Yesterday, October 26 marked the 100th birth anniversary of a very extraordinary personality, Deshabandu Vidya Jyothi Dr. A.N.S.Kulasinghe. His remarkable career recognised locally and abroad ended with his demise on February 14, 2006. There was at that time an outpouring of appreciations in the news media. The grief of his loss has been conveyed in [...]

Sunday Times 2

An architect/ planner recollects


Yesterday, October 26 marked the 100th birth anniversary of a very extraordinary personality, Deshabandu Vidya Jyothi Dr. A.N.S.Kulasinghe. His remarkable career recognised locally and abroad ended with his demise on February 14, 2006. There was at that time an outpouring of appreciations in the news media. The grief of his loss has been conveyed in writing so far by those engineers who had worked closely with him. This is understandable as his lasting contribution to the nation was through his passion and dedication to the profession of engineering. In addition, most of the professionals who encountered him were engineers. However, Dr Kulasinghe’s career required him to work with other professionals as well, including particularly architects and town planners. I had the good fortune to have worked with him as an architect and later also as a town planner. This is therefore written from that other non-engineering perspective.


Dr. Kulasinghe was trained in the disciplines of civil, structural and mechanical engineering. He was imbued with a keen scientific spirit and possessed an extraordinarily creative mind. He saw each technical problem that confronted him as a new challenge requiring a fresh solution. There was a remarkable clarity in his analyses of problems. He had an abundance of creativity to search for and find elegant solutions. While his theoretical knowledge of engineering was impeccable, he was a practical engineer who could, when necessary, work with his hands. He had a remarkable confidence that enabled him to fearlessly implement his solutions. While engineering dominated his interests, he was, in fact a multi-faceted personality. He was a good musician with a fair mastery over the softer percussion instruments such as the Tabla and the Dilruba.

Dr Kulasinghe grew up and began his working life in the latter stages of British colonial rule. His aspirations to become an engineer were made very difficult by the lack of educational facilities available locally. By perseverance and sheer brilliance he was able to train abroad and return home in a very short time. It was a period when there were only a few local engineers. Most of those few were engaged in maintaining and developing the infrastructure relating to the colonial economy.  Instead of following this path, the young engineer Kulasinghe gravitated to the national development effort in a hydropower project pioneered by the older and renowned local engineer Dr.J. Wimalasurendra.  Having gained experience and made a useful contribution there, he moved to the Colombo Port Commission.

A New Technology

An indigenous industrialized building technology had its origins in the introduction of prestressed concrete to the island. The first use of this material was at the Colombo Port Commission.  It had been introduced there by the young engineer Kulasinghe as an alternative to reinforced concrete for the reconstruction of a jetty. This happened very soon after his appointment as a Junior Assistant Harbour Engineer. The first use of ‘post-tensioning’ techniques in prestressed concrete had also been made at the Colombo Port Commission by him. A foreign system, Magnel-Blaton, had been first considered but there had been problems about patent rights. Therefore he had developed a completely new system and all the required mechanical and hydraulic equipment to go with it. This system which was later patented in Sri Lanka as the ‘Kulasinghe-CPC’ system, had come to be recognized as one of the most economical post-tensioning systems available worldwide at that time.

The earliest use of this technology in buildings was in the warehouses located in or near the Colombo harbour. An early example achieved a 100 foot clear span with prefabricated roof beams post-tensioned using the local system. Most of this pioneering work had occupied the surprisingly short space of a decade. The first use of industrialized building technology in a non-industrial building was in the design and construction of the Tourist Board Headquarters located then within the premises of the Colombo Port.  By 1959, when the national economic situation had reached serious proportions and the government’s economic development policy of industrialization through import substitution was being put into effect, the beginnings of an indigenous industrialized building technology was already available within the country, much to our good fortune.

The ambitious industrialization policy had required very extensive construction work on factory buildings. These could normally not have been built in Sri Lanka without a very heavy outlay of foreign exchange for the import of steel in large quantities.  Prestressed concrete was the available substitute for steel and that technology was already available in embryonic form at that time in Sri Lanka.  Furthermore, all the raw material for that technology was locally available except for relatively small quantities of high tensile steel wire. In order to build the infrastructure for industrialization under the import substitution effort, the government created a special organization – the State Engineering Corporation (SEC).  Wisely, Engineer Kulasinghe was placed at the head of that organization.


Having returned home from studies abroad and become bored with a comfortable position in a private sector architectural office in Colombo, I was attracted to and chose to join the State Engineering Corporation.  I was the first professionally qualified architect to join that organization. It seemed at that time to have a contagious environment of optimism and confidence, which had much to do with its inspired leadership. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with such an outstanding and dedicated professional. I am also happy to have been associated on important projects of that time with such other engineers as D.G.Athukorale, Neville Ladduwahetty, Titus Gunasekera, Basil Chitty, Tony White, Anil Fernando, Tissa de Silva, Sam Karunaratne and Nimal Amarasinghe, to mention just a few.

The SEC was then spearheading the use of pre-stressed concrete in building. Thus, immersion in this pioneering work as the architect in designing important large projects came my way at a young age. I was allowed to recruit a few draftsmen and some young assistants from a body of architectural students. They were partially qualified but unable to complete their architectural education here as the needed higher education facilities were not yet available locally at that time. There already were two such persons with partial qualifications engaged by the Engineering Designs office.  Wise leadership permitted me to locate a few of the available staff along with those newly recruited in a space physically distinct from the Engineering Designs office. The new Architectural Section’s personnel thus became a well-knit team with an identity of their own but owing strong allegiance to the Corporation. It is a matter of pride for me that the unit has survived for more than five decades and still continues.

A few of the wide variety of projects of that early time in which I recall participating included a massive industrial complex in Kosgama including a multistoreyed administration building and senior staff housing; a Technical Institute at Warakapola; a Master Plan for the Ananda College Campus which has since been fully utilized and a multistoreyed Science Building for that school; a data processing centre for the Department of Census and Statistics, one of the country’s first computerized facilities; and a large laboratories complex including an auditorium for the Tea Research Institute in Talawakelle. The last named project received an award for design excellence from the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects.

During that time, as I recall, there was a project conceived by the then Government Town Planner to reclaim for urban development a relatively small marsh at Maligawatta which was located well within the city of Colombo. Engineer Kulasinghe undertook to help with the engineering aspects of the required reclamation work. This was yet another example of his willingness to collaborate with other professions in the interest of national development. The reclamation project was successfully accomplished and eminently facilitated the planned urban development work. He was also the author of some extraordinary concrete shell structures which included the Planetarium in Colombo built first for an industrial exhibition in 1965 and a few years later the dagoba in Kalutara. In the latter too he sought and received collaborative inputs of a senior Architect.

Engineer Kulasinghe actively promoted the development of science in the country. He did so in many ways including taking an active role in the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS). Having presided over the Section dealing with Engineering in 1958, he took over the reins of SLAAS as General President in 1970. He was also invited later to the prestigious position of Fellowship in the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka.

In 1971, I received a Fulbright Scholarship and travelled to the US for postgraduate studies in a different discipline – Urban and Regional Planning. I returned to Sri Lanka in late 1973. By then, Engineer Kulasinghe and most of the senior engineers I knew had left the SEC and moved abroad to various different countries. All of the young Architectural Assistants who had worked with me too had gone abroad, some through scholarships. The names that come to mind include: Tissa Abeysinghe, Nihal Bodhinayake, Ossy de Silva, V.N.C.Gunasekera,  Sunil Gunawardena, Mallika Hemachandra,  Shanti Jayawardena,  Padma Ratnayake,  Tilak Samarawickrema, Dudley Waas, Ranjith Weddikkara and Cecil Weerakoon. Some have stayed abroad, done good work and held responsible positions in their respective countries of residence. Those who returned home are now well known architects here.

A Second Innings

Engineer Kulasinghe returned to Sri Lanka in the late 1970s and the period which followed became a glorious ‘second innings’ in his professional career.  He was called upon to provide and amply provided leadership to one of the key engineering organizations dealing with the massive multipurpose ‘Accelerated Mahaweli Project’ which telescoped most of a planned 30-year programme into a 6-year period.  During that time I was honoured to have received a consultancy from that engineering organization under his leadership to identify the land, plan the project, layout the roads as well as design the buildings for a small new township at Digana. It was built locally and initially used to house all the many expatriate personnel and their families who were involved in the construction of the Victoria Dam. It is still in use decades after the expatriates have fulfilled their tasks and left.

In recognition of Dr Kulasinghe’s collaborative contribution to the urban development efforts of Sri Lanka including the work at Maligawatta, he received a special award in the year 2000 from the Institute of Town Planners Sri Lanka.  One of the significant projects he designed and saw built was a massive dagoba known as the ‘Kotmale Mahaseya’.  He clearly was one of the most deserving of the high national honours that were conferred upon him.

 Lochi Gunaratna


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