorcycle turns around, looking into the lens.
Anupama: When I came to Auroville I was very open-minded and tried to understand what was going on in my country. Here it was very different. There was a higher purpose behind the creation of Auroville. Created more than fifty years ago, the city and the idea were ahead of their time. Were we ready for such a concept then? Even today we are still in the process of becoming ready.
Wall House was completed in 2000, a decade after the architect's first project in Auroville - Hut Petite Ferme
Photo: Javier Callejas
Dominica:Is this a good example of what a city of the future could look like?
Anupama: Auroville was created as a prototype of what the city of the future could be. And it wasn't about a community per se or an ecosada. It was thought to be about building a place where people from all over the world could come together and thrive. Cities created by people resonate with and influence each other. Urban foundations can therefore drive their own and society's development. For me, this was very interesting. And however Auroville is a rather intimate project - it was never just a utopian idea. I think it was more of a laboratory, a place for trials and tests, among other things, of the city of the future. It was in Auroville that I met the chief architect Roger Anger. Only from today's perspective can I say how much I was influenced by working with him. I'm not a nostalgic person, I rather try to look to the future. Roger Anger had truly amazing ideas and great visions, and I was able to absorb everything I was ready for at the time. Now, many years later, as I try to solve various design problems, the ideas developed in the 1990s in Auroville come back to me. In my practice, I constantly draw on these experiences.
Dominica:So not a utopia, but a laboratory. Is Auroville the answer to the challenges of today and tomorrow?
Anupama: I don't like to have easy, black-and-white answers, because they are not always right. A lot depends on the context. I see Auroville as a venture whose founders, including the architects, began to think deeply about urban challenges. They asked themselves questions about society, the environment, the needs of habitation, but also about the reasons for human conflict, discomfort, wars. What is the purpose of all this, how can we be more proactive in determining our future? The problems we face were created by man. Their source is man, and it is man who must change so that future cities can be better equipped to shape human society. It doesn't matter if we are trying to solve these problems in Auroville or anywhere else in the world - these are universal questions and issues that affect the entire planet. If we do something in one place in the world, the whole society will benefit. The discovery of the vault by the ancient Romans benefits the whole world. A good example now is the vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19. In such a short time, the whole world gains access to it. Knowledge spreads quickly because as humanity we are one.
interpenetrating spaces in Wall House
photo: Javier Callejas
Dominica:In some cases, however, knowledge does not spread so smoothly. The business centers of many cities are saturated with skyscrapers of steel, glass and concrete. How do you build differently, for example, on European soil, where at least the weather conditions are different than in India?
Anupama: That's why a while ago I was talking about universality - what people need is the same. It doesn't matter where we are, in Berlin or Sydney. My body temperature is the same as yours. So we might think that architecture in Poland or Germany is completely different than in India. Why? Because we need the same thing. In order to maintain the same body temperature, we have to resort to different means. In India we will cool the buildings, in Poland we will heat them. The context, geometry, materials or climate changes, but human beings with their needs remain the same. For this reason, when I travel the world or change my place of residence, I never feel like an outsider. Looking at the bigger picture, one can see that more unites us than divides us.
Dominica:How then do you explain that since the context is different, we build the same glass skyscrapers all over the world?
Anupama: I know you're the one asking the questions, but this time I'd like to ask you: why do you think this is happening? Why are we building all these glass towers, no matter if we are talking about Dubai, Frankfurt or Delhi? I too asked myself this question thirty years ago, when I started my practice.
Dominica:I think it's all about money. And at the same time, we have gone a step too far in globalization - we want the same products everywhere in the world: identical vegetables and fruits or dishes in fast food restaurants.
Anupama: I find this very interesting, and my whole journey is related to a reflection on standardization. Why do we continue to do what we don't like or what we don't like? We complain that it's impossible to live in our cities, that the buildings don't suit us, but we keep doing the same things. On the one hand, I feel that in the thirty years that I've been running my practice, not only have we not solved the identified problem, we haven't even begun to think about it, let alone produced a huge amount of bad stuff. I don't want to sound pessimistic, because I also see that consciousness is evolving. And perhaps unconscious actions are needed before we get on the right path. When I was younger, I used to think that the way we acted was because we didn't know how to do things better, in a more sustainable way. Today I don't think so anymore. We know everything and still do things differently. Just like with the fast food example you gave. We know it's not good for us, and we still eat it out of habit. That's why I created an exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark called. "Taking Time" ("to take time"). I think it's good to take time to think about what our purpose is or whether we are happy. By doing so, we can come to our own consciousness, not just serving the systems we have created. I mean the situation we find ourselves in. Regulations, norms and structures limit the operation of an individual's intelligence. It's like going to a doctor who can't be guided by his own opinion based on his knowledge, experience and skills, but only follows the guidelines of a nationwide society of doctors. Or the customer service we encounter every day. Consultants do their best to help us, but they are unable to because they are blocked by the system. So we created the system, but we can fix or update it at any time. Mainstream and mass production have their advantages, of course, but at the same time they prevent individual human intelligence from working. The optimal solution would be to use all these tools we have created, but in such a way that we do not become their tools. We can also continue to organize conferences, lectures and write publications, but the will to act will not be learned at a conference. It flows from within - if you want to change something, you will do it. Simply put. I think we know a lot, but we still don't use this knowledge.
production of ceramic pipes used, among other things, for the construction of the Wall House
photo: Andreas Deffner
continued conversation on next page