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A full-scale, handmade brick-and-terracotta house was one of the most remarkable installations in the last Venice architecture Biennale. It sat within the vast shell of the Corderia, its materials echoing the great industrial architecture of maritime Venice in the 18th century. With its vaulted roof, timber shutters, dining table and brick patio complete with pot plants, it reduced the scale of the long hall to the domestic. It seemed a world away from the 3D-printed volumes, the speculative skyscrapers and the utopian urban models that more usually fill the halls.
This house within a house was the work of Indian architect Anupama Kundoo and is a replica of a house that she designed for herself in Auroville, just north of Pondicherry, the town that was her home from the mid-1990s until 2002.
Kundoo moved to Auroville after an upbringing in Pune and Mumbai, and the place would seem to be an ideal home for an architect. A settlement founded by Cambridge-educated anti-colonial rebel-turned-guru-poet Sri Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950), it was from the very beginning a site of architectural experimentation, a menagerie of futuristic forms and examples of India’s earliest modernism, predating the arrival of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn by at least a decade.
Even amid that landscape of futuristic freaks and stridently modernist villas, Kundoo’s handsome houses made waves. Not because of their strangeness, not even because of their structural innovations, but because of their understated elegance, a blend of crafted materials and forms perfectly tailored to the climate and the culture.
She also developed a type of house that is its own kiln, a mud-brick shell within which all the constituent parts – from the bricks and roof tiles to washbasins and plumbing pipes – are fired as the house is slowly completed. The fact that Kundoo has eschewed the blockbuster buildings and sculptural forms that have become the currency of contemporary architectural media has undoubtedly slowed her progress, yet she has become a kind of cult figure to other architects looking at architecture for the poor and architecture for place.
I meet Kundoo, not in India but in her new home city, Madrid – her husband, also an architect, is Spanish. She is engagingly chatty and eloquent, a strikingly open and attractive presence with a memorable thatch of long curls streaked with a distinctive stripe of grey and a tiny sparkling nose stud.
Kundoo is one of five globe-spanning younger architectural figures featured in The Architect is Present, each of whom “has made austerity their ethical and aesthetic reference point”, often working within precarious economies and making the most of scarce resources. One part of the exhibition’s aim is to show how such pragmatism and serviceability, in architecture, need not preclude either feeling or beauty.
Elsewhere, Kundoo has just emerged from the acclaim she received for a design for an exhibition of Indian products entitled Made in India for the Be Open Foundation in New Delhi, a “live” design exhibition at Madrid’s Museo ICO, and is about to start on a major installation in Barcelona that will open in the summer.
Before I have a chance to even ask a question, she begins talking about the installation at Made in India. “It was supposed to be about luxury,” she says, slightly exasperated. “I had to think. What is luxury? Then I realised that luxury is having time and being able to spend time. It’s in the mind and in the taste – not in the materials.” She developed a series of ingenious wavelike granite shelves, all designed to be reused and easily dismantled. They were made by masons in Auroville using the most basic of tools: the luxury is in the embodied crafts skills.
I ask her why, of all places, she had alighted in Auroville. “It was an international city,” she says, “and with this spiritual undertone. I was attracted to the idea of a visionary place.”
And yet her architecture isn’t part of that visionary tradition. In fact, quite the opposite: it’s rational, calm and absorbs the vernacular and craft languages seamlessly. “People define my work under headings: contemporary vernacular, critical regionalism, it’s all so superficial. I’m essentially modernist,” she says, almost indignantly. “That craft thing is a bit overplayed. That’s just what makes sense in that place, in the context of India with its craftsmen. For me architecture is about the negative space. The function of a pot is in its nothingness.”
Yet surely she is known precisely because of the beauty of the materiality and the making of her structures?
“It’s the thing that transcends the material that is the thing,” she says, a little enigmatically. “If you cook a biryani,” she adds – by way of assuaging the slightly blank expression that I thought I was hiding quite well – “no single flavour should stand out. It’s all about the enjoyment of the whole thing.”
For her, the biryani is the house. And one of its most remarkable ingredients is her trademark parabolic roof vault made, surprisingly, from terracotta pots.
“I found the craftsmen making all these pots and selling them by the roadside,” she says. “They were never going to sell them. I’m not attached to these pots as objects. But I am afraid of the loss of the capacity to make them. So I thought, can they make a better product, at a cheaper price, and then can we have a more beautiful material to build from than the industrial product which is the same everywhere?”
Kundoo is an Indian architect who came to Europe via Australia, where she was teaching previously. Isn’t globalisation eventually bound to destroy all these traditions? “I’m not here to promote craft,” she replies. “It’s just that this way we get a better product. You feel cosier with a hand-stitched blanket, happier with a home-made cake. If we go the industrial route, you can only ever get the thing that the machine’s maker intended. What I realised after years of allowing people to work with their hands is that we can make anything.”
That’s the case in India, I suggest, but now less true elsewhere.
“It’s true, with the Indian inertia things just carry on. The Indian brick is the oldest mass-manufactured object in the world. I don’t want to ruin what is already there but I do want to make a new thing, to be more confrontational.”
Kundoo’s houses in Auroville have made a real impact because they suggest ways of working that engage the local community in every part of their construction. She devised techniques of making and constructing tailored to the materials and the skills available. Similar houses to hers are now appearing all over the city as residents absorb the architectural language and subtly alter it to suit their own needs. The same house transposed to Venice made an impact both because of the incongruities and the similarities of material and texture.
But what now in Spain? Does she feel bound to express something of her Indian-ness?
“I don’t feel any pressure to say something about India in every work,” she replies, “and I don’t feel that I need to defend a country which is so diverse, but of course I am Indian. I feel Indian. I just don’t feel limited by it. Have you heard of samskara?” she asks me. I haven’t. “It’s the imprint that’s left,” she explains, “a Sanskrit word for a culture that has left something on your unconscious mind. That’s how India is for me.”
‘The Architect is Present’, Museo ICO, Madrid, to May 18. fundacionico.es