Exhibition Review: Charles Correa at the RIBA

‘Charles Correa India’s Greatest Architect’

This review was originally published (without the photographs) in the JSAH Journal, Vol 73, no.1, March 2014.

 

‘Charles Correa India’s Greatest Architect’ exhibition featured at the RIBA, London, as part of its ‘Out of India’ season, that also included numerous events running throughout the summer. Film screenings, discussions, a symposium with Charles Correa, and a lecture by the great man himself will subject the work to an extended period of interrogation where proper debate can ensue.

India has become something of a hot topic, with recent high profile visits made to the country by Prime Minister David Cameron, coupled with numerous television programmes and radio broadcasts, trade delegations and educational visits; the UK is hungry for all things Indian.

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The exhibition at the RIBA forms part of this renewed interest, but was largely triggered by Correa’s decision to donate his personal archive of over 6,000 artifacts to the RIBA – the largest single donation to their collection by a non-British architect. This fine array of drawings, models and written ephemera spanning from 1958 to the present, promises to be a most valuable resource to scholars and students, and for those unable to visit London, has been digitized in its entirety (more about this later). Correa is at liberty to give his work to whomever he pleases, but the choice of a British Institution, and a Royal one at that, may raise some eyebrows and probably came as a shock even to the RIBA. Correa was born during the colonial era and his work has consistently looked to develop an architecture that was modern, firmly entrenched as Indian, and certainly not European. Despite this, Correa felt that the RIBA would look after the work and ensure that it is properly catalogued and preserved – a feat that sadly would be difficult to achieve in India (a visit to the Chandigarh City Museum demonstrates how Le Corbusier’s drawings have been treated…)

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The exhibition, designed by David Adjaye and curated by Irena Murray, is spread over two floors with the lower level including a series of timber plinths painted in the delightful hues of paprika, turmeric and saffron invoking the Jawahar Kala Kendra project. It is a dramatic introduction to the work that leaves one expectant of something really special but sadly the exhibition fails to do justice to this enigmatic architect. Architecture exhibitions are peculiar affairs, not least because the architecture rarely features in architecture exhibitions, instead, we see the machinery created as a result of, or to enable the production of, the artifact in question – what Correa calls the trail left by a snail. The gap between drawing and architecture is especially apparent when viewing Correa’s work; the buildings and spaces (‘the empty centre’ in Correa’s parlance) really need to be moved through, set against an open sky and as Adjaye describes in the catalogue, absorbed through the soles of the feet. His work is not really captured by a rendered elevation or static photograph, nevertheless, considerable pleasure is gained from studying his sketches that go someway in connecting us to the person behind the drawings. Through the pencil lines and coloured crayons we can discern something of the architect who made the marks – but at this exhibition we are not even looking at the actual drawings. Instead, they are scanned reproductions on mountboard. Perhaps this would not matter if they were not so grossly enlarged to the point that they are pixelated. I found this to be most distressing, as when viewed in the catalogue (which is excellent and highly recommended) they look wonderful. As the original drawings could not be displayed due to the lighting at the RIBA it might have been a better idea not to show any at all, or just to reproduce the images as the small drawings that they are, rather than distorting them in this manner. The photographs are more forgiving, but some of them are also pixelated and not really of exhibition quality. Despite these distractions, the models go a long way to make things better. The Hindustan Lever Pavilion model in tropical hardwood is spectacular and still a radical design despite being over fifty years old, and the model of the Kanchanjunga Apartments stands at over 6ft tall putting the apartments at eye-level and immediately showing the vantage points and interiors. The housing section is the real strength of the exhibition, and arguably of Correa’s career – from the ‘Tube House’ and one-off houses in the Ahmedabadian brick and concrete style, through to the courtyard houses of Belapur and the PREVI experimental houses in Peru he has demonstrated how to design dwellings. It is these schemes, along with Correa’s analysis and proposals for Mumbai that put him up there as one of India’s greatest architects (what will the RIBA call the exhibition if Doshi follows suit with his archive? India’s Greatest Architect 2?)

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The rest of the content I found lacking and slightly predictable; I was hoping to see some of the less well-known designs, or greater analysis of some of the larger projects. For example, the confrontational LIC building in Delhi is sadly missing from the exhibition – how does that building fit with Correa’s objective of site and context, for instance? In many ways the designer and curator have played it too safe, and other than the outstanding project in Lisbon, Portugal, and the Po-Mo British Council building in Delhi we are not shown much of the playful later work.

The digital archive interface has been carefully crafted and as well as including the entire collection of drawings contains photographs of the models, buildings and scans of magazine articles and books that discuss the projects in question. The digital archive should have played a central role in the exhibition and broken away, at least in part, from the static mode of exhibiting and the passive role of viewing an exhibition – it was the perfect opportunity to project all of his work in a small space and to use the displays to critically examine the work, and perhaps to further explore why Correa might just be India’s greatest architect.

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The catalogue: Irena Murray, Charles Correa India’s Greatest Architect (London, RIBA Publishing, 2013), price £9.95

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