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21st June 1998

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Creating' midst global changes

Young architect Hiranti Welandawe presented a paper on, 'Beyond the vernacular: The need for modernity' at the seminar on Contemporary Trends in Architecture of Sri Lanka and Italy held last week.

The exhibition now on at the BMICH continues till June 24 from 10.00 a.m to 6.00 p.m daily. Following are exerpts from the paper:

The need for modernity is a valid question today when one observes new expressions in architecture, a visible phenomenon in Colombo today.

Change is the natural order of life. In this age of information, change is a rapid phenomenon. This social transformation is evident in the urban sector of our society. The supermarket, the shopping mall, the MTV pop culture are new icons in our society. These indicate that our society is rapidly changing into a consumer oriented urban culture.

Society is not the only factor in transience. Today we are more exposed to new technology than ever more due to the global economic structure. Goods are manufactured in the cheapest location and distributed globally. Although roof tiles are a cottage industry in Sri Lanka the asbestos roofing which has a high content of imported raw material is a cheaper alternative. In terms of costs, aluminium is now an alternative to timber.

With rapid urbanisation and densification of the city, plot structures have been reduced to minimums of 6 perches for houses and 4 perches for commercial development. The plot structure of the city is changing not only in size but also in form. One encounters triangles, trapeziums and even pentagons !

In the west, modernity arose from a new awareness of the essence of industrial culture, and of the emerging democratic society. The modern movement filtered to Sri Lanka during the early part of nineteen forties, but the resurgence of nationalism, which developed after the struggle for independence during the early fifties and sixties, led to a revival of the vernacular in architecture. The resurgence of the vernacular architecture flourished during the introverted socialist political climate of the late sixties and seventies. Although our society was democratised, lifestyle still remained feudal and the vernacular house was perhaps a very natural expression of the times. The eighties brought with it a new era with the opening up of the economy. There was a clear shifting of lifestyle, rapid urbanisation and a change in technology.

How should the Sri Lankan architect respond to these transformations? In modern societies of affluence, consumerism has led to the division of the realm of art into two categories: that of serious art and that of entertainment. The first aspires to trace human existence in all its complexity and drama, the second helps us to consume our existence nonchalantly. This split has already become institutionalized in music, cinema and literature. Would the easy solution to modern consumerism be a " pop architecture" ?

These are some of the questions that I have been faced with in the work I have done in the past five years. I hope the work I present will be received as modern but not of modernism, Sri Lankan but not vernacular. I have used the design ethos of the vernacular at an abstract level, particularly in the inside outside relationship. This relationship for me is manifested in the way light comes in to a building or how you would see the sky through a courtyard. I have used concepts of minimalism in order to maintain visual clarity. As an urban designer, I have used context generated solutions.

Some of these issues of urbanity and social transformations are discussed in the urban houses presented here.

The first one is in a 6 perch plot which is 20' wide and 100' long. The unusual length makes this plot seem much smaller than what it really is. Two things were done in the design to counterbalance this aspect. A series of stepped courtyards were created in the middle of the house to provide for a direct connection between the outside and the inside. The design aesthetic is minimalist. The entire house is focused on to the family room which is central to the lifestyle of the family.

The second house is on a 18 perch plot in Colombo. The design was for a single lady but during the course of building she found a partner. She is a person who enjoys being the centre of attention. So I conceived the house as a series of galleries, from where she could be seen and from where she would entertain. The concept of the galleries is not very popular with my client's partner! He complains about the openness and that he has to be fully dressed to walk from the bedroom to the laundry!

In this project I experimented with steel as an alternate for structural timber. Timber was expensive in this instance as some of the roof spans exceeded 20 feet. The ceiling was fixed above the structural steel exposing the steel roof structure. The roofing material used is a colour-bonded profile steel sheet. The entire roof structure is distinguishable as a light weight structure, contrasting against the heavy mass of the lower masonry part.The house was intended to be introverted and to avoid the harshness of a blank wall, the walls to the street were layered. This gives the street facade a sense of depth. This layering is expressed as a sky light to the interior of the house. The sky light ventilates the living room area and makes patterns of daylight on the wall.The third house is on a 10 perch plot at a street corner. The design is for a young couple and their two daughters. One of the key elements in the design is the three storeyed tower placed at the end of the site to punctuate the street corner. The tower is also a symbol, representing the psyche of the husband; he has an exclusive study on the second floor. The courtyard pool is central to the house. Radiating from this point are the dancing walls; they symbolize the vibrant nature of the wife. The dancing walls also screen the western sun and throws interesting shadows on the building. The duality of the tower and the dancing walls symbolise the essence of their relationship. Ice and fire; the yin and the yang.

Whatever we may intend of our work, its true potential will be realised only in the way it is interpreted by the people who use it. Architecture is required to satisfy popular expectations and not the detached biased views of the specialised Architect.

However much we may criticize globalisation and the loss of identity, our society particularly the younger sector, think and act alike as others all over the world. If you travel to ten urbanised cities in South East Asia today, you will find that the teenagers dress alike, eat alike and talk alike. How should the Architect respond to this trend in our society?

The Architect has a part to play in understanding and nurturing the predominant sensibilities of our culture. In the process of creativity we are self-contained individuals. We respond to a given brief, a client and a site; but is this adequate? Today, we are swept by the tide of rapid change in our society. How do we respond to these as creative professionals? If we don't, I believe we will be left behind. Architecture will go on but it will not be of the Architect.

Hiranti Welandawe is a Graduate of the University of Moratuwa. She obtained her Masters Degree Specialising in Urban Design and Housing from the Helsinki University of Technology, Finland. She is currently a partner of Architrave Chartered Architects.

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