The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

‘A house that does not look like a house’

One among 20 winners of the World Architecture Community Awards this year, Kumudu S. Munasinghe talks about his cube-shaped entry and love for tropical modernism

At his house, Kumudu S. Munasinghe has large, carefully framed photographs of what initially looks like a silver cube on barren land reflecting light.

Open: Wall-sized glass windows with wide angle view of the lake

A winner: A cube-shaped structure stands between water and the rugged terrain

Upon a closer look, it’s a house. Designed by Mr. Munasinghe, the Lake House at Bolgoda has brought him international kudos, being among the 20 winners of World Architecture Community Awards this year, triumphing over a thousand entries from contestants around the world.

“It gives me courage,” says an elated Mr. Munasinghe. “I like to do stuff like that and try completely different things.”
In his 13th year as an architect, Mr. Munasinghe designed his winning entry for Kesara Serasinghe, the national archery coach, who asked him to build “a house that does not look like a house”.

“It’s a very cubic-shaped house, very unusual shaped,” Mr. Munasinghe said. “I think that maybe the reason they selected it. It’s not like the typical housing project in Sri Lanka, and it’s a sort of a cube that I have put on the side of the lake and it’s merged with the rough terrain on the other side…The nice thing is how it’s balanced between the water and the terrain. It’s a very simple, small house, not a huge project.”
One side of the house is completely open to the lake with wall-sized glass windows and the other side is blank and silver. Created to capture a wide-angle view of the lake and the marshy land, what you see from the outside is different from what you see from the inside, says Mr. Munasinghe.

The house is constructed on a pile foundation and Mr. Munasinghe had it elevated about four feet. So when the rain comes, the land is flooded and the house looks like it’s floating.

“The other thing is the house has a different colour combination of silver, concrete panel looks, and it goes though different shades throughout the day. In the morning it has a different colour, in the evenings you get the changes with dust and when the sunlight hits, the silver changes its colour automatically.”

People who visit Ruskin Island still claim it’s not a house, says Mr. Munasinghe smiling. Yet this is not the first cube to win him an award; two years ago, he won an award from the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects for designing the popular honeymoon spot, Romance Valley in Haputale, in his words a “simple cube jutting out from the cement on high ground”.

Kumudu Munasinghe: Minimalist style

His own house, which he designed himself, is cubic of course.“I like the minimalist style with simple lines and space. My house I esigned myself similarly with a completely different sort of outlook using several cubic shapes focusing on the garden.”

His minimalist, modern, Western-style inspired designs are strongly derived from tropical modernism, a style combining Western designs in tropical Eastern settings, pioneered by renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and later his disciple C. Anjalendran.

Mr. Munasinghe trained under Mr. Anjalendran (recently profiled in The New York Times for his famous tropical modernist houses) but says he has his own style he follows.

“I see tropical modernism in a different way. It’s not the contemporary architecture Bawa and Anjalendran follow. I prefer a minimalist, simple modern style which suits Sri Lanka more. We are a tropical country and a lot of dust collects, with winds and all that, so you have to design the house very simply. Minimalist architecture is easy to maintain and it suits our lifestyle. It is the reason I like this style.”

He gives special attention to ventilation and how light enters the house, which he claims is the core of tropical modernism just as important as the land, material and colouring. Yet he has tried different styles throughout his career, even the traditional style for clients who didn’t like modern designs.

The Sri Lankan style he describes can be seen in Mr. Munasinghe’s own house, albeit looking very Western and modernist. A stone tablet at the entrance carries an excerpt from the Dhammapada.

Looking back, Mr. Munasinghe says he never even planned to be an architect. He knew only one architect as a child, Geoffrey Bawa’s brother Bevis, who lived about two kilometres away. He has always had a talent for drawing, just like his artist mother, he reminisces. So when his AL results in bioscience stream came, architecture at the University of Moratuwa was his first choice. Today, with a smile he adds, “fortunately”.

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