Geogra­phies Space and Time

The di­verse forms of ar­chi­tec­ture across Sri Lanka are strung to­gether by a com­mon thread — all of them con­sider the nu­mer­ous nat­u­ral el­e­ments as op­por­tu­ni­ties rather than im­ped­i­ments

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Ekta Id­nany Pho­tos by Sahil Latheef

In­te­grat­ing built form with na­ture

Ar­chi­tec­ture in Sri Lanka is as di­verse in its spec­trum as any­where else in the world and yet it is unique in its sin­gu­lar ap­proach to the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of na­ture. Even his­tor­i­cally one can see how closely the built form and plan­ning in­te­grates with its nat­u­ral to­pog­ra­phy, veg­e­ta­tion and wa­ter, us­ing each nat­u­ral el­e­ment as an op­por­tu­nity rather than an im­ped­i­ment. Trav­el­ling through the is­land, whether vis­it­ing the UN­ESCO-cer­ti­fied World Her­itage Site of Si­giriya, the his­toric caves of Dam­bulla, Geoffrey Bawa’s Kan­dalama and Lunuganga, or ar­chi­tect Palinda Kan­nan­gara’s re­cent projects, one can’t help but re­mark how it is im­pos­si­ble to judge any of these works through bi­nary ab­strac­tions; such as in­side-out­side, form-land­scape or en­ve­lope ma­te­ri­al­ity since each of them em­body these bi­na­ries as in­te­gral to the other. The land­scape tra­di­tions in Sri Lanka have a doc­u­mented his­tory of more than 2500 years, and one can dis­cover these through the in­for­ma­tion en­shrined in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­mains which in­form the con­tin­u­ing long­stand­ing land­scape tra­di­tions in the coun­try. Si­giriya, the 5th-Cen­tury for­ti­fied city is con­sid­ered by schol­ars to be the old­est and most well pre­served city in Sri Lanka. It was laid out along a sym­met­ri­cal east- west axis and the nat­u­ral el­e­ments on site were re­spect­fully balanced in their asym­me­try. The city was in­te­grated into its hilly to­pog­ra­phy by cre­at­ing ter­races, path­ways, wa­ter­ways, city walls, moats, open spa­ces and veg­e­ta­tion. Per­haps the large rocky out­crops that can­not be pen­e­trated by an en­emy, in­formed the main cri­te­ria for the se­lec­tion of the site for de­sign­ing a for­ti­fied city with the royal res­i­dence on the sum­mit. Termed as the ‘boul­der gar­den’ by ar­chae­ol­o­gist Se­nake Ban­dar­nayake to de­scribe the in­cor­po­ra­tion of rocky out­crops and nat­u­ral land­scape into the for­mal com­po­si­tions of build­ings , it is this trope that con­tin­ues through in our read­ings of Sri Lankan ar­chi­tec­ture across scales. In Si­giriya, the as­cend­ing ax­ial path was in­te­grated in be­tween a nat­u­ral arch formed by two large boul­ders lean­ing on one an­other. This not only un­der­lines the en­trance, which was con­sid­ered as sa­cred in Sin­halese ar­chi­tec­ture but since one as­cends through the gap us­ing steps, it also calls out the el­e­ment of the flight of steps that are used as a de­vice to nav­i­gate be­tween ter­races. Man­made ponds are used as a de­fin­i­tive el­e­ment in the gar­dens of Si­giriya, not just as di­ver­sion but also to store wa­ter and in­flu­ence the mi­cro­cli­mate in the dry-zone. And fi­nally, as ubiq­ui­tous as they ap­pear, the re­tain­ing walls made from burnt clay bricks in lime or clay mor­tar, plas­tered and then lime-washed were built at Si­giriya to cre­ate the ex­ten­sive ter­races. Bud­dhist tra­di­tions man­dated that monks may live in for­est groves or rock shel­ters found in rocky hills iden­ti­fied as Vi­ha­ras and the Dam­bulla rock-cut cave tem­ples pro­vide a re­li­gious ref­er­ence to the land­scape tra­di­tions of the ‘boul­der gar­dens’. The Dam­bulla Caves are more prim­i­tive and nat­u­ral as far as hu­man in­ter­ven­tion is con­sid­ered, while at Si­giriya one can see the de­lib­er­ate and yet seam­less in­te­gra­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture. This ar­gu­ment is fur­ther ex­tended when one looks at the Kan­dalama project by Geoffrey Bawa, si­t­u­ated prox­i­mally to the above men­tioned projects, which per­haps pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion. At Kan­dalama, to say that Bawa’s ar­chi­tec­ture dis­ap­pears into the land­scape is per­haps stat­ing the ob­vi­ous. He sit­u­ates the build­ing by us­ing the ter­rain to his ad­van­tage in sec­tion. Bawa brings na­ture into sharp fo­cus with how he at­taches the build­ing to the rocks. Bor­row­ing from tra­di­tion, its as if he grows the build­ing around the nat­u­ral el­e­ments, as seen in how the stone rub­ble en­trance steps, made in-situ, wrap­ping around rocky out­crops. As one walks through the cave like cor­ri­dor that is built into live rock, one can see the homage that Bawa in­tends to the boul­der-arch en­trance at Si­giriya and this is brought more into fo­cus against the white wall that curves around the boul­ders. More­over from a dis­tance the en­tire build­ing ap­pears like a re­tain­ing wall that is grown over with ground cover, in ef­fect mim­ick­ing the re­tain­ing walls that hold ter­races,

as wit­nessed in Si­giriya. From a bird’s-eye view, it would seem like the var­i­ous swim­ming pools are catch­ments of rain lev­el­ling into the big lake in the dis­tance. Given Sri Lanka is an is­land, its peo­ple have an in­te­gral re­la­tion­ship to wa­ter and one can see that in his­toric ex­am­ples as well as in quo­tid­ian life. Wa­ter was per­haps the most im­por­tant or­gan­is­ing el­e­ment in the tra­di­tional land­scapes cre­ated in the dry-zone area of the coun­try. Palinda Kan­nan­gara’s stu­dio and home is also si­t­u­ated along­side of a water­way in Colombo, and is sur­rounded by paddy fields in the dis­tance. While the build­ing con­sis­tently frames views of the wa­ter, wa­ter also in­hab­its the build­ing be­tween the outer brick wall and in­ner con­crete wall help­ing to ad­just the mi­cro­cli­mate. The build­ing, at first, ap­pears to be a bru­tal­ist, mod­ernist box that pos­si­bly over­whelms the im­me­di­ate con­text but in­ter­nally the open­ness of the build­ing breaks down the vol­ume con­tin­u­ally con­nect­ing the in­side to the out­side. But upon en­ter­ing, one en­coun­ters a large flight of steps, made of re­claimed cob­bles from a moun­tain tea plan­ta­tion, which leads one to the pi­ano no­ble. The steps are held be­tween two stark con­crete walls that cul­mi­nate in a large fen­es­tra­tion and are a di­rect al­lu­sion to the boul­der-arch of Si­giriya. The scale of the open­ing and the amount of light mod­u­lated through cre­ates an ef­fect of be­ing within the cav­ernous spa­ces of the Dam­bulla Vi­ha­ras. In sec­tion, it doesn’t seem like one is as­cend­ing floor plates but rather go­ing from one ter­race to the next, as in Si­giriya. A cre­ated to­pog­ra­phy through the build­ing is aug­mented by the large dou­ble-height win­dows that al­low one to be con­nected to the out­side in per­pe­tu­ity. As one reaches the apart­ment level in the build­ing, it would seem like one has as­cended to a promon­tory, and this is aug­mented by the bi­o­log­i­cal ponds on the bal­conies. The house for the artist by Kan­nan­gara, is per­haps even more por­ous. While tra­jec­tory and move­ment in the stu­dio is non-ax­ial and cir­cum­am­bu­la­tory, in the house it is ax­ial. One enters the house to ei­ther de­scend the large flight to the kitchen and stu­dio space or as­cend the nar­row flight, again rem­i­nis­cent of the boul­der-arch to the pri­vate spa­ces of the bed­rooms. But the space of the artist’s house and the cen­tral court­yard is dom­i­nated by the large flight of rub­ble stone stairs that de­scends from the liv­ing room to take ad­van­tage of the site sec­tion. Look­ing back up from the kitchen, one views the liv­ing room as one would view the ter­races on the large rock at Si­giriya. The liv­ing spa­ces above which the sleep­ing spa­ces are sus­pended have no doors or win­dows and the build­ing doesn’t so much as al­low na­ture in as it sim­ply co­coons a small ex­ist­ing bit of it be­tween high bound­ary walls. And no men­tion of the projects is com­plete with­out men­tion­ing Varna Shashid­har’s land­scape de­sign. The in­ter­lock­ing court­yards that al­low light and rain­fall into the lower spa­ces have been planted with indige­nous species and the bi­o­log­i­cal pond on the up­per level re­in­forces the con­nec­tion be­tween Sin­halese ar­chi­tec­ture and wa­ter. A very su­per­fi­cial read­ing of both projects re­veals mod­ernist boxes but a closer read­ing leads one to see the nu­ances of his­toric tra­di­tions of Sri Lankan ar­chi­tec­ture per­sist in the works of even con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tects like Kan­nan­gara. #Three­Fla­neurs (www.three­fla­neurs.word­press. com) is a de­sign and travel blog, and the brain­child of three ar­chi­tects — Ekta Id­nany, Sahil Latheef, and Am­rita Rav­i­mo­han — who be­lieve in the im­por­tance of learn­ing ar­chi­tec­ture through ex­pe­ri­enc­ing it in per­son. Along with con­duct­ing reg­u­lar cu­rated trips for a cu­ri­ous au­di­ence, they also or­gan­ise ar­chi­tec­ture opens.

This page, top: In the house for an artist de­signed by Palinda Kan­nan­gara, the space of the house and the cen­tral court­yard is dom­i­nated by a large flight of rub­ble stone stairs that de­scends from the liv­ing room to take ad­van­tage of the site sec­tion. Look­ing up from the kitchen one views the liv­ing room as one would view the ter­races on the large rock at Si­giriya

This page: For Palinda Kan­nan­gara’s home in Colombo, a cre­ated to­pog­ra­phy through the build­ing is aug­mented by the large dou­ble-height win­dows, al­low­ing one to be con­nected to the out­side in per­pe­tu­ity

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