Small-scale, big impact: Meet the Indian architect designing a better world
Anupama Kundoo is the top Indian architect you’ve probably never heard of. Her portfolio isn’t stuffed with luxury hotels, ambitious suburban townships or extravagant office plazas. She doesn’t have a bullpen of 200 architects who execute designs in her name. She’s not besties with a Bollywood star.
Instead, Kundoo, 54, has worked largely out of Puducherry since 1990, with a core team of six, on projects that would be considered career suicide by commercial builders. She’s built a beautiful centre for homeless children, creating domed rooms from handmade clay bricks fired from within; a kiln that hardens into a home. She’s developed unique Full-Fill Homes, a system of modular crates cast in ferrocement, which can be assembled in roughly a week with little construction knowledge. Her next big project, Line of Goodwill, covers housing and hotels for 8,000 in Auroville. No tall towers, just compact clusters that rise at one end of the city and slope down to reach the ground at the other end.
Kundoo doesn’t talk like an architect. She references DNA structure, the interconnectedness of mushrooms and the murmuration of birds, when discussing her work. And her projects take time. They involve mass labour rather than mass construction, with materials developed for the location and from it. Her own home, Wall House in Auroville, used handmade mud bricks over polluting factory-made ones. Its terracotta roof was developed with ideas from local potters. The result: a sleek, avant-garde home that is still indisputably Indian.
Wall House has become a sort of calling card for Kundoo. It’s been featured in international design magazines and architecture journals. She replicated it, brick by brick, at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. It was showcased in the India episode of the Apple TV series Home last year. This year has brought more praise. In May, the International Union of Architects awarded her the Auguste Perret Prize for Technology in Architecture. Last week, the Royal Institute of British Architects chose her for the RIBA Charles Jencks Award, which she is set to receive in November.
The accolades and attention come as a surprise. “I’ve always wanted to be part of a solution rather than a problem,” says Kundoo, from Berlin, where she now lives. “I only notice that I’ve done things differently when people point it out.”
Kundoo picked her path early, starting her own practice straight after graduating from Mumbai’s Sir JJ College of Architecture in 1989. “I knew if I joined a firm in Bombay, I’d be a micro-component of something that I wouldn’t even enjoy. I figured, if I was that irrelevant, my dropping out of the system would be irrelevant too. I didn’t want to wait to do what I wanted.”
What she did instead was work with modernist architect Roger Anger in Auroville, “a place people think of as Utopia but is really the R&D lab of the world”. It let her experiment with non-commercial, sustainable techniques long before green-building was a construction industry catchphrase. The projects also helped her earn a PhD in 2008, and allowed her to teach at top institutes like Yale and the Parsons School of Design in New York.
“She’s unlike anyone I’ve met,” says Sekar Sokkalingam, who has worked with Kundoo for 23 years, graduating from painter’s assistant to carpenter, plumber, electrician, contractor on Wall House, and is now a heritage conservator. “Anu is talented. But more than that, she has a good heart. She has credited us on every project, introduced us by name, treated us like equals.”
Sokkalingam was part of the team that accompanied Kundoo to Venice in 2012 and recalls that participants were assigned separate locations from their crews when prizes were announced. “Her concern was not winning or losing, but that she wouldn’t accept any award if we were not able to get on stage too. For me, that’s a prize in itself.”
That egalitarianism exemplifies her work — design that considers humans in relation to each other, their location and their environment, rather than speedy projects that add no value to the communities in which they reside. “Systems that save us time are wonderful,” Kundoo says. “But how are you using all those minutes freed up by sliced bread and washing machines? It only matters if you’re spending them to build a better world.”