The world agenda full of crises makes it necessary for architectural practice to take a new look at the built and natural environment, and to develop new perspectives. Dirim Dincer talked to Anupama Kundoo whose works and way of thinking give inspirations to get a meaningful position towards architecture about the cities, the ways of building social relations of space design and spatial strategies for fighting against crisis
Dirim Dincer: How does the built environment, in which an architect lives and experiences daily life and culture, affect his or her practice? What is the contribution of your cities –Pune, Mumbai, Auroville, Madrid- to your architectural understanding?
Anupama Kundoo: I think architecture is very much grounded in the place; not only in terms of geographic, climatic, and social conditions, but also in terms of the place that you grow up in, with your family. So I think the biggest influence in my work was the fact that I experienced problems of megacities like Mumbai. Of endless cities, where it feels like the problems are so overwhelming they just can’t be solved. I must say that Auroville’s influence was more of an optimistic kind, but if I had not grown up in Bombay, being exposed to those huge and complex problems, I would not have been so motivated to find solutions. I can’t simply think about a single house here and there; and escape from those challenges waiting to be addressed, because I am always concerned about the big picture. The contrasting aspect of Auroville, as opposed to Bombay, was that it is a city that is intended but not yet created; it is idealistic, utopian and it has a holistic vision for an organized, collective life. It is a new approach to developing a city for the future. Auroville is a project that is planned as a model, in response to the problems of the world. But if you go to the Auroville, you may not face that reality. What was interesting in Auroville is that the chief architect, Roger Anger, had put a lot of emphasis on experimentation, and on the importance of experimentation and innovation in architecture. Many other architects have done a lot of experiments there towards simple living, as a response to the environment. That kind of collective life and common aspiration, experience and exposure definitely helped create a setting that raised the standards. It was a phase of my life where I lived simply, with very few things, with a lot of time for thinking and developing the mind. I still try to do that.
DD: Globalization makes every city similar to each other. Like Istanbul, like Mumbai. What do you think about the current urbanization process and its politics? Is building equal living environments still possible, and if so, how?
AK: Somehow, nowadays there is the trend of the developer-driven city, which is actually a “non-city”. I had some time to look at the old city of Istanbul. If you look at it, you see how the urban environment was designed. Even public spaces or streets or the scale of the intimacy of the streets, the applied facilities—everything in the old cities facilitate contact between human beings. And then look at the area of Istanbul we are in right now. You said it is like Bombay. Yes, everywhere is the same. The city is being planned not holistically. Infrastructure, water, and energy and even traffic; everything is mostly planned in isolation now, without the spatial concerns in proportion to human scale, and as overridden by the scale of the personalized automobile. There are the developers building towers and trying to sell them. It is very capitalism driven, profiting off the need of migrants to have a house and such. When we allow such market forces to act without planning, the city naturally will not be for people. The cities are for cars, and for individualism. Every building has to have so much space around it because they are all high and there is no connection to other buildings. The only way we can go anywhere is by car. So we are all alone in our boxes. Every aspect is the opposite. Human scale, intimacy is the opposite; here, the car is the king. The buildings have no relation to other buildings. At the squares, there are no public spaces; but rather, humans are being offered a lifestyle that will make them more isolated from each other. So I think before talking about the alternative practices, it is important to talk about the heritage and the knowledge of city planning. The city, on the other hand, makes that connection between people, and it belongs to everybody; it is for all. And now, we are creating divisions in which the elite are on one side, the poor are on the other. I think no matter how good an architect is working on a single house or a setting, something is wrong. How can the work of good architects add up, if the city itself is not being designed? I think this is the work of the future, because urbanization takes place in high speed all over the world; so we need rethink cities for the future. I think the biggest loss we have is the loss of human contact. We won’t feel well, living like that. Being on the 18th floor may not be a bad thing on its own, but when you come down from the 18th floor, often alone, in an elevator, then you are in the car, then you are at another tower for your office. At which point do you see someone? It is such a deserted landscape in reality, where all are so alone.
DD: Cities also produce inequalities. If we don't change existing attitude towards material and production, it will be a disaster. I sense that “affordable habitat” is related with this. How can an architect be part of the solution?
AK: There are so many levels of required action. One aspect is technology itself, which should be considered both in economic and environmental terms. Engineering requires knowledge to get same square meters with the less material or use a material efficiently. My research also included that, but there is another dimension that has been not only about the material itself; but also about how humans interact with the material. In the ancient times, people made their houses even when they didn’t have anything. I always think the birds, the termites, the bees—everyone makes their own house. We are supposed to be intelligent, but while we used to build our own houses, now we are not allowed to do so. Nowadays we have to have all kind of degrees and certifications for everything, and people hardly get the idea to paint their own wall. All the norms that exist for modern construction often exclude all vernacular ways of building that have been tested by time. So of course this kind of a trend comes at a price. Suddenly, no human can contribute in the making of his or her own house and instead have to pay others, and all the overheads. So what happens? If I want to have a house, I have to borrow money from the bank. Developers are also borrowing from the bank, but the end user pays the cost of that as well. There needs to be a way through which people can contribute to the construction of their own houses, even for some hours daily, or on the weekends to offset the costs. It is like if there are new codes for food, and you are not allowed to cook at home, and your food can only be only bought at the restaurant. How will you manage to live? It is artificial. Besides, houses are being designed in unaffordable ways, but even if someone designs an affordable technology, the cost that is charged is usually based on speculation, and not on the cost of construction.
Another thing is that houses are seen as investments, rather than homes to live in. If you ask children what a house is, they will say, “It is a place to live”. If you ask adults, they will say it is an investment. It is the same in our society, everywhere. Do we have a house to live in; or do we want to live our whole lives in order to have a house in the end, when we are dying? That’s when the house becomes our own. I think these fundamental questions should be asked.
Due to the fact that social housing is being taken up by cities insufficiently, we are actually creating a class division between those who have homes, and those who don’t; between the people who inherit and the people who will never inherit. There is growing urban poverty in the world, as we are becoming more and more a migrant society, and even when we have full time jobs, those salaries fail to cover the housing costs. I have also seen good examples of managing housing in Copenhagen or in Berlin, in which social housing is provided by the city. But in Bombay, if you rent a house, most probably you will pay to the private person who owns the house as an investment, rather than the city itself, and then there are those who will profit from your need, given that there is no better alternative being offered, nor any existent guidelines for rents.
DD: Migration movements also require this. We experience here that the rents are now getting incredibly high at the places which asylum seekers started to live in.
AK: Yes. Housing should be managed in different way, and cities have to provide housing, since the future will also be about the migration. The globalized world is about that. Whether the causes are political or professional, people are increasingly starting to live elsewhere. Peripheries of the cities are expanding even though they cannot have access many of the city’s infrastructures, due to being on the edges. The car helps expand these limits endlessly as well, and further increases the problems. Some people feel that all these problems will vanish with smart cities and digital technologies, but at the end of the day, food will have to be analog. It will not be digital. People will need real food and oxygen. You need the air to be clean. There should be a cut-off point: how many cars, or how much carbon monoxide, can be accepted?
Again Copenhagen is a good example here, as they used to have the same problems with us, but they have managed to reverse it. Previously people with children moved too far, to places with gardens, but now, they want to be in the city because even a child can ride a bike to the school. So I think the city will come to such a saturation point. If it reaches that saturation point, we will be forced to rethink the law. And if social segregation can be addressed, then everything can be addressed. If you have a beautiful walking route, everyone will use it; even the rich will go there to exercise, instead of going to the gym.
DD: Circular economy, commons, local materials, and labor are all parts of the contemporary discussion on the built environment. Where do you position yourself in this debate? What do material and local production mean to you?
AK: In this globalized world, what I’d like to protect is knowledge; because knowledge is universal. We should use globalization to share the knowledge. After all, we are all the same species, and there are our commonalities, which are more important than our differences. So we can share knowledge. Knowledge is universal even if the varied expressions of knowledge are local. The engineering knowledge, or knowledge of force, or of gravity, is common, but the buildings you create, or the food you eat, will have their varied expressions. It is also same for the building materials, especially in the current situation; the act of building causes environmental, social and economic unbalances. In this moment, we as architects can be more sensitive and try not to create more problems than we solve. In this case, to use what is already there makes more sense.
While material research is very important to me, architecture lies in the design of the void; because what we use as human beings is in the parts of the buildings that we don’t build. The function of the pot lies in its nothingness. The material could therefore be whatever is most appropriate, and not be selected according to fetishes. I try to build with whatever exists locally and whatever is sensible to use, including urban waste and such; whatever is there, whatever is cheap or less harmful. The sense of luxury will come out of the design, of the proportions and other subtle decisions. Apart from the material choice, there is also the choice of technology that is appropriate. I also always try to think about the livelihoods of the local people associated with the buildings, and the accumulated knowledge in treating those materials. For example, if there are existing skills and knowledge of artisans in the region, I like giving them an opportunity to go on—and not necessarily in the traditional way, it could be re-inventing the way that the livelihood can go on. Sometimes there is no local material, but local capacities that are being forgotten. Architecture is just a backdrop to creating a good life. It is not only about an object of architecture, but also about creating a good setting. Architecture should facilitate a way of life which can occur comfortably in those created spaces.
DD: You define yourself as both an architect and an architectural educator. What do you think about architectural education? You hadn’t lost your connection with education, and you have been making lots of workshops. What are the impacts of these workshops on you, and on your students as well?
AK: Actually, I am not only concerned about architectural education, but education in general; and about the confusion between information and knowledge. Yes, we are in the information age—I am not against any technological development—but a tool is a tool, my brain is my brain and my hand is my hand. I think a lot of people has become the tool of tools.
I use architecture as an opportunity to build knowledge, empowerment, and a community—not only as an opportunity to build buildings. We have a lot of software and digital tools now, but their knowledge is not necessarily digested by people, the way it was when we used to produce all the work by hand. To complement this, I like to offer students the opportunity to face realities while being in the University, rather than losing contact with the ground and remaining in an academic bubble. They need to encounter real materials, real people, real places and real scales.
Education is for developing knowledge, but knowledge has to be experienced. So as a teacher I try to facilitate the students in having an opportunity to test their knowledge when faced with real challenges, and empower them through their contribution to live projects.
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