March 28: An ambitious project is under way - the first of its kind in India - to preserve the architectural integrity of Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, whose Capitol complex was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2016.
The project is being overseen by Abha Narain Lambah, the Mumbai-based conservation architect and heritage building consultant who was born in Calcutta and grew up in Ballygunge.
For Lambah, 46, who began her schooling at Loreto House and moved out of the city after 10 years, Calcutta means the Lily Pool of the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden in Howrah.
She has prepared the management plans for Ajanta caves and Bodhgaya, both Unesco World Heritage sites, and for Amer fort in Rajasthan. The core of her practice has been with living historic buildings like Bombay High Court, Bombay Municipal Corporation, Crawford market, JJ School of Arts, Royal Bombay Opera House, Asiatic Library and Nehru Memorial at Teen Murti, Delhi.
"Living buildings are more challenging," she comments.
Back to Chandigarh, Lambah says the weather there is far more favourable towards concrete than in Calcutta or Mumbai. Yet, discolouration and delamination are unavoidable.
Thanks to "intensive and severe use by the two states, the buildings have accumulated layers and layers of accretions. There are partitions where there was none before. Balconies with Corbusier's famous sun breaks are covered with glass and aluminium glazing. AC units stick out at odd places. Electrical cabling everywhere is in a mess. It is all ad hoc. Very similar to Writers' Buildings," says Lambah.
Unlike Writers', however, she will not have the luxury of restoring buildings which have been vacated. She started work on February 27 with a team of 12. "I have to work around people and have to work out a sequential system without disturbing the functioning of the building," says Lambah.
The building is not just grey concrete. There are splashes of colour all over and they are brought in through different media such as tiles and paint. Lambah says the process of documentation has not ended. There is tapestry inside. Each courtroom in the high court building is hung with tapestry designed by Corbusier.
Lambah consulted architect Charles Correa's widow, Monika, who weaves art tapestries. She recalled that when as a young bride she accompanied her husband to meet Corbusier, the master remarked on the beauty of her feet.
Within the next five months, tenders will be floated. She expects the project to take three years to complete. "The government is obligated to report back to the Unesco as to what steps it has taken," she adds.