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C for Conservation: Abha Narain Lambah

Posted by
Ar. T. Desai
on February 11, 2014 at 10:32 PM

By default, Abha Narain Lambah would have followed her father into the civil services. Clearly, her calling was different; and she turned to architecture and particularly towards heritage conservation! Lambah, one of India’s leading conservation architects, has won five UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Heritage Conservation and believes that every heritage structure “dictates its own philosophy”. One needs to follow that philosophy and preserve these important survivors of the past! Her impressive lineup of projects include the restoration of the 15th century Temple of Maitreya Buddha in Basgo, Ladakh, the 15th century Chandramauleshwara and 16th century Krishna temples at the World Heritage Site of Hampi, nomination dossiers for Shantiniketan and Hyderabad, and preparation of management plans for Ajanta World Heritage Site and the old fortified city of Sisupalgarh.

© Courtesy of sources & research

“Growing up in Delhi where there were many historic monuments near my parents’ house led to my interest in restoration and conservation,” says Lambah, who did her Bachelors and Masters in Conservation Architecture from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi; and then started her career with Stein Doshi & Bhalla in 1993. From 1996 to 2005, she was associated with the Bombay Collaborative as a consultant earlier and later as a Director. “I worked in  the studio of Joseph Allen Stein as a fresh graduate, where I learnt the importance of building ‘in context’, how good architecture is all about being sensitive to the context, as exemplified through Stein’s buildings of Lodhi Estate in the historical  context of Lodhi Gardens,” she recalls. 

Later, she set up her own firm, Abha Narain Lambah Associates, which specializes in architectural conservation, building restoration and retrofit, historic interiors, conservation assessment studies, urban signage and street furniture. A consultant to ICCROM, Global Heritage Fund and World Monuments Fund on various projects, Lambah believes that being a conservation architect needs “dogged perseverance and huge amounts of patience”, more so if you want things to move from a master plan to actual implementation. The core of her architectural practice today focuses on colonial buildings, most of them of the 19th century Victorian Gothic kind. Her projects include Elphinstone College, Old Secretariat Mumbai, J.J. School of Art, Bombay High Court, Convocation Hall of University of Mumbai (designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott), the Bombay Municipal Head Office (designed by F. W. Stevens), Pune Engineering College and Vice-regal Lodge, Shimla.

Her other well-known projects in Mumbai include Mani Bhavan, Horniman Circle, Khotachiwadi, Yacht Club, Tata House, Police Headquarters and the Mahalaxmi precinct. As a consultant with Bombay Collaborative, her first project involved phase one of the restoration of the David Sasoon Library in Mumbai’s Fort area. This was followed by a master plan for the restoration of the Mumbai High Court building and a master plan for Mumbai’s Dadabhai Naoroji Road. After the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Society approved a grant for her application she began to map out a design handbook for guidelines on street furniture and signage on D N Road. A few years and a lot of legwork later, all signage boards on D N Road could be seen within the arches of the building. Currently Lambah’s firm is consultant to New Delhi Municipal Council for signage controls and upgradation of Gole Market, and to the Pune Municipal Council for signage around Shaniwarwada. It is also helping ready the first regional conservation plan for Sikar district in Shekhawati Heritage Zone for the Rajasthan government.

Lambah has often said that restoring Mani Bhavan brought back her first lesson in conservation architecture — “maintain authenticity of material, structure and spirit”. At Mani Bhavan, which occasionally housed Mahatma Gandhi, the wooden, worn-out furniture was retained. An old photo showed some coloured chequered tiles, and similar tiles were ordered to retain the look and feel of that era.

At the University of Mumbai’s Convocation Hall, Minton tiles and gold leaf gilding (for which award-winning Rajasthani artisans were hired) add to the glory of the old building. Varieties of fine stone from across the country — Porbandar stone, Dhangadra sandstone and Mysore serpentine stone — were used. When asked about her best restoration project, Lambah says: “Each project is special.”

Lambah also points out to the roadblocks in the way of conservation - government and public apathy. The most frustrating part, according to her is “seeing conservation guidelines sit and rot” on bureaucrats’ tables! “In our country we have a plethora of monuments but are not adequately looking after them. The major obstructions are lack of holistic vision, bureaucratic red tape and paucity of funds”.


Designer : N.A.
Photography :Courtesy the conservationist

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