On Taking Time

Anupama Kundoo in conversation with Jane Withers

April, 2021

Taking Time
, the title of the solo exhibition by Anupama Kundoo at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art until 16 May 2021, has turned out to be uncannily prescient. In the last year our sense of time has changed fundamentally and many of us are questioning how we ‘use’ this finite resource. The subject has pre-occupied Anupama from the outset of her career and led her to question aspects of architecture and construction and propose alternative systems that put ‘taking time’ rather than ‘saving time' at the centre of discourse. Unable to visit the exhibition physically during the pandemic, I talked to Anupama about how this preoccupation took shape and how it translates into her buildings.

Photograph by Andreas Deffner

Jane Withers: Our sense of time has changed so much with the forced slowdown, and for many of us it has taken on new texture and meaning, but you have been considering this question for a long time - how did this come about?

Anupama Kundoo: I think it goes back to very basic questions I asked myself when I was young. I grew up in India, which is an old civilization, but I was in Bombay where there was this flurry of things happening all the time. People looked busy, they were increasingly stressed, they were doing all kinds of things. But the city and built environment looked worse to me, year after year. This was my perception as a child. It felt like no matter what you did, you never saw the fruits of it.

The more I went into this question of time, I realized that people are so busy saving other resources like money, but they are ready to give up their personal time. I came to the essential question ’What is the cost of saving time?’ Are we paying for it with environmental, social, economic disruptions? I realized more and more that time is all I had.

Photograph by Andreas Deffner

Anupama designed Hut Petite Ferme as a home for herself soon after graduating as an architect. Inspired by the simplicity of rural shelters, trunks of casuarina trees are tied together with coconut rope.

Photograph by Andreas Deffner

Anupama lived at Hut Petite Ferme for 10 years. The experience was a formative influence on her holistic approach to architecture and people, materials and lifecycles, and interest in seeking refinement with minimal means.

Health, happiness and wellbeing

JW: How is this approach that you call ‘Taking Time' reflected in your buildings?

AK: I do believe the purpose of architecture is health, happiness and wellbeing for humans, individually and collectively. Architecture is required by humans because our biology needs it. But sometimes we wind up doing things because we are creatures of habit, even if it doesn't serve us well. We are on autopilot making matchbox houses. And it is this commodified version of architecture that keeps getting perpetuated. So, my first step was to radically question my personal use of time to think before I act. That was the point when I liberated my personal time by taking big risks and seeing what it is like when you reduce things.

One of the issues is that mainstream industrialisation had started influencing the way we think. When we think of paper, we think of an A4. We all have the same WC. And it's the same with homes but the standard home doesn't work for many people. Why don't we say ‘Okay here are the things that we want to offer as a standard product, and here are the areas that you can do on your own, so we can express individuality.’ You go to old cities like Venice, and the whole city has one kind of signature, but within it everything seems a little different. Everybody says that material rethinking is going to be expensive, but in reality it is only more expensive from the point of view of laziness and habits. Somehow, I think Covid has caused us to connect because we all have similar questions and that gives a lot of hope. Now we know that we can behave differently. We can be flexible. We can adapt.

Image courtesy of Anupama Kundoo

Line of Goodwill is a design for high density compact housing for Auroville, the experimental town in Tamil Nadu where Anupama established her career.

Image courtesy of Anupama Kundoo

Envisaged as co-housing clusters with cascading terraces, the project is being developed using co-creation methods to move away from standardised housing formulas.

Comfort

JW: And what about bringing these ideas into architecture and the materials you work with? Your buildings have such a strong atmosphere, a sense calm. In a way you are building a comfort zone but with a different language from what we're used to. I'm interested in how that evolved and what you consider the essential elements in this language?

AK: I like that you mention comfort because that's what I feel. I never try to provoke through architecture, I try to create calm spaces where you just feel good. I realised that there is a material aspect, which is very expensive, and is out of many people's reach. But there is a thing about proportions and harmony, and an alchemy about the way things are put together. So that what is manifested has a soul, and it helps you to be generous and overlook the shortcomings in the material, whether they are humble or not.

Photograph by Anshika Varma

Anupama designed the showroom for Samskara, sculpting granite to create a dynamic display system and articulate craftsmanship. The variation of surface and shadow play created by the shelves is very deliberately designed for its tactile quality.

Photograph by Vimal Bhojraj

Samskara was constructed using white granite slabs, crafted by members of a highly skilled Tamil Nadu stonecutter community. The traditional hand-levelling techniques reveal texture that enhances the natural material in a way not possible with mechanical methods.

Crafting luxury

JW: An aspect of your work that fascinates me is the rich sense of texture and craft.

AK: I love that you use the word texture, it's a very conscious thing. Samskara is an interesting project for this. Up to that point people had associated me with low cost, and all those social and green kinds of labels. But the client for Samskara chose me because they found my work conveyed luxury. Their idea was that the crafts are dying out, and they wanted it to be targeted as a highly luxurious thing so that they could get people like Prada or Hermès to see the kind of things you can do with hand craft, with leather, with terracotta, or whatever. Only when the big guys with big budgets invest in craftsmen, will craftsmanship make it to the next generation. This was their philosophy.

I was so happy because there was a good budget, but the question I had to address was: 'How do I redefine luxury without it being obscene for the country in which it is located?' That's when I first used the idea of time. A lot of people who are poor, cringe when they hear the word luxury so I wanted to find a common definition where the rich and the poor, the people who make, and the people who use could all feel at ease. So, I said, 'If you have time, it's luxurious.' If you have a whole day to cook a biryani or make a brick, neither the user nor the maker feels that they wasted time, but on the contrary finds the object created beautiful and valuable. Being able to invest time is luxury. It is not the cost of the material that makes it expensive, but the cultivated human engagement and that makes the product feel luxurious. Time is the luxury.

Coming back to texture, I was trying to understand the common qualities in architecture that make us feel well, and I noticed that texture is a very neglected area, but it always used to be there. If you look at ornamentation it was all done to deliberately bring in a certain texture so that it is palatable for our senses. Similarly with light quality. When you entered a building, there was a passage from dark to light. It was a gentle transition, not abrupt. And that was part of the journey. I realised this is something that bothered me about modern architecture. All these glass towers or granite floors in modern hotels, everything is shiny, nothing has texture. It's convenient for machines to make but not for humans to live with. Modernism rejected a lot of things in a hurry, and I think they did have functional purpose.

Fundamentally, I feel that we are humans. In 100 years we have not changed so much that we don't need those things anymore. The needs of wellbeing are pretty much similar. And I realise when I travel that those needs that I have are common to other people.

 

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