'To see but not to be seen'
A towering figure in the field of architecture, Panini Tennakoon, describes his passion for understatement and his rise to fame as he talks to Randima Attygalle about his life and work

A colossal structure with vertical pre-cast concrete fins- spread on a four-acre site down Reid Avenue, Colombo, its entrance facing Independence Avenue roundabout. None other than the Department of National Archives, this building is a landmark in the annals of local architecture.

You know for certain that you've reached Nittambuwa, down the Colombo-Kandy highway when the Bandaranaike Samadhi in Horagolla comes into view against the backdrop of a large Banyan tree, under which the late Premier S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike used to play as a child and thereafter meditate as an adult.

Visitors entering Min-medura or the Aquarium at the Dehiwela Zoo enjoy the feeling of walking underwater with dim lighting on one side and on the other the massive aquaria with glass frontages.

These are just a handful of the noteworthy buildings one man has created, the list of which includes the Supreme Court Complex in Hulftsdorp, the memorial to D.S. Senanayake at Independence Square, the Aukana Statue layout opposite the BMICH, the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, the Kotmale national park bungalow in Wilpattu, several teacher training colleges, student hostels and Police stations, not to mention numerous other government ministries and private residences.

Nature has blessed Chartered Architect, Panini Tennakoon, now 82 years old (better known as Pani), with a 'creative eye'. He believes 'nature is god' and this belief is perceptible in all his work, whether in the heart of the city or in a thorny wilderness.

His residence at Maitland Crescent, Colombo 7, where The Sunday Times met him, offers the best evidence of his conviction of 'living with nature'.

Nestled among aged trees and shrubs, almost invisible from the main road, demarcated by a low fence made of cinnamon sticks, its soothing effect is provided by terracotta tiles and walls made out of raw bricks more than a century old (retrieved from the rubble of Mr. Tennakoon's ancestral family home).

"Our ancestral house was replaced with this house which was put up in 1961, at a time when a sack of cement could be bought for Rs. 9.50," says Mr. Tennakoon with a smile, adding that the use of colour is minimal in the house, as in all his creations. "Whatever colour that is visible, is derived out of the materials used such as red bricks, timber and terracotta and partitions are minimum to create a feeling of airiness," says Mr. Tennakoon.

Going down memory lane, Mr. Tennakoon recalled the events, which led him to take up a career as an architect, bidding adieu to his dream of becoming a doctor! "The late Mr. Shirley De Alwis, the architect of the Peradeniya campus, whom I consider my guru used to be a regular visitor to our home and after seeing the wood carvings which I used to do out of wild timber as a hobby, he told me that I have to be an architect and medicine is not for me," recalls Mr. Tennakoon.

Thus after leaving his alma mater S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia, he joined the apprentice course in architecture in 1945, established by Mr. Alwis in his office in the University of Peradeniya (there was no faculty of architecture in local universities at that time) during which he was selected to design an ornamental mural to be installed in relief, on the internal rear wall surface of the Faculty of Arts auditorium to minimize the echoes in the hall.

In 1955, Mr. Tennakoon was awarded the Colombo Plan scholarship to pursue his studies at the School of Architecture at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Mr. Tennakoon became the first Asian student to be awarded the coveted Wunderlich Annual Prize, presented for General Excellence. After returning to Sri Lanka in 1958, he joined the Public Works Department as an Assistant Architect and in 1977, was appointed Chief Architect, Additional Director to the Department of Buildings, the first Sri Lankan architect to hold this post.

Although Mr. Tennakoon belongs to the early post-independence school of architects, having received his professional education abroad, he is a strong advocate of the Sri Lankan identity. "Although I'm inspired by foreign architectural techniques, I am undeniably Sri Lankan in every way, let it be the style of a creation or the material used," he says.

'Simplicity and serenity' are signature features of all Mr. Tennakoon's work, harmonizing with traditional and cultural architectural ideologies. The Bandaranaike Samadhi in Horogolla is one such creation, which mirrors the architecture of ancient Anuradhapura. Here, Mr.Tennakoon's 'design' was selected at a public competition organized by the government ministerial subcommittee at that time. "Mrs. Bandaranaike was quite happy with my design which was low in cost and at the same time a symbol of deep meaning," says Mr. Tennakoon adding that five 18-foot tall granite columns, symbolize the Pancha Seela (five precepts) and the large natural rock weighing 17 tons, placed before the five columns depict the hard and frugal life of the ordinary man in Sri Lanka that the late premier S.W.R.D Bandaranaike preferred to follow while the polished granite base on which the natural rock rests, depicts the comfortable and cultural upbringing of his early life.

The Supreme Courts Complex in Hulftsdorp, which was designed by Mr. Tennakoon in 1978 and later constructed with the assistance of the Chinese government, is very indigenous in style. "The octagonal outline of the Supreme Courts is inspired by Paththirippuwa (octagonal library) of the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy and the roof is structured in the traditional Sri Lankan greeting ayubowan (with the joining of the two palms) style," explains Mr. Tennakoon.

The Department of National Archives down Reid Avenue, however, is Mr. Tennakoon's 'favourite work'. "The Department of National Archives was constructed when the late Mr. J.R. Jayewardene was the Minister of State. I suggested a novel design devoid of large areas of tinted-filtered openings to cut down the cost as well as to minimize the damage in case of an explosion." This building is composed of three two-storey circular wings with series of tall arch facades, providing administration, technical and public lecture hall facilities. The three circular wings are linked by a three-storey high Exhibition hall which is a public entrance lobby. An innovative and an inexpensive system of vertical pre-cast concrete fins at close intervals is adopted to prevent direct sunrays entering the air conditioned and moisture-controlled document stacking area.”

After his retirement in 1993, Mr. Tennakoon's area of focus has been 'low cost' housing and religious buildings. "As a nature lover, I am concerned about our fast diminishing fauna and flora, thus I am very particular about the timber element which is minimal in these 'low cost' constructions," says Mr. Tennakoon adding that these houses are constructed with 'cement hollow blocks' which could be made by villagers themselves. In 1995, such houses were built in Kumbuke with concrete built-in furniture.

As to what distinguishes modern architecture from his times, Mr. Tennakoon replies, "Most of the present day construction, especially residences are not meant to live in, but mere symbols of extravagance or social class. They don't seem to blend with nature and everything is congested." Talking about the standards of the profession, Mr. Tennakoon emphasized, "For me, architecture was a hobby, a passion and more than a means of income. Times are changing and we cannot expect the same from today's generation. But it is the duty of an architect not to follow the client's instructions blindly, but to fuse their requirements with nature and culture."

A legendary figure in the architectiral field he may be, but ever soft-spoken and modest, his philosophy can be encapsulated in his personal motto Videre Sed Non Videri - "to see but not to be seen".

A detailed account of all Mr. Tennakoon's work is found in his book titled My Contributions to Architecture. The book is available at:

  • 15 A, Maitland Crescent, Colombo 7
  • The Sri Lanka Institute of Architects,120/7, Vidya Mawatha, Colombo 7
  • Deveco Designers and Publishers (Pvt) Ltd, 105, Hunupitiya Lake Rd, Colombo 2.
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