India’s unprotected heritage sites are increasingly grappling with insensitive modernisation and urbanisation. Travel + Leisure India & South Asia speaks to Mumbai-based architect Abha Narain about her approach towards conserving and restoring the country’s historic neighbourhoods and traditional buildings while minimising their carbon footprint. By Adila Matra
Mumbai-based architect Abha Narain believes that a sustainable building is one that already exists. “Rather than constructing a new structure, which will consume a massive amount of energy, transportation, labour, and more, it is better to extend the life of an existing one through adaptive reuse,” she says.
Restoration in India
Since its inception in 1998, Abha Narain Lambah Associates has taken up restoration and conservation of historic sites across India, ranging from ancient Buddhist sites of Ajanta and Bodh Gaya, 15th-century temples in Ladakh and Hampi, and medieval mosques, palaces, forts and caravanserais in Rajasthan, to shopfronts, signages, and street furniture in the Victorian precinct of Mumbai, and more recently, the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. “India has over 4,000 years of built heritage that encompasses a variety of architectural styles. The techniques used to build these historic buildings have evolved over centuries. It’s not only important to safeguard these monuments for future generations, but also to save the traditional skills, use of local materials, and crafts,” says Abha Narain.
Restoration is also good for the environment. “Nowadays, in areas like Ladakh, Hampi, and Mumbai, RCC slabs are used in construction. These have a lifespan of 70 years, whereas the heritage buildings made of mud have survived for centuries. The carbon footprint of the transportation of these new materials can also be reduced with the use of local materials,” Abha Narain states.
Challenges Of Restoration
The biggest challenge to restoration, the architect says, is policy mindset. “We are losing out on cities—like Shekhawati, inner cities in Hyderabad and Lucknow, because our policies are monument-centric and do not consider the entire historic neighbourhood.”
That said, things have improved. “Quarter of a century ago, many architects were just writing reports, and little actual work was happening,” Abha Narain explains. Citizen involvement has also been impressive. “While working in Basgo, Ladakh, we saw every villager contribute their labour and even wood from their homes to restore the temple. On Dadabhai Naoroji Road, the street furniture was paid for by shopkeepers on the road.”
Abha Narain is currently busy working on the restoration of Kashmir’s Shalimar Bagh and Mumbai’s David Sassoon Library. “We are also working on the Balasaheb Thackeray Memorial in Mumbai—both, restoration of the structure and construction of an underground museum,” she says. “We have saved every tree on the side and have created a landscaped garden too.”