One of the biggest and brightest stars of conservation architecture, architect Abha Narain Lambah is restoring the country’s past glory one building at a time. She shares her journey, vision and design philosophy.
Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah shares her design journey
Mumbai’s grand Royal Opera House bears testimony to how effortlessly 48-year-old Abha Narain Lambah, breathes new life into ageing crumbling spaces. She led a sixyear-long project to restore the century-old baroque structure to its original grandeur which opened to the city in 2016 after two decades of lying in despair. Among the first few conservation architects in the country, Lambah transforms structures with a metaphorical magic wand. From restoring a 15th century Maitreya Buddha temple in Ladakh’s Basgo Village to medieval mosques and caravan sarais in Rajasthan and Punjab and pitching to get a UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for Mumbai’s Art Deco architecture, Lambah has pioneered the conservation and restoration movement of urban architectural spaces across India. Her firm, Abha Narain Lambah Associates, head quartered at Mumbai’s Carter Road, has won nine UNESCO awards for conservation including the Award of Distinction for Mumbai University’s Convocation Hall
in 2007 and the Award of Excellence for the Maitreya Buddha Temple. A post graduate in architectural conservation from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, Lambah, who has been conserving architectural spaces for over two decades now, has been awarded the Sanskriti Award, Eisenhower Fellowship, the Attingham Trust Fellowship and Charles Wallace Fellowship and has been nominated by Arc Vision (International social award for female designers) as one among the top 20 women architects globally in 2016.
LEADING THE CONSERVATION MOVEMENT IN INDIA
When I started my practice in 1995, it was the year in which the Heritage Regulations for Bombay came into effect and I was one among two qualified conservation architects in the city. At that time, there was no funding supporting conservation; and therefore my early career was entirely driven by citizen involvement and civic initiatives. I created templates for conservation such as the first urban conservation guidelines for Dadabhai Naoroji Road and Khotachiwadi and pilot projects based on non governmental funding for Elphinstone College, JJ School of Art and Horniman Circle. I became a founder-member of the Kalagahoda Association and the Heritage Mile Association. We created the first citizen-driven art festival that celebrates art in every form. In 1998, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Society approached me for a project for creating streetscaping guidelines for Dadabhai Naoroji Road. I created the first such urban conservation control handbook which detailed the heritage streetscape and guidelines for signage and street furniture. This led to the urban signage scheme. Over the last 23 years I have worked on some of the most historic museums such as the Chowmahalla Palace Hyderabad, Jaivilas Palace Gwalior, Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya Mumbai, Anand Bhavan Allahabad, Nehru Memorial Delhi and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Mumbai, Bharatpur Museum in Rajasthan and the new Museum of New Delhi at Gole Market.
LOCAL PARTICIPATION IN DESIGN
The biggest challenge is when one has to deal with many stakeholders. There is constant participation and a lot of back and forth, dealing with government, citizens and stakeholders at various levels. When I worked on the temples in Ladakh or Jharkhand, we needed to work with the local villagers. Similarly, when we did the illumination of Jaipur’s markets for the night heritage walk we had to closely work with the hundreds of shopkeepers in Johari, Kishanpol and Tripolia bazaars. In Crawford Market, there are more than 800 shopkeepers and we had to get each one involved in the design process.
FROM URBAN CONSERVATION TO REGIONAL RESTORATION OF SPACES
In the past two decades, I have worked on a range of structures and projects from urban conservation to conventional conservation of buildings for corporate clients such as the Deutsche Bank and HSBC in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata. The projects have spanned numerous timelines, geographical locations, architectural genres and materials. There has been immense diversity. I have worked on ancient sites such as Ajanta Caves and Mahabodhi Temples, medieval palaces and caravan serais in Punjab and Rajasthan, terracotta temples in Jharkhand to 19th century colonial heritage in Delhi, Pune, Mumbai and Shimla, as well as 20th century buildings in Mumbai and Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh which represent the apex of modernism. The geographical diversity of my work has taken me from Ladakh to Kanchipuram and from Ajanta to an obscure site in a village in Jharkhand with spectacular terracotta temples.
THE BIG PICTURE
We should see the entire setting of the monument. When I made the management plan for Ajanta, we looked beyond the 100 and 200 metre buffer as prescribed in the Ancient Monuments and Sites Act but notified the first buffer to a National Monument based on the lines of vision—encapsulating the entire visual landscape and setting of the historic site— the cone of vision.
HOW HAS CONSERVATION ARCHITECTURE CHANGED OVER TIME?
When I began 23 years ago my career people didn’t know what architectural conservation meant. Even now it is a niche specialisation. Although there are more funds available, it takes a lot of grit to work on a public or historic building because it’s a long haul and it takes much longer to get to the end of a project. The bandwidth required is a lot more and comes with many challenges, ranging from getting permissions to finding funding.
THE WAY FORWARD
Architecture needs to be more people oriented because a community must feel ownership else they get disconnected. It is more active in Mumbai because more of these historic and heritage buildings are living buildings that people use regularly and therefore feel an intimate connection with, be it the Bandra or CST stations, hospitals or courts. There is a sense of belonging and people get involved. When they see a threat to it, they are active in conserving it. The general perception about a monument is that is a dead site, it’s a government problem. People see it as a museum object and that creates a break. It is important for the community to feel connected.
STANDING TALL Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah at the Asiatic Society, Mumbai
GRAND DESIGNS Clockwise from above: Bharatpur Museum, Rajasthan; Asiatic Library, Mumbai; BMC head office, Mumbai
Talayar Bungalow (top); Moorish Mosque, Kapurthala (above)