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Keeping Charles Correa's Work Alive: An Interview With Dr Irena Murray

19/04/2016 2:31 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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With the recent demise of Dame Zaha Hadid, a prolific architect with a penchant for neofuturistic design, the focus on her works right now is but natural. But for years, there have been many who have worked in the background to preserve the works of architects--their drawings, their buildings and more--for posterity. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr Irena Murray, an architectural historian and an honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who was recently in India delivering a series of lectures on the works renowned architect Charles Correa (who passed away last year). If anyone should be an expert on the subject it's her.

In 2013, when Charles Correa's exhibition of works was held at the Royal Institute of British Architects, he gifted the institute a collection of his project drawings. These were not in the best of shape because of the vagaries of time and climate, and he hoped RIBA would be able restore and preserve them for posterity.

He always tried to connect to the tradition of a place and to the modern/contemporary potential of a place... It makes for a fascinating study.

Dr Murray, worked closely with Charles Correa, as well as with colleagues in India and the Correa Foundation. Together they developed a truly fantastic digital archive of the late architect's work. This was to serve as a bridging project where the institute would help in restoring the physical aspects of Correa's work, while Indian counterparts took the lead in developing the digital archive.

I spent an enjoyable afternoon on a telephone chat with her talking about the importance of the preservation of architectural history; how Charles Correa's work serves as the perfect examples of how architecture can transcend time and space; and of working with 'digital born' architects who prefer computer-assisted design over paper.

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Dr Irena Murray with Charles Correa

How does your work in the field of architectural history contribute to preservation of knowledge or trends? Why is this important today?

My work has always been with architectural collections. Working on preserving them not only allows me to give them a second life but also helps me in protecting the work of an architect, preserving his memory and also preserving the physical form of his work.

What are some of the collections you have worked on?

Well, I haven't always worked on projects where the architects were still alive. With the Royal Institute of British Architects, I worked on an exhibition and subsequently a publication on the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. More recently, I worked on the works of Le Corbusier, the architect of Chandigarh and his influence of Britain.

In the course of your work, what are the consistent trends you have seen pass down in the architecture of a place?

The primary matrix of my work is in the collections of an architect. Therefore, I get to see an entire spectrum of work, from the early days of the architect to his maturity in his line of work. When an architect is young, I see a sense of adventure in the works, but not necessarily all the skills to back up that adventure. This moves on to a mature approach, with all the skill and all the influences in places that they build and that they plan to build in. In their works I see the sum of all the work they have done and all that it means. This is a course that I see consistently in all the collections that I work on.

What are the primary influences for an architect and the work he does?

The most significant influence is that of the place. The works of Charles Correa is a perfect example of how he understood that building something in one place may be very different from building it in another place.

His Craft Museum in Delhi is a village of indigenous craftsmen working in different fields... which makes it more than a museum; it becomes a place of connection.

He always tried to connect to the tradition of a place and to the modern/contemporary potential of a place. This is true of his work in India, Lisbon or anywhere else. It makes for a fascinating study.

Internationally, popular culture tends to intersect with modern architecture at various points. Can you share some examples of this in the work you have documented?

Charles Correa's work again is an eloquent example. His Craft Museum in Delhi is a village of indigenous craftsmen working in different fields who are sitting together in a museum, which makes it then more than a museum; it becomes a place of demonstration and connection. It is also a place of interaction for artisans who would never have communicated to each other otherwise. They are all seated together in an artificial village which is like a microcosm of an Indian village of a typical craftsman.

Keeping Charles Correa's work in perspective, share with us examples of his work that may display his India influences.

The British Council Building in Delhi is a good, symbolic, metaphorical example where he created a courtyard with the garden showing symbolically the three principle influences on India--the Hindu, Arabic and old world European, through different designs in the architectural promenade, through the courtyard, garden and façade and beautiful Banyan trees, all of which are symbolic of the modern and contemporary.

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The British Council Building, New Delhi

A less glamorous example if you will, is anything that Charles Correa did in housing. At the housing project in Belapur, he took to clustering small houses in such a way that he created a common courtyard, a usual sight in most Indian households. This way he was able to create a central space for a larger group of people to commune.

Another example is the Kanchenjunga Apartments in Mumbai where he took to the interlocking system of double height terraces. This was inspired by the old colonial bungalows that had terraces wrapped around the public and private rooms. Though from another era of Indian history, it continues to remain an important part of its architectural history.

Keeping India in perspective, how long do you think it takes for a particular era to be reflected in the architecture of a place?

In India, where things are primarily a question of demographics. One has to cope with a rapidly growing population and seek out resources that will help make buildings quickly for the increasing population. In such a scenario, the influence would be much quicker. Charles Correa observed that in the development of most cities internationally, transport came before development, but this has not been the case in India. You will find in places like Navi Mumbai that he has tried to bring about this change in development to ensure that a city is able to handle the infrastructure needed of it, based on the demands of the people who come to these places.

Internationally, what do you think influences architecture and its design-- is it a quest to be as creative as possible; or is there a bid to retain some of a nation's roots?

This is purely an architect's choice. Some choose to be of today and nothing but today, which is fine as long as it works for the people who are going to live and work in these structures. It remains to be seen how long these structures of today will remain relevant. This is what Charles Correa anticipated with his work. He looked to the past and ideated based on it, even though his structures have a modern look to them.

He looked to the past and ideated based on it, even though his structures have a modern look to them.

He perfectly understood what Le Corbusier said, "All tradition is a sum total of innovation and therefore tradition has a privileged place with regards to the future." These are thoughts that Correa drew on consistently.

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Dr Irena Murray

Dr. Murray has served as Head of Art and Architecture Collections and later as Curator-in-Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections at McGill University. In 2004, she was appointed the Banister Fletcher Director of the British Architectural Library and Collections at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London. In 2014, the RIBA awarded her the Honorary Fellowship of the Institute for services to architecture and architectural collections. Among the many exhibitions she curated throughout her career belongs the 2013 exhibition, at the RIBA, on the work of Charles Correa which also brought about a gift of archival material from the architect. She is an author, editor and translator of a number of publications, including the 2009 anthology Le Corbusier and Britain and others. Prague- born, she studied at Charles University and obtained her PhD in Architectural History and Theory from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

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