Award-winning conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah has been instrumental in rescuing and restoring some of India’s most iconic heritage architecture. Here she shares what over two decades in heritage conservation have taught her
Heritage conservation has a wide spectrum. For too long, we have put conservation in a box as something to do with kings and monuments and we’ve tended to isolate the public from it. I think it’s the greatest mistake we’ve made in the profession. It is only when it reaches out to the average person that it becomes successful. It’s what I’ve learnt from the many projects I’ve worked on over the years.
Like the Dadabhai Naoroji Road project in ’98, for example. [DN Road is a heritage streetscape in Fort, Mumbai, which had become obscured by large commercial signboards.] My job there was over the day I submitted the urban conservation guidelines to the government. Then because the government did nothing about them, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I set myself a target to meet two or three shopkeepers to try and convince them to relocate their signboards. It had nothing to do with my professional role but because I showed the perseverance, they gradually began to trust me and agreed to change the signboards and even agreed to pay for street furniture. People will surprise you if you’re willing to talk to them. You will find there are enough of them who take real pride in their surroundings and understand the benefit of investing in their own habitat. That’s what goes a long way in making a conservation project sustainable.
It has been the same with the ongoing work at Crawford Market. [South Mumbai’s famous 19th century market’s restoration will take three more years to complete.] We never imposed our ideas on the shopkeepers. The design of the signboards and shopfronts were not even what I wanted; it was they who wanted bigger lofts or different shutters. And we listened to them. Their inputs guided the design process and had they not felt heard, the project would never have taken off. You always need to have a buy-in from your eventual user.
I also learned that the sustenance and longterm future of a restored building depends on how seamlessly it can integrate into a city’s culture and life and impact it. The Royal Opera House [the 100-year-old edifice which opened last October is the only surviving opera house in India and now functions as a live performance theatre] was a grand example of this. It is owned by the Maharaja of Gondal, who put together a small team – including [curator] Asad Lalljee and [director] Ashish Doshi. We continued to bounce ideas off one another about the continued relevance of the site, even though my professional role on the project as an architect was done.
The Viceregal Lodge in Shimla was another such project. [The historic Victorian building was home to British Viceroys during the Raj and is currently the address of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.] There used to be a disused fire station here, which was used as a garage and to dump old furniture. We turned it into a café and bookshop and suddenly scholars from the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies were coming there to have a coffee and a chat. Locals who’d never been curious about the place were now frequenting the café and then staying to explore. So really sometimes just small things can make all the difference in the way people start thinking about a space.
Besides the public, it is important that even craftsmen involved in the work of conservation find a buy-in. We are not a nation that has been writing things down or documenting heritage, we’re not good at that. We have a tradition of oral history. So we don’t have recipe books of how to make araish lime plaster or a certain kind of woodwork, these are just passed down the generations. And the next generation isn’t finding a reason to continue.
Our rigid caste system is one reason. Because of it, the son of a carpenter, for example, would be looked down upon – unlike in Japan, where he would be revered. He would also not have a steady stream of income. It’s a major disincentive. So instead, he prefers to be a chaprasi or a clerk. We’re whittling down the knowledge base in this way and there is nothing to improve the situation. Even policies like NREGA [that guarantees hundred days of wage-employment in a year to a rural household to protect them from poverty], pay a master craftsman like a stone carver as much as a daily labourer, not four times more, as he rightly deserves. So there is no reward for quality or skill, which means we drop everything down to the lowest common denominator.
Besides being important to people’s and a city’s identity, heritage conservation is also good for the planet. We talk about platinum LEED ratings [the global standard of achievement in green building] but there cannot be a more eco-friendly prospect than a building that already exists. What’s the point of knocking down a building and creating a huge carbon footprint, instead of just recycling a structure to give it a new use? If recycling water and paper saves the planet, then so does recycling old buildings.
Unfortunately, in India, heritage conservation is very low on the government’s priority list. Even when the government does engage with it, it tends to have a top-down approach and to be limited to monuments. We have lost out irrevocably on swathes of urban heritage, as a result. So many beautiful streetscapes and townscapes are now beyond repair. Especially post liberalization, beautiful scapes that were part of the vernacular, have been turned into unsightly glass facades.
Urban development is not even a central government issue; it falls under the purview of individual states. And unless they see the benefit in conservation, they will be very quickly losing out on their urban heritage. I don’t see a change in the mindsets anytime soon, unfortunately. Even environmental laws are stronger than heritage regulations, as a matter of fact. If you go to a minister and say the number of tigers is dwindling, they would take cognizance of it. But if you said the same about buildings, they’d tell you they don’t have time.
But then again, even in Europe, the major fillip to conservation came only in the wake of the world war’s destruction when they realized the importance of preserving their architectural heritage. I just hope it won’t be too late for us.
As told to Cheryl-Ann Couto, exclusively for Parisera.