India’s renowned architect Anupama Kundoo has experimented with locally sourced materials to develop Wall House and others for non-profit organizations to minimise impact in the construction process whilst maintaining the connection to the community. He tells us how he integrates hybrid technologies into the building, a response to the growing segregation in India and developing countries.
The imbalance is fuelled by the introduction of expensive and environmentally insensitive high-tech buildings against the space inefficient low-tech vernacular for the expanding population. Wall house successfully achieves the balance by exploring means of using local materials in new ways based on extensive research and experimentation.
This building serves as an example of contemporary architecture that solves the international socio-economic need whilst maintaining a low impact on the environment. The ongoing development of technologies that can be produced by unskilled workers acts as a prototype to understand how resources and spaces can be optimised.
About the Wall House, how did you become involved in building your house in Auromodele? And what were you looking to achieve with this house?
When I moved to Auroville in 1990, I joined a community called Petite Ferme, in Auromodele area, where a few people lived in temporary ‘hut’ like structures that were built in natural materials: casuarina round wood, resting on granite stilts; finished with ‘pakamaram’ split-palm slats for flooring, and coconut thatch for roofing tied together with coconut rope and coconut calyx. I first built myself a hut too and lived there close to nature relying like the other community members on solar panels for electricity, as we were off the grid. Gradually over there next 10 years, we built more permanent houses for ourselves, however, we did so carefully, judiciously spending high-energy materials and local labor.
The resulting structure, Wall House in Petite Ferme, is situated outside the planned city limits of Auroville, in Auromodele, an area designated for research and experimentation. WallHouse was the culmination of my ongoing extensive research and experimentation in low-impact building technologies that are environmentally and socio-economically beneficial, by negotiating the balance between hi-tech and low-tech and incorporating everyday materials through techniques that include the participation of those with lower skills and education with few skilled craftsmen. It compactly accommodates everyday needs whilst effortlessly expanding to absorb guests. It attempted to not only redefine the building program for a private-residence; it tested various spatial and technological innovations to inform other projects. Spatially, it redefined borders and transitional spaces in response to the climatic conditions and contemporary culture.
Technologically, it involved local materials in new and inventive ways given the global resource crunch and rapid urbanization. Landscape design, an integral and inseparable part of the overall architecture, worked with the topography to integrate the indoor-outdoor transition as an integral experience.
Such hybrid technologies focus on new ways of using age-old local materials that combine hand skills and local craft traditions alongside knowledge-based scientific systems. A laboratory for research and experimentation, this was a prototype for future development.
Would you define your process of design as the combination of research and experimentation?
Yes I think we are in a moment of great transitions, where the current ways of building are producing more problems than they solve: environmentally, economically as well as socially. Since architectural design is a process of synthesis of responses to various concerns, and innovation is very much the need of the hour, it is but natural that any relevant innovation would need to be supported by extensive research and experimentation, balancing theory and practice in an inclusive approach.
Your work involves hi-tech and low-tech, could you expand more on this two elements of design? Perhaps in relation to low-income families that could benefit from this combination?
Social segregation is a global reality that is growing rather than diminishing. Hi-tech comes at a high cost, that is not only in money terms, but also often environmental. India as well as most developing countries have not reached the same level of industrialization like the developed countries where everything is standardized to the other extreme making hand-crafting a luxurious alternative. Architecture must be appropriate to the context, and if buildings in developing countries are produced as high-tech as they are produced in the industrialized countries, the result will be exclusive, out of reach of the bulk of the population, and only affordable by the elite. This trend is worrying because it further enhances the segregation existing in a society with a contrasting urban form of slums vs high-tech towers, usually with significantly higher consumption of resources, and creating issues of identity disconnecting from the place where they are planted.
Of course on the other hand, land is a critical resource. Many traditional low tech building systems are no longer appropriate to our density challenges and given the rapidly depleting natural resources such as wood. The right balance between high-tech and low-tech is key, and in my projects, I try to find the balance that would negotiate case to case, between high-tech low-tech but also between manmade and machine made to reach an appropriate socio-economic and environmental response. By the way, many vernacular methods of construction like compressive earth structures (domes, catenary vaults etc) in fact often require much more knowledge and complex analysis than column frame reinforced concrete structures, and in that sense could be considered sophisticated and high tech in our times. So perhaps structures built today with low-tech materials could sometimes be seen as high-tech structures too.
Impact of Architecture in Society
In your opinion, how can technology help build more socio-economical buildings?
I think one of the key challenges today is to build buildings with significantly fewer resources. Precise engineering, in combination with choosing appropriate building materials, could significantly reduce the negative impact. On the other hand, the appropriate technology could create opportunities for people to take part in the construction of their own homes even if they are in the urban context. Such strategies could go a long way to achieve affordability through people’s engagement rather than the monopoly of the housing as industry where huge profits are made but alienate people from participating and offsetting costs.
Houses are primarily homes to live in and not only to be seen as investments. Developing technologies that engage people’s time in the construction would empower people, build knowledge as well as build community.
Social housing is a critical problem in Mexico, in your experience is there a possibility of developing a program that would involve training local people low tech building techniques with local materials for self-building?
Housing has existed everywhere in the world for centuries wherever people have settled, and people have developed slowly the knowledge and skills to build with whatever resources are available. Post-industrialisation, housing has emerged as a commodity, and has been delivered to people without allowing any of their engagement. This trend, along with the rate of migration and urbanization across the world has resulted in an unprecedented challenge of affordable housing. Everywhere it is possible to allow people’s participation in at least certain tasks, but especially where housing cannot otherwise be afforded, the onus is on cities to produce social-housing in a manner that people can offset costs through their work. And yes, based on 25 years of experience in this field I definitely do see a tremendous scope for social housing that is produced in a holistic and alternative approach.
You are currently teaching at Camilo José Cela University in Madrid, do you think that schools of architecture should engage more with students training them crafting and self-building?
I see Universities as places for specialized learning, but not as bubbles wherein students lose contact with ground realities, and the challenges facing our society. I like to expose my students to these realities throughout the design education process: real materials, real scale, real place, and real people. When theories are studied I don’t want them to lose contact with these realities but rather complement theoretical knowledge with experiential learning. As a professor of architecture, I would like to equip my students with the confidence to be able shape their future society, through knowledge and collaboration. By thinking with their hands, and staying connected in society, I would like to help them find a sense of certainty within the uncertainty.