Bombay Showcase

A modernist who worked with tradition

Dr Irena Murray with Charles Correa.  

ost-independent India’s architectural legacy was largely the result of our first Prime Minister’s love for all things design. It was on Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation that architect Le Corbusier designed the capital of Punjab and Haryana, Chandigarh. In a way, this set into motion a new era of architecture in the country. However, the spare aesthetic of this movement, vastly different from ornate Indian ancient forms, was a bone of contention between revivalists and those in favour of a new perspective on design. This tension led to the emergence of one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, (who continued to work well into the 21st century too) Charles Correa.

A new way

It would be fair to say that Correa re-imagined modern architecture. His work was characterised by the use of vernacular design suitable to the context. His projects deftly amalgamated the contemporary and traditional, simultaneously maintaining traditional Indian values and techniques, while closely scrutinising and responding to the landscape and climate in which a structure would exist.

Less than a year after Correa’s demise, Dr Irena Murray will conclude her India tour on his work this week.

A historian and curator, Dr Murray has spent most of her career looking after architectural exhibitions, first in Canada and then in the UK. As a young student of architectural history, she first came across Correa’s work through photographs and the press. “Some of it reminded me of the work by Le Corbusier, who said that tradition is really all the innovations put together,” she says. “So in that sense, Charles Correa never tried to make the boundary that some architects try to erect between tradition and modernity; he didn’t have to. He understood that it was the way that Corbusier described it.”

Throughout her illustrious career, Murray has maintained her focus on and love for modern architecture. “It’s partly the bare minimalist aesthetic which gives an available space a sort of primness and doesn’t try to embroider it or add ornaments, and somehow make it more than it is.” The movement rests comfortably on the feeling that good space, simple space, straightforward space, is something that has a meaning that’s all its own. “The other thing is, when modernism first came on the scene in the aftermath of the Great War; it was the promise of a better life.” To Murray, it’s that realisation that even a minimum dwelling has to have quality. “It’s something that appeals to me as a socially-conscious person, and that I feel is an important thing to remind ourselves of: that the goal is not that we do not have a bigger, better, richer or more ornamented house than somebody else.” It is in fact based on the premise that as many people as possible have shelter, and a decent place to live. “That meets my own belief, and certainly Chalres Correa in this aspect, was inspirational.”


In 2004, Murray was appointed the Banister Fletcher Director of the British Architectural Library and Collections at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), a position that got her closely acquainted with Correa’s works. In fact, just before Murray retired from that prestigious role, Correa had donated an archive of over 6000 drawings and models, and works of 150 projects to the RIBA. In a conversation with the then RIBA president Angela Brady, Correa admitted he didn’t want the works to leave India, but the tools required for the conservation and preservation of the archive were at the time not available in the country.

After this generous donation, Correa’s office and the Charles Correa Foundation collaborated with the RIBA to make the archives digitally available to everyone. “If they are to go out of India, then the best place was the RIBA, I knew that,” he says in a video. “But I knew we had to have a record so that led to digitising the drawings, and that led to digitising the photographs and the whole thing evolved.”

The institute then offered Correa a possibility of an exhibition on his work, and asked Murray to curate it.

“At the time, I wanted to come India to have a look at the buildings he created here,” says Murray. “But because the exhibition had to be done very quickly, because of the slot we had available, I didn’t have a chance to do it. It’s only after Mr Correa passed on that I had a chance to come to India and speak in Delhi, Bangalore, and Goa, and my last stop on this tour, Mumbai.”

Presented by the British Council, the series also includes efforts to help fund Indian young architects and students to go to London for short-term internships. “They will work with the original drawings and with our conservationists, and we are hoping to get more involved in the work of the Charles Correa Foundation here,” Murray says. In addition to making the existing original drawings available for viewing, the multi-cultural exchange also endeavours to map out the deeper levels of the archives for easier consumption by a user. “The material is not always included in full text or in a way that is it is easily available to the user,” says Murray.

Speaking about the talk, she says, “The trouble with talking about Chares Correa was that he was the best man to talk about Charles Correa and he unfortunately is not with us anymore.” Correa, it’s widely known, has always had a sense of pressing urgency about any task at hand. Murray reminisces about her collaborative work on the exhibition: “Practically, every telephone call he made from Bombay or every email he wrote he kept saying, ‘Irena, remember, before the monsoon.’” Obviously, transporting valuable drawings and products during the rains could have been disastrous. “But I only understood it fully when I came here,” she says. “The monsoon plays a big role in the life of India. I wanted an affectionate teasing quality to the title of the talk, so I called it ‘Before the Monsoon.’”

Dr Murray’s talk will address will address the claim that Correa was an international architect by revisiting his projects and reiterating his architectural philosophy. “He was very clear on the importance of the place in architecture, and said, many times, that things that he built in one place he couldn’t build in another because it would have been a different building.” Murray will also cover his unrealised projects on affordable housing, including an exhibition unveiling those ideas.

Touched forever

As a curator, Murray is used to moving from one project to the next. However, she maintains that her experience working on the RIBA’s Charles Correa exhibition has stayed with her. “Even though I continued as a freelancer and curator, this experience has stayed with me and I don’t feel that this is the end of the road: after I leave Mumbai, that will be it for Charles Correa,” she says. “I feel it has become quite a big part of who I am and what I would like to think, and I hope it will be helpful to the Correa collection in India and London and to the Correa scholarship anywhere in the world.”

Irena Murray will talk about the works of Charles Correa at NGMA, as part of the State of Architecture show, on Tuesday, March 15 at 6.30 pm

Correa re-imagined modern architecture. The use of vernacular design suitable to the context characterised his work

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Printable version | Apr 30, 2021 1:53:41 AM |

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