Sunitha Kondur, one of the faces behind the immensely talented Bangalore-based firm Hundredhands, counts in those select few women architects who have made a mark on India’s architectural map.
After completing her Masters at MIT, Sunitha went on to work with several renowned international firms before finally setting up her own multi-disciplinary practice along with partner Bijoy Ramachandran in 2003.
The studio firmly believes in responsible design that stays true to the context and takes inspiration from traditional typologies and technologies. By completely giving a miss to glitzy design statements, they uncompromisingly pursue sensorial expression in architecture.
Though simple, their buildings are not devoid of drama; in fact they touch an emotional chord with their strong spatial sense as well as perfect application of indigenous materials and resources (labour, crafts and techniques).
Staying true to the firm’s ethos, Sunitha has also set up a company called SOURCE that designs and sources authentic fine design products and materials not just from India but from all over Asia.
Here, Sunitha shares with us her experiences and influences as well as the future goals of their studio Hundredhands.
What are the core fundamentals of your practice at Hundredhands?
We strive to find design solutions that are contextually appropriate – to scale, to context, to the material that is used and the crafts that exist in that context. In doing so, we hope that we create design that is responsible, both to the clients and the environment in general.
After securing your Bachelor’s degree, you went on to pursue your Masters in one of the most sought after institutes in the world. What was the experience like studying in MIT and how has it impacted your practice?
Studying at MIT was one of the best experiences ever. Not only does it broaden your horizons in the field of design by giving you access to the best resources, teachers, speakers, interaction with students from all over the world, but also makes you a much more well-informed, confident and professional individual in general.
The way you systematically approach a problem, the tools of solving that problem and to be able to present that to a larger audience is something that you learn there and eventually apply in your practice. It also gave me the opportunity to major in Real Estate Finance and Management along with architecture, which led to broader opportunities in my career.
Your practice eloquently reflects your understanding of the climatic and social context while staying true to the form and the craft itself. At the same time, there is an adequate dose of modern technology used in your work. How do you manage to bring out this effortless balance of purism v/s futuristic in your practice?
The biggest advantage of being in a country like ours is the vast crafts that we have inherited. The option of getting something custom made with exquisite material, detail and great quality just has to be used.
The opportunity to be able to do that is what made me set up my company SOURCE, which sources all fine design related things – furniture, lights, linens, accessories, etc.
Hundredhands is a practice that truly believes in using this opportunity of engaging with crafts people, to reinvent building techniques and concepts of sustainability. The core idea is to look beyond the building systems and pay close attention to the principles of a pragmatic and responsible design.
Things that inspire you (apart from design/architecture) that eventually also stimulate your design cells…
Lots of things – nature, music, travel around the world, good food… the list can go on. Anything that is balanced and can bring happiness to my mind often helps my clarity of thought.
All projects for an architect have some memories attached to it. Was there one such project which was a learning experience in terms of ‘dos and don’ts?
My most satisfying and cherished project would be the Alila Hotel. In partnership with Allies and Morrison UK, HH was not only involved in the architecture of this project but also the interior design; my other company SOURCE was involved in sourcing every little detail for the project.
So, to see it from inception to completion in the most holistic way is very challenging yet special, and at the same time it is a great learning opportunity. We were very lucky to have a client who trusted us completely with the project.
There have been several starchitects who are known for their sketches as much as their buildings, for eg: Frank Gehry and Steven Holl. You have often mentioned that you too believe in the conventional medium of designing, so is there a particular architect whose drawings inspire you and leave you in awe?
In my previous job as a project manager of the Houses at Sagaponac, New York; I have had the most amazing interaction with the starchitects of the world, from Richard Meier, Phillip Johnson, Henry Cobb, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers and a whole bunch of others. But the ones that come to my mind would be Samuel Mockbee’s hand drawn sketches on yellow trace. They were masterpieces.
We had all his sketches framed as we received them for reviews. Moreover, here I don’t have to look too far – I think Bijoy’s sketches are amazing. His sketches just bring the projects to life on the drawing board helping the clients visualise the project. I am really, really bad at sketching and so that makes me appreciate his skill so much more. I am also very fond of Doshi Sir’s sketches – both his architectural and non-architectural ones.
Competitions are a good platform to tap into new talent. How has participating in competitions helped your practice?
Participating in competitions gives our practice an opportunity to look at design opportunities not only in India but all over the world. It also creates opportunities to win projects based solely on merit; especially those that might not be given to young and upcoming firms otherwise. Hopefully, in the future, it will provide our work a wider audience and eventually, through this platform we will also get the opportunity to do some interesting work.
A structure designed by another architect that had a lasting impact on you…
That would be Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute and IIM – A. Among the Indian Architects – B. V. Doshi’s IIM – B, I am also very fond of Geoffrey Bawa’s work, especially his Paradise Road Office. All these projects are rooted to the context they are set in.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently working on the Bangalore International Centre – a project that was awarded to us through a competition, a couple of multi-family housing projects, residences, a factory building and a few office spaces, plus residential and hospitality interiors.
Any woman architect who inspires you? And why?
When I was working on the Houses at Sagaponac project, I had the great opportunity to work with several women architects. The one that really stood out for me was Annabelle Selldorf. Both for her simple and responsible architecture, and also the way she managed her successful practice with such poise.
Women in India are gradually making their presence felt in every competitive field, to a certain extent even in the design industry. However, the progress in the field of architecture is sluggish. Why?
It is such a surprising thing and I remember discussing this with someone recently. In architecture school, the ratio is almost 1:1, with more women than men. But it is hard to imagine why there are such few women designers compared to men.
My guess is that majority of them are working away quietly in a larger practice and don’t end up setting up their own practice. There are several women doing amazing work, like Shimul Zaveri, Samira Rathod, Brinda Somaya and others. But I think they don’t go all out for publicity, so they continue to be the unsung ‘heroes’ in the field. Hopefully things will change in the future.
On a lighter note…One thing which you want to do, but you feel you can’t?
Ha! I would love to change the world in so many ways, but for now, I wish I could do something about how public facilities and infrastructure are managed in Bangalore.
It deeply disturbs me to see how public funds are being washed away in the terribly designed metro infrastructure. It is such a great opportunity to build something that can give the city a new progressive identity, but has been completely wasted.
Just feel so helpless. More so, because Bangalore has such a great fraternity of designers who would happily have done this for their city. We desperately need someone who has a larger revolutionary vision for the city and can appreciate the need for good design.
Interview by Shweta Salvi