Interview with Anupama Kundoo

Interview with Anupama Kundoo

Architecture creates more problems than it solves

14. June 2016 | Words: Jasmin Jouhar, Photography: Javier Callejas
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 40 seconds

Anupama Kundoo is an architectural globetrotter. She shuttles between her office in the Indian township of Auroville and Madrid, where she holds the chair for Affordable Housing. She graduated in Mumbai and received a doctorate from TU Berlin. Her appearance at the Architecture Biennial in Venice was her second, the first having been in 2012. This Sunday, the 19th of June 2016, she will be delivering this year’s “Reading in Architecture” at the behest of FSB. We met Anupama Kundoo at the inauguration of the Biennial in Venice and spoke to her about low-tech, hi-tech and how she would like to reduce housing shortages with a lighthouse.

You are exhibiting a house prototype dubbed “Full Fill Home” at the 2016 Architecture Biennial with which you aim to sound out the potential of ferro-cement.
It was Pier Luigi Nervi who with his shell structures brought ferro-cement into the mainstream of architecture. Realising that the dead weight of concrete is a drawback where greater spans are involved, he used ferro-cement in an attempt to save weight. It is a material that can be worked in thicknesses of as little as two and a half centimetres. Chicken wire is used as a means of reinforcement instead of steel. It is, however, difficult to compute the structural properties of ferro-cement owing to its being permeated by wire mesh. There is no structural division into tensile and compressive zones as with reinforced concrete. But it incorporates the same materials, to wit steel, sand, cement and water. Gravel is the only item missing. It is my hope that it will be possible with ferro-cement to build a greater number of square yards using far less material.

Indian architect Anupama Kundoo

Indian architect Anupama Kundoo will be holding this year’s “Reading in Architecture” talk at Wehrden Palace in Beverungen.

“Full Fill Home” draws on the modularity principle. It is built with ferro-cement blocks.
The house is one conceivable use of modular building blocks. The blocks are hollow; we use the space to store furniture or other items. The usable area extends into the empty space created by the blocks. The house accordingly comes across as being bigger than it is – it is actually only three by five metres in size. there’s a bed, a kitchen block, everything you need. “Full Fill Home” is a simple solution to the complex and arduous problem of creating living space. Its production is low-tech, masons being easily able to manufacture the ferro-cement elements themselves. The house can be completed within a week. It is not a universal solution, though; we designed it for the tropical climate of southern India, which is why it is fashioned in such an open way.

Production of the house is low-tech, despite the concept harnessing German hi-tech engineering.
We are working on this project with Mike Schlaich from the Institute for Civil Engineering at TU Berlin. Our goal: to use as little material as possible. We brought artisans from India to a workshop in Berlin with a view to refining the ferro-cement modules together with Schlaich and his students. Working the material astutely, after all, allows its intrinsic properties to be tapped more fully. We experimented with textiles as a means of reinforcement, for instance. Some of the blocks have been left in Berlin and are being tested there. The project is an interdisciplinary and intercultural enrichment for all concerned.

There is a second link with Germany, albeit a coincidental one.
I had attended a previous Architecture Biennial, in 2012. So I knew the refuse generated by such an event is a serious problem. Thus it was that, together with local activists from Rebiennale, we “rescued” material left over from the 2015 Art Biennial, specifically from the exhibition in the German Pavilion. We have now used that waste for our installation in the Arsenale. Rather than discard the “Full Fill Home” once the Architecture Biennial is over, it is to be granted a second life. Rebiennale will help us to rework the prototype for a social project in Marghera – Venice has a major homeless problem. A workshop is being run on the subject in January 2017.

You call your Biennial project “Building Knowledge”, which is likewise the title of the “Reading in Architecture” talk you will be holding. Are you primarily intent on creating knowledge, i.e. conducting research, or on passing on existing knowledge?
Both. Firstly, we all need knowledge so as to prevent our continuing to create more problems with architecture than we solve. We have acquired a great many bad habits in building over the past hundred years, including ordering material from catalogues or adopting overly standardised solutions. We need to learn afresh how to build with fewer negative consequences for the environment or social life. That is the literal meaning of “Building Knowledge”. The other meaning treats “building” as a verb: we aspire to impart our knowledge, to give people the strength to meet their needs themselves. These include clothing, food and, yes, accommodation. Such cultural aspects are just as important to me.

Anupama Kundoo presented a full-scale replica of her own house

Anupama Kundoo presented a full-scale replica of her own house in Auroville at the 2012 Architecture Biennial that she dubbed her “Wall House”. (photo: Andreas Deffner)

For your ideas to catch on you need partners.

Definitely. Housing construction is a problem no one can solve alone. The project is a lighthouse for us: we show what we are capable of in the hope that others will get the picture. The industry has already taken note, which is crucial. We have built and exhibited a further prototype in India. We are currently testing it in our office. We have also been commissioned to build twenty such houses. But the “Full Fill Home” is only the beginning. Ferro-cement is a material with far greater potential.