Jay Merrick talks to Indian architect Anupama Kundoo following her curatorship of Made in … India, a New Delhi exhibition showcasing high-end manual craftwork and natural materials
What do stone-dressers in Tamil Nadu, India, have to do with our perception of architectural presence? Squatting on slabs of white granite from the Eraiyur quarry near Pondicherry, they texture the surface of the rock by hammering variously pointed chisels into them. The roughest surface, rather like severe acne, is produced by what the masons refer to as a one-string dressing; the finest surface requires a finer chisel-tip for a three-string dressing. ‘You hear the ringing tones against the rock,’ says architect Anupama Kundoo, who designed the wood and clay Wall House installation at the 2012 Venice Biennale. ‘Ting, ting, ting …’
The soles of Kundoo’s shoes were resting on the relatively crude one-string dressing of granite strips that formed the floor and shelving of the recent Made in … India designer goods exhibition in Delhi, conceived and sponsored by BE OPEN, a creative think-tank established by the London-based Russian billionairess Yelena Baturina. Her mission is to find and promote designers and thinkers interested in ‘new ways of seeing’.
Kundoo’s concept store makeover of New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts produced a sophisticated, faintly glacial interior populated with highly crafted fashion items and furniture. The design of the 600m volume sought to convey the connection between the effort of manual craft and the high-end consumer products that the country helps to produce for luxury brands such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Armani.
Kundoo’s granite flooring was the work of sweating, calloused hands. Few of us know anything about the history of the stone-dressers’ craft; we do not muse about the giant rock known as Krishna’s Butterball, on the east coast of Tamil Nadu at Mamallapuram, nor recall the 7th-century stone temples there; we do not, as reported by Thirumangai Alvar in the 8th century, visualise ships at anchor ‘bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, big trunked elephants, and gems of nine varieties in heaps’.
But what has this exotica to do with an architect’s ideas concerning a particular place, time, and intention in Delhi in 2014? Perhaps there is a faint connection. The literal physical base of Anupama Kundoo’s design is the handiwork of chisels on granite; and yet the other perceptual and architectural ideas involved in the design create a sense of shape-shifting phenomena.
‘I’m not inventing,’ Kundoo insists. ‘I’m just not taking it for granted that one thing is just one thing. Many people might be suspicious that so much trouble has been taken to design an installation that is so temporary. Why bother? But why should there be so many patterns on a butterfly’s wings? You should bother.
‘The relationship between society and its territories is affected by whether things are made by hand or by machine,’ she says. ‘What is the effect on the mind? I worry about a larger loss: things have been so abruptly industrialised. What does that do to the way we think? I do not want a future where machines are intelligent and we are robotic. I am dwelling in the world. The five senses – all the senses – must be involved.
‘The way you handle building materials has an impact on social and economic factors; the community in the landscape, and how they live in that landscape.’ She gestures at the exhibition space: ‘And this landscape is assembled from that landscape. I’m not into ostentatious architectural stuff, loud things. I like everything to fit into the larger landscape. Every project is an opportunity to find the collective knowledge of things.’
Her design is not only based on historic natural and cultural phenomena. The ghost of Beat Generation novelist William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, hovers over it: language, he wrote, was a mutating virus of extraterrestrial origin. And it is the phenomena of language – its style and imagery – that ultimately dominated the architectural situation created by Kundoo in Delhi. The apparent terrestrial clarity of her ideas of craft and collective knowledge mutated in the zero-gravity vacuum of luxurious display.
Kundoo speaks of synthesis: ‘Not knowing whether the material shapes the design, or the design shapes the material.’ And of negative space: ‘It is in nothingness that utility lies.’ She thinks of the granite as transcending its materiality. But she also refers to handcrafted materials that ‘contribute significantly to the brand image and the background mood, without being perceived as stand-alone elements in the space.’
If roughly surfaced granite is merely the recessive shaper of a negative consumerist space, what is the point of using it? How, in this design, did the granite ‘recall references to Indian culture?’ The tightly packed array of aluminium warehouse lamps overhead is described as a ‘sky’. But we do not experience the lighting metaphorically; they are simply precisely positioned lamps. Small, rectilinear blue-painted pools in the space signified water as a life-force, ‘symbolically reflecting the sky, the infinite … contextualising the outdoor symbolically in the indoor’. What if we experience them only as space-ordering blue basins in a large white room?
It is not that Kundoo failed to deliver an effective exhibition space in Delhi. She did succeed; and she presented Indian granite in a way that she correctly describes as ‘fluid and elegant’. Natural materials need not appear archaic. But the ultimate effects and meanings of Kundoo’s architectural phenomena are riddled by temporal and cultural disjunctions. ‘The time is out of joint,’ says Hamlet to Horatio. ‘O cursèd spite, that ever I was born to set it right!’ Those lines, or something like them, cannot be far from the lips of any thoughtful architect in the 21st century.
Natural materials and their phenomenological associations have been bent to the wills of designers for thousands of years. The sandstone colonnades of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut in 1,500BC generate a dominant sense of fatal order and materiality; the finessed surfaces and fittings of Adolf Loos’s Villa Müller radiate an exquisite, time-consuming craftsmanship; the glass facades of Norman Foster’s Willis Faber & Dumas head office and Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre render technical craft and modernity indivisible. The dominating physical and formal phenomena of these examples, and their attachments to the past or an imagined future, have a highly distinct sense of being and presence.
The novelist Philip K Dick, who wrote Time Out of Joint, once declaimed: ‘I like to build universes that do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Objects, customs, habits, ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live.’ The remark appeared in a 1978 essay ‘How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’. How, in the Koyaanisqatsi-like tsunami of consumerism that dominates life, do architects design spaces whose phenomenal content conveys meaning for more than two days?
Is the ting-ting-ting of the stone-dressers’ chisels – and the work of hundreds of thousands of highly skilled craftspeople worldwide – being lost in architectural-cum-phenomenological translation to meet the therapeutic spend-needs of consumers, whom the fashion industry relieves of $1.5 trillion a year?
The availability of crafted building materials is unquestionably under threat in every country. But so, too, is the way they are perceived and valued, not least by architects. How many things can one thing be before it stops being the thing it was in the first place? What causes one kind of phenomenon to mutate into another, quite different one?
Jay Merrick is architecture critic of the Independent