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Published in Verve Magazine, Design edition, May 2017
Photograph (Abha Narain Lambah) by Shubham Lodha

You’ve looked wistfully, over the years, at India’s only surviving opera house, wishing for the beautiful baroque structure with a blend of local and international architectural styles to be restored to its former glory. Abha Narain Lambah popped out a wand and breathed new life into it, like she has done with numerous buildings in the country. Magic can’t reckon with bureaucracy, but this soft-spoken lady with nerves of steel has managed to pull off many a coup.

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Armed with a master’s degree in architectural conservation from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, she’s clocked in over two decades of experience in the field. Her diligence in research, respectfulness of history, and faithfulness to detail in restoration has led to her being awarded the Sanskriti Award, Eisenhower Fellowship, and the Attingham Trust and Charles Wallace fellowship and being nominated by ArcVision among the top 20 women architects globally in 2016.

Perhaps the 46-year old’s nomadic journey has led to a practical, inclusive attitude to her work. “I am a bit of a gypsy because I don’t think I’ve stayed in any city for more than five years — my father was in a transferable government job. I grew up in many towns, including Kolkata and Delhi. The longest I have been anywhere — now 22 years — is Mumbai, which I consider home. People say the city is crowded and congested, messy and chaotic; but I think there’s a very intrinsic system that works here and at the core of it is a very warm magical world. Every place in the country has a different sensibility, vibe and history. My grandfather in Srinagar lived in an ancient beautiful timber-framed house, and I remember taking a boat down the Jhelum and looking at all the lovely palaces of the Dogra rulers, so this sense of history, of old building ageing with grace, just grew with me as a child and I think that’s what has continued in my work as well.”

Excerpts from a conversation with Narain Lambah….

How did architectural conservation become important to you?
I was studying architecture and was drawn to urban issues that had to do with an interface between the old and the new. I was very keen to learn from American architect Joseph Allen Stein, who designed all the iconic buildings in Delhi like the India International Centre, Ford Foundation and India Habitat Centre. Working in his studio for two years, I began understanding that a lot of design and good architecture has to respond to the context — often historical context. That led me to explore conservation. I believe contextual design is something that is very important, which we haven’t yet mastered in India.

What’s your take on (the lack of) maintaining this architectural balance in Mumbai?
The sad part is that we have beautiful buildings and historical legacy in Mumbai, but our planners (and especially our politicians) haven’t been very sensitive, so there is unplanned growth in pockets. For example, when the mills were demolished, Charles Correa had a great idea for pooling in all the open spaces — we could have had one the size of Central Park in Parel; and because of a really narrow vision, they chopped it off into parcels, so we lost an unbelievable opportunity for the city. And I hope it doesn’t happen again with the eastern waterfront development. We need to look at everything holistically, which somehow gets sacrificed at the altar of political requirements or short- term goals.

We tend to bask in the end result, what’s the process of getting to it?
A lot of time goes in! I started working on the Royal Opera House in 2008 and we opened the building in 2016. Money was an issue, because there are no government funds or incentives for heritage buildings that are privately owned. It was listed among the 100 endangered monuments in the world by the World Monuments Fund, and then when it came to funding it, there was absolutely zero support. It is not economically feasible today to run a theatre or a cinema hall so it was a leap of faith. The whole team and my clients (the owners) took a huge risk, but with a conviction that it’s too precious a building to let go! Then there was red tape and it took numerous years to get permissions. The challenges should have been structural repairs, interior restoration and things like getting the sound and acoustics right or putting in air conditioning in a building that didn’t even have fans to begin with…. But it’s richly rewarding once it’s done.


What about Bikaner House, Delhi? What was the story there?
Bikaner (House) was amazing, thanks to a chief minister with a sense of clarity and crystal-clear decision-making! Vasundhara Raje said, ‘I want Bikaner House to be the calling card for Rajasthan in Delhi’. She gave us nine months to get our act together, to get the building in shape. We were working with the government, and the same kind of engineers and contractors that are typical, but since she was so clear of the final vision for the project, everything just fell into place. Now we are working on the first floor of the same building, it’s going to get expanded and there will be a little cafe and a bookshop.

Which project is closest to your heart?
I think one of my favourite projects of all time has been the 15th-century Maitreya Buddha temple that I worked on in Basgo, Ladakh (which earned her firm an award of excellence from the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for conservation). It was a hard project, lasting three years, with repeated trips while my daughter was very young. It was in a small remote village, without electricity, running water, or lavatories…. A current project I am excited about is working on the Teen Murti House — the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, in Delhi, because it is such a beautiful stately building.

How relevant is heritage today?
“We are losing it too fast! My mother took me to Kanchipuram when I was 10, because she loved buying sarees from the loom, direct from the weaver. I remember it as a magical town with streets of verandahs, timber columns and sloping tiled roofs. Last year I was appointed by the government of India as the city anchor for Kanchipuram, and when I went back I was devastated, because the temple survived, but all those streets and those beautiful rows of houses are replaced by Alucobond and concrete and horrible new buildings. We already lost such a valuable part of our heritage and if now we—this generation—doesn’t do something about it, we won’t have anything left to save in the next few decades.”

What do you consider ‘Indianness’?
‘Indianness’ is not homogenous, it is not a single being, it is like a multi-layered curry with 20 different spices and wafting flavours; you get a note of cinnamon, a hint of clove; you discover later on your palate an aftertaste of asafoetida…and for me that is India. It’s multi-cultured, intense, layered, sometimes conflicting, sometimes contradictory but it is not one single unified whole. For all the chaos, there is still a system in it, there’s a meaning to it.

What does design mean to you?
It is something that is intrinsic — a distillation of a whole lot of feelings and moods. When you try and confuse it with too many things it gets lost. It balances form, functions, aesthetics and yet remains intuitive, because it can’t be put on, acquired or faked.

How do you focus and filter out the noise?
Filtering is as important as listening. When I am approaching a conservation project it’s very important to first establish what the design intent of the original architect was. To keep a certain modesty in your own work and also be true to the spirit of place, while maintaining  context — whether it is the geographical, design or material context of that particular site — in a harmonious balance with your own judgement as a designer.


Is some of it based on investigation?
Conservation is forensic in its techniques. We have to rely on paint scraps to figure out the oldest layer and original colour, for instance. You have to keep yourself open to looking for clues. In the Royal Opera House, we had no idea balconies existed when we began the project. Research uncovered old photographs which had those balconies, so we removed the art deco panelling and behind it we found skeletal structural members. Rifling through things in the basement, we found the little cherub and a little plaster cast that originally belonged to that balcony, and from that we were able to just piece things together.

You’ve been invited to deliver the Geoffrey Bawa memorial lecture in Sri Lanka….
I feel overwhelmed and humbled. He (Bawa), Joseph Stein and Charles Correa were the most iconic South Asian architects. Woman architects don’t get acknowledged, and even otherwise it’s such an honour. That’s my latest high, so I am going to just soak it in, and promise myself a week in Sri Lanka, living in Geoffrey Bawa’s house and meditating!

Do you feel a sense of achievement?
I just feel a sense of responsibility. I’ve never had a large vision or a master plan — one project led to another, and frustration about a project not moving along led me to something else while waiting; so that’s how my career has found its trajectory.

When will you rest on your laurels?
I don’t want to. I think architects should die with their boots on — or at least at the drafting table! It’s a career where the rewards are very slow; by the time others have retired, you peak as an architect. I worked with Stein in his studio when he was in his eighties, I have seen Correa working till he turned 80 and I don’t want to retire, I want to just work on the projects that will feed my soul.