Capturing regionalism in architecture | Daily News

Capturing regionalism in architecture

Nishan Wijetunge
Nishan Wijetunge

Everything in life is impermanent and only change itself is permanent points out Honorary Research Fellow, School of Architecture of University of Liverpool, U.K. and Former Senior Lecturer, Department of Architecture of University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, Practicing Chartered Architect, Archt. Dr. Nishan Rasanga Wijetunge. Arch World speaks to Wijetunge about the inevitable changes that have occurred and will occur in city life and personal housing.

We know that weather patterns are changing around the world and Sri Lanka is no exception. Recently according to reliable sources Sri Lankans experienced the warmest weather in the island in 140 years. The number of people affected by the arid weather rose to over 572,000. Keeping the windows open will not exactly solve the problem.

“The good thing is that we do not have extreme weather conditions as some places in the world do. We have tropical weather which is hot and humid throughout the year. The heat and humidity together, is not a good combination for buildings. On one hand, these factors create discomfort for the buildings’ users, and on the other, help fast deterioration of the buildings. In order to create comfort, we have over the years relied mostly on mechanical ventilation systems such as ceiling fans and air conditioning, which has helped to push our electricity production capacity to its limits. A couple of months without rainfall, we experience extended power cuts,” said Wijetunge.

Wijetunge pointed out that as architects they have the responsibility to design passive buildings (Passive buildings are designed to hold a constant temperature using the materials and technology we already have). This is in order to curtail reliance on the electricity grid. He stated that we pretty much import everything when it comes to construction. This puts a huge strain on our economy.

He added that in the past, ‘vernacular’ buildings (concerned with domestic and functional rather than public or monumental buildings) were made in a particular way using materials that came from the surroundings. These were comfortable to live in and were very much sustainable. Now, we import an array of materials that come from all over the world that leave long carbon foot prints, while getting here from thousands of miles away, and during their operation contribute to environmental pollution even more. We clearly cannot go on like this. He stressed that we in Sri Lanka need to design passive buildings more and more. We need to resort to our traditional material pallete. In order to remedy the shortcomings of such traditional materials, we need to do more research. It’s as simple as that.

Wijetunge also feels that practicality is another issue here. When it comes to houses, contemporary people with their nuclear families need to realize the fact that they do not need these huge four-five bedroom palatial houses that in most cases eventually become ‘abandoned mansions’ with time. The middle and especially the upper middle classes are the culprits of this says Wijetunge. They contribute to the aforementioned ills faced by this country immensely. If people from the developed world can live in smaller houses, why can’t we asks Wijetunge.

“I truly believe this necessity comes out of a deep-seated inferiority complex of the Sri Lankans. Do not forget until the late 1970s, around 80 per cent of the polulation lived in traditional wattle and daub houses with thatched roofs. Only a minute population considered as the ‘elite’ lived in finer dwellings. With the promises of open economy and in the so-called age of globalization, everyone wants to land themselves in the fringes of elitism via their houses which is an irony. From all the advancements of media- telecommunications and information, they think vernacular houses are ‘primitive’ and ‘unfashionable’. They do not know that a majority of people in the developed world live in optimal, yet good quality domestic conditions. Our people try to emulate the upper class luxurious dwellings,” stated Wijetunge.

Wijetunge quips saying that we are not creating a building for five hundred years! He points out that this is the nature of impermanence people should realize.

Today in Colombo high risers, complexes and shopping malls are becoming the norm. Wijetunge refers to this as the ‘international style’ architecture. It’s a branch of ‘architectural modernism’. He explained that this started in the West in the early to mid 20th century and we first saw the taste of it with 1977’s neo-liberal economic reforms.

He further elaborated that we got bogged down with a three-decade long disastrous civil war. During this time, certain countries that were less-developed than us at that time – especially in South-East Asia – ascended into the so-called ‘second world’. “Such architecture became common place there. In places such as Singapore, such architecture even solved chronic ills such as congestion, polution and social hygene, eventually elevating the quality of life there. Malaysia is another notable example. However, it is inevitable that such new trends bring in homogenization,” said Wijetunge.

“It would be nice to have our very own ‘Manhattan’ right here in Colombo, which will show to the world the economic prosperity of the place. But, then again, Colombo will look no different from Singapore or New York for that matter. That’s the issue with this style. The only way to solve this would be to incorporate regionalism in some way. We need to think more carefully about this fact. This has clearly been the last thing in the minds of designers who have been responsible for all the highrisers and modern buildings that have sprung up here so far. On the other hand, after the end of the war, we had a glimmer of hope with all the new investements coming in and it was our ticket out from the ‘third world’. All these sky scrapers happening around Colombo were the manifestation of that promise,” added Wijetunge.

The great Geoffrey Bawa once correctly alluded to the fact that we should not view our architectural past separately as periods such as Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kandy from the time of the Kings, Colonial or as ethno-centric entities such as Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim architecture. At the end of the day, its all ‘our’ architectural past. Even the aforementioned architectural entities if taken separately, would have had numerous cultural sources from an array of destinations outside of the island.

Stepping into the modern world after the second world war as a newly independent country striving for a national identity, the arcitects back in the day had to resort to the only architectural style introduced and propagated by the West which was Architectural Modernism.

The Ceylonese architects of the time, were seeking a synthesis between the modern elements we could not resist as a progressive modern nation, and rich architectural traditions. Hence, pioneers such as Minette de Silva and Geoffrey Bawa found this synthesis they helped to form and propagate in the name of ‘Neo-Regionalism’ or ‘Tropical regionalism’. By the early 1980s, this became the flagship architectural style of the day with state auspices. Many commentators saw this as the fulfilment of the Sri Lankan architectural identity that the nation had long strived for.

“For me, this was indeed a successful way. Yet, there is plenty of room for improvement. The reliance on modern materials such as concrete was noteworthy in these very rational modern buildings. We can perhaps dwell more on traditional materials and techniques that could replace the concrete – the most expensive building material we use. The compacted earth technology for walls as one finds in the old buldings of Kandy or waulted brick roof structures found in Polonnaruwa, or timber ‘soldara’ upper floors that are found in low-country ‘Wallauwes’ could all be brought back. There are many more. Re-using and upcycling old building materials and elements is an essential part of Regionalism. Perhapse, we could do it in a more meaningful way,” said Wijetunge.

With the rapid growth of physical infrastructure – malls and hotels coming up, one raises the question- do we see a mix of cultures here or is this one cultural trend?

“We are becoming a part of so-called ‘globalization’ and especially, ‘Americanisation’ which is an essential part of it, and endorsing the so-called ‘liberal’ westernised culture these movements promise to uphold. So, Sri Lankans are shredding their millennia old relio-cultural aspects in favour of this.

The same people who preach upholding liberalism hypocritically do everything in their power to safeguard their own cultures. We need to pull off both culturally and climatically acceptable buildings that do not strain our economy and environment. Our cultural and architectural ensemble is indeed unique and it does reflect contemporary architecture to a certain extent. Sure, it has been evolving. But, I think there is definitely more room for improvement in terms of a unique Sri Lankan identity,” pointed out Wijetunge.

Pictures by Saliya Rupasinghe



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