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7th June 1998

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A forthcoming exhibition strives to capture the modernistic aspects of local architecture

Building beyond the vernacular

By Renuka Sadanandan

from the Italian exhibition an award winning design

The Courage of Images, a touring Italian exhibition of architecture will soon be in Sri Lanka. The exhibition, a collaborative effort between Italian architects, engineers, sculptors and graphic artists has already been to several countries including India, Singapore, Japan and Bangkok and will be at the BMICH from June 15 to 24.

Running concurrently with this will be an exhibition of contemporary Sri Lankan architecture.

"The Italian Embassy got in touch with me and wanted me to complement their project with a view of contemporary work here," says Lankan architect and designer Tilak Samarawickrema who acts as curator for the exhibition.

What Samarawickrema, known for his pioneering work in textile design, is seeking to do is go beyond the vernacular to show the modernistic aspects of Sri Lankan architecture.

"We have come to the point where, I feel, we are a bit jaded with the vernacular, particularly due to the change in the urban fabric and this exhibition will highlight the move away into a contemporary aesthetic," he says.

"Geoffrey Bawa," adds Samarawickrema, "has very tastefully and successfully used the vernacular, but to us of a younger generation, that was not enough."

In this exhibition, Samarawickrema says he would have liked to show examples of Bawa's work when he chose to be modernistic like the Upali Wijewardene house. That has, however, now been modified and unfortunately, pictures of its original design were not available as they have been taken for a London exhibition.

So the exhibition will focus on the work of selected architects, some of whom have worked with Bawa, yet chosen a more radical path. Samarawickrema stresses that he has taken examples from these architects which embody contemporary trends.

Among those participating are Minette de Silva, Ashley de Vos. Anura Ratnavibushana, Ulrik Pleshner who have made notable contributions from the '60s and '70s from the younger generation Suchith Mohotti, Hiranthi Wellendawa, Madura Premathilaka, Jayanath Silva, Ranjith Alahakoon, Nihal Bodinayake and Vijith Basnayake. Interestingly, all the young architects chosen are products of the Katubedda University.

Explaining the move away from the vernacular emphasis on verandah and pillars, Samarawickrema points out that the landscape has changed drastically in the past thirty years. Today, we are confronted by noise, pollution, dust and the architect has the challenge of working within very tight, confined spaces and in this situation, one has to be almost cubist, by sheer necessity. So we find work that is modern and radical, that is in keeping with international trends."

"The more exposure we have to what is happening in the international arena the better. We need to move away from an insular attitude and draw inspiration from what is going on in the world," adds Samarawickrema. He quotes Jawaharlal Nehru "Every kind of development-technological or philosophical, necessitates contact with life itself, with social needs, with the living movements of the world.

Lack of this contact leads to stagnation and loss of vitality and creativeness. But if we maintain these contacts and are receptive to them, we shall adapt ourselves to the curve of life without losing the essential characteristics we have valued."The Italian exhibition is in this sense important as it is in some ways, a bit poetic being essentially a research project, says Samarawickrema and could stimulate the interest of local audiences.

It is based on the vision of Massimo Fagioli and will feature some 97 exhibits, 26 models, 12 sculptures in wood and an oil painting in addition to visuals. While being primarily architectural, it will focus on urban projects, public spaces, design of interiors, residences and object design.

On June 16, there will also be a seminar on Current Tendencies in Architecture in Italy and Sri Lanka which will focus on the work of four prominent and contemporary Italian architects Angelo Mangiorotti, Paolo Portoghesi, Aldo Rossi and Renzo Piano. Two Italian architects will be in Colombo to address this seminar which is open to the public.The exhibitions, organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, General Directorate of Cultural Relations, Rome, the Embassy of Italy, Colombo and the local Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs have been timed with Sri Lanka's 50th year of Independence in mind. The Sri Lanka Institute of Architects has also lent its support.

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