Today, the administrative center of the University of Colombo, the College House, then known as Regina Walawwa is a well preserved model of ancient Sri Lankan Colonial architecture that is still functioning. The Daily News speaks to Melbourne School of Design, Architect Prof. Anoma Pieris on the College House. Pieris, an associate Professor in architecture, at the University of Melbourne is also the author of Architecture and Nationalism in Sri Lanka: The trouser under the cloth. Her argument in this book is that due to our colonial history Sri Lankans tend to negotiate between western and eastern influences in their lives, projecting one or the other as the dominant expression according to the perceived advantage.

Anoma Pieris

“The architecture of College House captures a moment in the history of the region and our country when colonial architecture was becoming indigenized due to firstly, the influence of the arts and crafts movement in England which produced a kind of Victorian eclecticism influenced by architecture elsewhere in the British Empire and secondly, Indian nationalism, which inspired early Lankan nationalists. Similarly, the university originates in a colonial institution modeled on western traditions that has been indigenized,” said Pieris.

Regina Walawwa, as it was known then, has an asymmetrical plan with turrets and conical roofs influenced by Victorian Eclecticism. It has few rooms, with numerous verandahs at the front, back and sides of the building, while a rectangular lawn spreads out before its entrance.

“Eclecticism, which emerged as a style at the end of the 19th century in Britain, owes its asymmetrical plans and elevations to the influence of the picturesque and renewed interest in the rustic character of the rural vernacular. Based on these ideas, Architects of the Arts and Crafts movement developed long narrow plans of one room depth with an absence of interior corridors. Eccentric elevations with towers or turrets are also a feature of this style, as is the incorporation of Classical, Gothic and Indian or Indic architectural features. Accordingly, Regina Wallawwa's interior spaces are organized quite informally in comparison with the symmetrical house plans and elevations of the conventional neo-classical mansions,” explained Pieris.

Built in 1912

Regina Walawwa, was built by Thomas Henry Arthur de Soysa for his wife Regina Perera Abeyewardene of Closenburg, Galle in 1912, and the road beside it Regina Para [anglicised as Queens Road] was named after her. He was the son of philanthropist Charles Henry de Soysa whose statue is found opposite the Eye Hospital.

These wealthy families in Colombo were caught between two cultures, indigenous and colonial, and they had to tread carefully in that space. But by the early twentieth century they grew bold enough to bring their Eastern sensibilities to the front in these various forms.

“When building, the carpenters however would have been from Moratuwa, as the de Soysa’s were prominent leaders of the Karave caste. Teams of carpenters would move from home to home conducting repairs and there were many outbuildings at the back of such properties to accommodate their activities. The contractors at Alfred House, the house of Thomas’s father, C. H. de Soysa in the same area included the head contractor Omaru Baas and Davith Singho Baas, and they would often collaborate with Muslim masons,” pointed out Pieris.

There seems to be an element of sadness associated with the building as it was the family home for Arthur, Regina and their five children, but unfortunately she died before it was complete. Arthur and the children continued to live in the house till it was sold to the government.

“Arthur became increasingly conscious of Indian nationalism and even visited Motilal Nehru’s house Ananda Bhawan (later called Swaraj Bhawan) in Allahabad in 1904, and copied the dressing table he saw there, producing one each for his three daughters. The wedding of his eldest daughter, Violet, was held at Regina walawwa, and the wedding pavilion-magul maduwa - was designed according to a Hindu architectural style designed by experts from Jaffna, D.P. Tampo and S. Mahadeva of the Public Works Department (PWD). It had an arched dome similar to the style at the Thirumalai Palace, Madurai,” said Pieris.

Travancore Style

The architecture of Regina Walawwa follows the “Travancore Style” of British architect Robert Chisholm, best represented in his designs for the Napier Museum in Trivandrum and the Madras Post and Telegraph Office built during the 1870s–1880s. One of the features of this style, particularly in domestic architecture is that the plan is not symmetrical but has elements like wings that finger out, and have long singly-loaded corridors. These are features of Regina Walawwa.

“College house was a domestic building later used as an institution. This often happens when stately homes are sold off or gifted to institutions which maybe better able to maintain them. A similar example would be the home of Wilmot Perera on the Sri Palee campus which was similarly indigenized to reflect his connections with China.

On March 8, 1989, elements of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna assassinated the Vice Chancellor, Prof Stanley Wijesundera at the Library Room in the College House.

“I was a university student studying architecture at Moratuwa University at that time, and I recollect this period vividly. As state institutions, universities are regarded as representing state agendas and our government had sorely neglected specific social constituencies in the deep- south and the north and east prompting their radicalization. We need many more universities for such a large population as ours and more importantly, vocational colleges that broaden our understanding of education to become more democratic and inclusive. These need to be better distributed across our geography and give dignity and offer professionalization for a range of skills and competencies,” explained Pieris.

Original designs preserved

One hopes that the building will be maintained and that the integrity of its original designs and materials will be preserved. It was refurbished around a decade ago by the architect Ashley de Vos. The De Soysa family members have a good understanding of its history and have photographs of the building in their possession, although they know less about its architectural significance.

“Colonial architecture is often viewed with hostility as representing colonial oppression and so we tend to tear down these old houses. The pressures of urban development aid us in this process. But they are indicative of social sensibilities of that period, and local labor built them with inter-ethnic collaboration, as with the example of Regina Walawwa. More recently, colonial buildings have been converted into stage sets in the beautification programs of the city. While this revives the architecture, and prolongs their lifespan, it tends to flatten its history into a backdrop for commercialization. We need to understand their relevance through uncovering histories both good and bad,” stated Pieris.

College house then - Regina Walawwa. Pictures by Thushara Fernando 


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