Anupama Kundoo: How We Are as Architects

I believe Anupama Kundoo is one of the most compelling voices in world architecture today. Last weekend I had the chance to hear her speak in her hometown of Mumbai, as part of Godrej Design Lab’s Collective Conscious event. Here’s my personal take.

The part of her discourse that I find most basically compelling is that Kundoo questions simply how we are in the world as architects. She challenges modes of practice that the world pushes us to take for granted. With the straightforward and naivety of a child, she asks questions that make us feel uneasy, because we both know that the answers we would give are not correct or just in a deep sense. She puts her finger right on the point of misalignment of our practice with our personal values as a thoughtful and conscious designer.

Kundoo brings out the reality that most of us are not, in our daily practice, architects in the true sense, applying thoughtfulness to matter to generate spaces for human life, but more like skilled specifiers of the products made available by the global construction material supply chain. We know the applicable codes, standards and technical instructions and can artfully organize these building components in space. Many or most of us have lost the aspect of experimentation, innovation, and deep creativity, that is, an ability to truly approach processes and matter without inhibition, somewhere along the way.

The thing is that this is how the economics and practicalities of our profession work. Once the playful explorations with material and space we did in school are firmly in the rear-view mirror, we are fundamentally paid to provide a drawing sets with specifications. We can design buildings that meet all the functional needs while ticking all the boxes that make it aesthetically impressive. But this is not the deeper calling of our profession. In so doing we lose the fundamental connection with the essence of things.

That’s why I think Anupama Kundoo is such an important voice. She asks those simple questions that bring us back to the essence. Why, most fundamentally, have we decided to do things the way we have? What are we actually trying to accomplish and is that really what we should be trying to accomplish? What are the cultural blockages and constraints that we have allowed to limit us in our approach? Why don’t we ignore them?

It was great to see the enormous interest the young generation has in Kundoo’s work. Her tone responds to the deepest aspiration of the current generation of architecture students, which is to be able to work with integrity, that is to say in alignment with their values and their true selves.

This came out in a discussion I had with students after the talk. Kundoo says that her career was probably most formed by things she said no to. That is worth thinking about. I told the students that I felt I had said yes to some things I shouldn’t have, that I got drawn in by the intellectual curiosity I had for the issue, losing sight of whether it was really the right issue to focus on. Knowing where to invest your valuable time and energy is probably the single greatest key to leading a conscious professional life as a designer. If the younger architects focus more on that, collectively they will have an enormous impact. And given the challenges before us, we need that.

Anupama Kundoo has many wonderfully stimulating things to say on materials, like the good brick and the bad brick, on what sustainability really means, on taking time, on birds watching us build our houses and on many more subjects that I’ll probably write about another day. But for now, I invite us to consider her inviting us to “put your ressources in the right place, in the right vision.” Nothing, I think, is as important.