Anupama Kundoo attempts a full-scale installation for the first time in the history of the Architectural Biennale in Venice. Ray Meeker looks on in admiration.

We entered Anupama Kundoo’s generously allotted exhibition space in the cavernous Corderie of the Arsenale as the corks popped. Champagne. 8 pm, 14 hours before Vernissage, the three-day preview of Common Ground. Deborah and I had just flown in from Chennai. Work was still winding down. Gathered there in the midst of Wall House 1:1 was an extraordinarily diverse group. Anupama was hosting — toasting — in her own home, masons from Tamil Nadu, students and engineers from The University of Queensland in Australia, photographers from Germany and a variety of Italian professionals from the official Biennale team — a group that made a fitting image of the common ground.

“This is the first time that anyone has attempted a full scale installation in the history of the Architectural Biennale.”

Italian engineer Enzo Margis with 13 years of experience at the Biennale.

I got a call from Australia in late April. From Anupama. “I have just been accepted as an exhibiter at the Architecture Biennale in Venice. Need help.” Back in the mid 1990s I made terracotta tubes and jack-arch elements for the original Wall House in Auroville and was so taken by the concept that I wrote about the house in Inside/Outside even before the house was finished.

Anupama. “I am going to rebuild my house — full scale — in the Corderie of the Arsenale. Can you organise: Achakal, 70,000. Guna tiles, 5000. Jack-arch bricks, 500. Filler slab pots, 120…etc, etc? Need it by July 1. Exhibition opens August 27.” None of this stuff is off-the-shelf. Everything had to be made. I identified the makers. Sekar, who would lead the team of masons in Venice, took over collecting, packing and shipping. All was ready to go by end May. I think the container actually docked in Venice on July 27, one month before the opening.

Undaunted. Anupama has always been fearless. I mean she manages fear. No one could take on a project of this scale, in this time-frame, without serious doubt. But she takes aim and lets go. After 18 years as an architect in Auroville she went to Germany and earned a PhD at the University of Technology Berlin (TU). She held the Chair for Environmental Technology and Material Sciences at Parsons, the New School for Design in New York. Today she is Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland School of Architecture in Australia, and has now come on a dizzying flight to the Biennale in Venice, widely considered the world’s most important architectural exhibition.

Anupama. “By transplanting my Wall House, a contemporary project located in rural India inside the walls of the Corderie in the Arsenale in Venice, I want people to ‘feel’ the common ground. The ancient brick pillars of the Corderie, set in lime mortar, sit side-by-side, shadow and embrace the south Indian brickwork, also set in lime mortar. Two apparently divergent cultures, structures, materials disappear into each other. It is non-confrontational play, a dialogue with no need of an interpreter. It is mutual admiration, almost flirting. Instead of imposing an autonomous object within the Corderie, I intend to reveal to the senses the genius loci of the original space.”

Nothing to read. No photos. Nothing to look at really. Only the house. We are standing quietly inside the art, no longer outsiders.

Anupama builds community. She delegates. She trusts. Her positivity propels. She built a strong, loyal team of craftsmen in Auroville, and again, with the students in Australia. In Venice she gave Sekar and his team from Tamil Nadu the best accommodation. They felt perfectly at home, eating sambar rice and pizza. They never got lost (I did) in the labyrinthine streets of Venice. Sekar says, “We just moved from one temple (church) to the next.”

Collaborators. Harun Farocki spooled his brilliant film In Comparison, layering and contrasting community and technology through the production of bricks, from handmade in Burkina Faso in West Africa to mass produced in highly sophisticated German super-machines, tracing the path of building culture as community based, sometimes even as a social event, to an intellectual construct centred far from the building site. Andreas Deffner’s documentation of Wall House, as it evolved from the mid-1990s to the present, was ingeniously displayed in a compact set of photos the size of an achakal. And my own film, Agni Jata (fire born) spooled, documenting my first test in Auroville of a mud house stabilised in situ by fire.

Auroville. 1996. The Wall House. Fired clay. In bewildering array. Textured and tactile. Inviting intimacy. Red orange, the colour of Auroville soil, complement the forest green. We see the village pot as filler in a concrete slab, guna tiles for vaulted roofs and jack-arches in extruded hollow clay segments. Bricks. Handmade. Not the standard European size, but achakal, 18 x 10 x 2.5 cm used in vaults, sprung low, and in walls where Anupama plays with scale, at once emphasising and subordinating the brick size in a massive façade rendered delicate by the rhythm of broad, deeply raked joints, off-white, the colour of lime mortar. Making a bold and quite literal statement by coming to a point in an acute angle at the northeast corner, the wall is introduced as the pivotal conceptual element of this house.

Living between the lines. Wall House is a redefinition of borders and transitional spaces in response to local climate and culture.

The first-floor living corridor, verging on the vaulted atrium, opens into nothing. This is a cliff house, a sort of shallow cave dwelling on the edge of a cavern of cool interior air. Through carefully orchestrated overlays of brickwork, punctuated by openings to the forest and the sky beyond, outside and inside reverberate — unite — transparent yet texturally rich, a spirited dialogue of density and depth, like a Zen painting, where a few strokes of the brush offer space between the lines which I can enter into — become a part of.

David Chipperfield’s brief encouraged architects to move beyond the “individual, the privileged, the spectacular and the special.” Wall House is a heady blend — a complex weave where spatial sophistication and material elegance converge in an innovative, evolving architectural language that recognises “continuity, context and memory.”

10 pm. Anupama Kundoo, exhausted, yet still radiant, is ready for the Vernissage.