Towards An Architecture for Everyday Life

21st Swami Vipulananda Memorial Oration, 19th July 2017 by Archt. C Anjalendran


Karagahagedara ambalama in the Kurunegala district
"You know me well if you thought that by its very excess virtue would entice me,
You knew that arduous and challenging paths lure me,
That senseless pursuits appeal to me ...,
And that a little folly is necessary for the satisfaction of my pride."
- Andre Gide [1]

The pursuit of Architecture

I am honored to be here to present the Swami Vipulanada Memorial lecture. In addition to being a literary critic, author, poet, teacher and ascetic, Swami Vipulanda was mainly a Tamil Hindu social reformer from the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, since the turn of the 20th century until Sri Lanka’s Independence in 1948.

My work finds affinity with the social reforms of Swami Vipulananda., because it clearly affirms that architecture should not only be the province of the rich, as it is generally is, but more so, could empower the ordinary people and even the poor.

To know thyself:

Recently, during a six week holiday in Europe, on a long train journey in the Netherlands, I heard Raag Hameer sung by Bade Gulam Ali Khan (known as Hamir Kalyani in the Carnatic South) and variations of my favorite raag Yaman Kalyan by M.S. Subbulakshmi to A.R.Rahman on my I-Pad. I was certain that despite all the beauty I had been seeing, "all this was but a dream from which I shall presently awake". To know where one belongs, and to know oneself, is often a good beginning.

My studio practice:

I have a studio practice with three to four assistants. Until 26 years ago I practiced architecture off my mother’s veranda. My office is still ‘folded away’ each day, but now off my own veranda. Appropriately, my mode of transport is a three wheeler tuk-tuk.

I returned to Sri Lanka nearly 40 years ago, having completed my post-graduate studies at Space Syntax with Bill Hillier and at the Bartlett in London, which most importantly, gave me an overview of life. However, it would be true to say that I learnt my practical architecture; in the typical guru-shishya (teacher-pupil) tradition, doing errands for the Sri Lankan Master Architect, Geoffrey Bawa, for approximately 40 hours a week, for nearly 10 years, for no pay.

Central question in Architecture:

Back home, I found that the central question facing Sri Lankan architecture was the continuity and the context of the traditional to meet modern lifestyles and aspirations. In my favorite mediaeval garden of Kaludiya Pokuna (black-water pond) in Mihintale, the organic is always incorporated and blended into the formal organization of space. This dialectic of the tradition and the modern, as well as the incorporation of the organic, has been celebrated in the sustained and varied corpus of work of Geoffrey Bawa.

However, this critical main aspect was initially initiated by Gastor, the vice-principal of Trinity College. Gastor, in the hill capital of Kandy nearly 90 years ago, built a ‘Sinhalese chapel’ for his congregation. I was further fascinated to trace this relationship between tradition and modernity in the pioneering writings and work of Andrew Boyd in the 40’s (who was fascinated by the functionality of our "Houses by the Road"), Minette de Silva in the 50’s (and her "Experiments in Modern Regional Architecture" long before anyone else had thought about it), and also in the initial joint partnership of Ulrik Plesner and Geoffrey Bawa in the 60’s. [2] For Ulrik Plesner, architecture was more than functional and was also a "home for our souls" [3]. From Geoffrey Bawa I mainly learnt that architecture was always a receding background for life and to view nature – that it was rarely "iconic" or "in your face", and should be treated with great "restraint".

The sound political policy in the early 60’s of restrictions on the import of goods and travel abroad brought about a creative blossoming in the architecture of Ulrik Plesner and Geoffrey Bawa, which led to other gregarious spin-offs such as the colorful handlooms of Barbara Sansoni, vibrant batiks of Ena de Silva, and the inimitable architectural renderings of Laki Senanayake. My greatest honor has been, with the exception of Andrew Boyd, to get to know and move freely amongst those mentioned above, most of who have retained their pedestals while continuing to be remarkably extraordinary.

The architecture of

Geoffrey Bawa:

It would be true to say that Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka could be considered one of the greatest contemporary architects in Asia and South Asia. Architecture in the Western world is often seen as an exterior object. But Bawa‘s architecture is not obsessed with form as summarized by Michael Ondaatje in description of the House on the Red Cliffs: "form into formlessness" [4]. Bawa, started his career as a gardener with experiments in his own garden, Lunuganga, at Bentota. One might say he designed buildings as if they were gardens using building materials. Hence there is a progression of spaces, vistas, unexpected surprises, all of which are elements of garden art. Simply, for Bawa, designing a building was to make a garden, within a garden. In this sense Bawa’s architecture is unique.

What is important in Architecture:

Unlike all other arts, which portray the contradictions of daily life, and particularly with under-development and terrorism, architecture unfortunately must always celebrate life. I am weary of an architecture, which is merely serious, or even a facade, devoid of the wit and humour of life. I also dislike insensitive impositions on the landscape and. I believe it is a great pity that there is so much of ‘architectural’ architecture about.

Given such parameters, I guess it should not come as a surprise that one has consciously chosen to do a non-commercial types of architecture, and instead, perhaps concentrate on evolving an economical aesthetic of everyday life, as aptly described by Channa. Daswatte as "where every function has an aesthetic intent." [5] .My main contribution to Sri Lankan contemporary architecture has been to make an aesthetic architecture affordable, not only at the level of ordinary middle class professional clients, but also for NGOs’ and even institutions like orphanages. (6)

Here, I find an affinity to the unpretentious and often un-noticed peasant vernacular, which has a populist appeal so necessary but rarely achieved in the architecture of today. An excellent example is the little rest-pavilion or Ambalama at Karagahagedera, Kurunegala. This Ambalama, supported on four boulders perched on a large shallow rock at the edge of rice fields, which it overlooks, epitomizes my architectural ideal. According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who at the turn of this century explained Asian art to the West as well as to the East, the ultimate purpose of all art is to transcend to the level of Godhead. For me it is enough, if it provides a meditative refuge from what was the trauma, tragedy and the occasional bomb in Sri Lanka.

In Conclusion:

I am often asked in this fast changing world of cell-phones and internet, whether there may be valid architectural constants. My advice would always be to search, and not to be side- tracked by commerce (often the simple reason for bad-architecture), to find your own place in history, and be proud of yourself and what you achieve. If not, you can be easily consumed by the ‘global’ and corporate world, which is often based on fickle fashion, and will not last the test of time.

Finally, I am generally content making a few people around me happy, rather than any attempt to "save the world’, which, like most ‘global’ ideas is often a misnomer.

Ref. 1: from "The Notebooks of Andre Walter," Peter Owen, 1968.

Ref. 2: see "Trends and Transitions: a review of styles and influences on the built form in

Sri Lanka 1940 - 1990" with Rajiv Wanasundera, Architecture & Design (India), March - April 1990.

Ref 3: see Buildings are for People, by Ulrik Plesner, Saertrykfra Arkitektur, No.3-1971

Ref. 4: see House on Red Cliffs, in Handwriting, by Michael Ondaatje, McCleeland &

Stewart Inc ( Canada), 1988

Ref. 5: see "Review: A Factory at Nugegoda" by Channa Daswatta,

The Sri Lankan Architect, Vol. 101 No.13, June - August 1995

Ref 6: see " Anjalendran - Architect of Sri Lanka, by David Robson, Tuttle ( Singapore),


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