Whether it is the Bandra railway station or the Mumbai University, the life of a Mumbaikar is often revolving around the heritage structures in the city. And even across the country, these heritage sites become a landmark and make a place memorable. Built over 100s of years ago, these heritage buildings have faced the wrath of time. And some even almost came crumbling down. But if we want to preserve our history and heritage, conservation is the path to choose. And that’s what conservation architect Abha Narain specializes in. On the world heritage day, we bring you the secrets of the business and what goes into bringing a heritage building back to life.
Here are the excerpts from our conversation with Abha Narain:
What drew Abha Narain towards heritage and conservational side of work?
My parents lived very close to the ruins of Mehrauli. So I would spend my weekend with my sister and our dog. We would go and explore different monument in Mehrauli. I loved the proportion and whole beauty of these monuments.
I was inspired to even to become an architect by the buildings of Joseph Alenstine. He was an American architect who came to India in the 40s. He did some beautiful contemporary building but within the historic area around the Lodi Tomb. And I always felt that his approach to architecture was very sensitive. Even though his buildings were extremely contemporary they were respectful of the context.
How does the work usually start when working on a heritage building?
First is to understand the building thoroughly. A lot of historical buildings don’t even have drawings of the building. So the process starts with documenting the building trying to look for clues, the original structure and materials.
When we were working on a building like Swaraj Bhawan in Allahabad, a lot of the history was pieced together from letters written by Moti Lal Nehru or Jawahar Lal Nehru. So that gave descriptions of when a wing was added, which room was used for what by the family. So sometimes it’s the records, letters which gives you a clue and sometimes it’s the photographs.
Like for Opera House, we found some black and white photographs that were taken in 1916. By that, we could understand what the original balconies that have then been torn down, what they looked like. Sometimes for colours, you’re unable to figure out the colour from black and white photographs. So it’s paint scrapes, almost like a forensic analysis of a historic building.
When we were working on the Mani Bhawan project, there was this old gentleman who lived in the neighbourhood. He would give us a lot of information about the colour scheme or how the building was used. The same thing when we were restoring the Moorish Mosque in Kapurthala. The grandson of Maharaja Jagjit Singh – who built the structure – was then a child and he had attended the opening ceremony in the 1930s. And he had explained to us the colour scheme.
What you have to do is almost like forensic research. Piece together the clues that help you understand what the building was without any conjectural reconstruction.
You have worked on multiple projects across the city and some are quite iconic, like the Bandra station, Opera house, Asiatic College among others. Can you talk about the challenges or surprises you came across during the process?
Mumbai University Convocation hall
In the case of the convocation hall of Mumbai University, the ceiling was covered with something grey which used to be flaking off when it used to rain. We got it tested in the lab and found out it was asbestos fibre, which is highly carcinogenic.
Then we went through old records, and there were minutes of the senate. And we found out that the building had very bad acoustic, and there used to be a lot of eco. Then we found a letter from 1943 which said that now the eco problem has been solved and the walls are covered with Limpet asbestos. So we realised that it was a later addition.
When we were working, the building was covered with a lot of electrical wires and they were crisscrossing through the whole space. The building was built in 1860 before the advent of electricity in Bombay. So we then figured out that it was lit by gaslight, so there would have been a route the gas pipe would have taken. Then we traced the routes of gas pipe and we laid our electrical cables along that route. We realised that the architect Gilbert Scott had too ingeniously routed the gas pipe. So when we took our wiring along the route it was completely concealed, we didn’t have to chase through walls or damage or drill holes.
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Last year Abha Narain Lambah Associates was working on Byculla Railway station, how is that project going?
Oh, it’s fascinating! Byculla is actually India’s oldest surviving railway station, it was built in 1857 and is older than CSMT. While we were working on the project, we started scrapping off some layers and we removed a lot of plywood partition and false ceiling. We found some beautiful masonry arches, that will now be exposed.
All the building you have work on are easily 100s of years old, how do you make sure the structure is safe? Have you come across any building with an extremely unsafe structure?
Very often we have come across buildings which are very weak. So the Opera House was declared unsafe by the BMC in 2005. When we were looking at even being able to restore it, one after the other structural engineers refused to be a part of the project because it was too challenging and too risky. After I spoke to 6 top structural engineers in the city, Mr Satish Dhupelia agreed to work on the project. And he worked with me to make sure that the building was even safe to enter. It is a huge challenge.
When you look at an old building in places with arid climates like Ladakh or Rajasthan, they are less damage. But Mumbai’s climate with very high rainfall, very high humidity is actually the most challenging climatic context for a heritage building. With all the rain lashing on the stone it gets stained and leakages, the wooden roofs which rot. So making sure the structure is safe is a challenge.
Heritage sites in Mumbai are mostly built during British rule, but heritage sites in Jaipur have a lot of structures built during the Mughal era. What kind of difference do you see in these two styles of architecture?
It is so different. We worked on 17th and 18th-century palaces in Rajasthan where most of the construction is sandstone and limestone. And different techniques like Ariash, thikri, these kinds of techniques appear in the vocabulary. Whereas in Mumbai the material, the construction style is very different. Like in Ladakh for example, I worked on a 15th-century Buddhist temple, where the construction material was mud block and deodar wood and it used birch bark as a waterproofing material. So in each context depending on the geographical location, the cultural tradition, the construction material, the construction technology and the kind of conservation challenges that comes with these, vary. So with each site, there are its own challenges.
What is the importance of saving heritage buildings?
Bandra Railway Station
When most people talk about heritage, they dismiss it as an elitist practice. But in a city like Mumbai, a railway station is the most demographic space. For every Mumbaikar and everybody who comes to the city, if they are not rich they will use that. By restoring a railway station you are actually making conservation accessible to the general public.
It’s important to save all kinds of heritage buildings because what heritage does is give a unique identity to that area. Recently we’ve seen that all the new buildings look the same whether they are in Lucknow, Jaipur, Madras or Delhi. And we are becoming copy-paste kind of urban landscape. When you look at the historic architecture of these places they give an identity to the city. Like in Mumbai, between suburbs and Gurgaon the buildings architecturally might not be different, but what gives Mumbai it’s legibility, it’s identity os the steep of Marine drive, Raja Bhai tower, the CSMT and Bmc. Similarly, every city and every region in India has a strong architectural identity so it’s important that we save it for the next generation.
So, Abha Narain, what are some of your favourite heritage buildings?
There are too many. Ajanta caves and Ellora cave, are stunning, they are like beyond belief that humans could have crafted such beautiful structures. Fatepur Sikri by Akbar as a city, it’s so stunning in the fact that it was this amazing Mughal complex and it was completely abandoned in 15 years. The Mughal Gardens of Kashmir which I am working on currently. The breadth of Rajasthan fort. Every state has such amazing buildings, that’s why I don’t think I’ll get bored of my work ever.
You can check out more about the work done by Abha Narain and her team here