The aphorism "gnothi seauton" - "know thyself" - had different meanings in Ancient Greek: it was a memento mori-like warning, but also an invitation to know your own place and not to pay attention to the opinion of the multitude.
But, while it is important to know ourselves and our limits, people working in a creative industry should also be aware of another aphorism – "know your materials".
Indian architect Anupama Kundoo has been applying these mottos to her practice for more than two decades.
In her opinion, a solid knowledge of the needs and materials of a specific area allows indeed to create innovative and useful designs.
In her practice she has therefore chosen to study the culture and the materials offered by a place to unlock their potential and discover how the former deals with the latter.
Yet, paying attention to all these things may not guarantee a good piece of architecture, that's why she brings in her research and practice, a third element - the human soul - and tries to design places for the spirit, in search of a spiritual dimension.
This journey from basic materials to a building and the human spirit that inhabits them is retraced in her installation at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice (until 27th November 2016).
Kundoo installed in the Arsenale a full-scale low-cost house with a toilet showing the uses and applications of ferrocement, a lightweight material ideal to prefabricate.
This eco-friendly structure was created following principles such as affordability and inspired by the desire to find alternative solutions to build using significantly fewer materials.
The house is surrounded one on side by a long row of tables on which the architect displayed 1:50 models from her 25 years in practice.
Models include the "Light Housing", huts, low cost housing projects, homes for homeless children, a youth hostel, and the Braille library in Pondicherry.
On the other side of the pefab house, a long row of tables is instead covered with physical samples showing her research into materials.
The materials vary, going from natural and organic to industrial and artificial: there are coconut and jute fibres and ropes; unfired clay, soils, gravel and stones, but also chicken and welded mesh; pigments and coloured tiles; book pages, milk cartons and glass and plastic bottles.
Samples of ferrocement with glass fiber mesh or hexagonal mesh point towards the possibilities that these materials can offer, while reminding us about the crafts that can be created by a skilled workforce.
In a statement on her site Kundoo states: "The key to building an affordable future must be education. My architectural projects are about building knowledge across the community – craftspeople, engineers, designers, students, manufacturers, users – and empowering them to get the housing they need and can afford to have. The emphasis is on affordability through efficiency and inclusivity."
From a creative point of view the materials are particularly interesting as they show what can be made by recycling products and minimizing waste: Kundoo's team reused materials from the 2015 Art Biennale's German Pavilion to build the installation and, through collaboration with Rebiennale, a local team of activists, will reconstruct the Full Fill Home prototype post exhibition to make it fit for use by the homeless people in nearby Marghera.
Kundoo's affordable housing units and principles seem to go against the capitalist forces ruling our world at the moment, and they represent an alternative to the more controversial and aggressive tones (that won him epithets such as "the Donald Trump of architecture"...) of architects such as Zaha Hadid Architects director Patrick Schumacher who, speaking at the World Architecture festival in Berlin about London's housing crisis recently suggested to privatise all public space (streets, squares, parks, etc.) and abolish social and affordable housing.
A statement by Kundoo on the walls of the Arsenale reads: "By helping communities to fabricate a set of simple building components, we can build knowledge and bring housing back to the people." It would be interesting to hear Kundoo's reply to Schumacher's views.