Preserving identity in a changing era | Daily News


Preserving identity in a changing era

Rising air pollution
Rising air pollution

The triumph of the future is made possible through architecture. This is our triumph as Sri Lankans. We are remembered for what we were and we rejoice for what will be - a future of our choosing for the next generation. What they do after that is up to them. ArchWorld speaks to Archt. Pali Wijeratne on a Colombo that we can be proud of.

Sri Lanka has a rich past and a rich heritage. Modern life is now coming into Colombo. But Archt. Wijeratne is quick to point out that Colombo has its own identity. And whatever happens, that identity must be retained. The Colosseum in Rome was completed in AD 80. It was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. All this happened during a certain period in Rome. Almost every country in the world has its own architectural splendor with certain activities taking place within its walls.

“If you look at our own parliament building today, right next to it is Shangri-La. On the other side it is the Galadari. The parliament building is dwarfed by these two creations and now virtually unseen. This is particularly disheartening for me because I call it a national monument and a building of national importance. With all this sandwiching it has lost that importance. So when designing, you need to consider the settings. Now the question I want to raise is- would this have been allowed in any other country? If you take London, would they allow high rises to dwarf Westminster Abbey or the Parliament House?,” questions Wijeratne.

Archt. Pali Wijeratne  Pictures by Ruwan De Silva

Wijeratne was part of the team that did the socio-cultural assessment of Port City. He points out that Port City has many positives. But what he really wants to see is how Port City can be made a part of Sri Lanka? A modern- day city like what Port City is going to become can be anywhere in the world. But for it to be special, it must be a part of Sri Lanka! Then it is unique. They talk about Port city being a futuristic city. But will it be one that will have to depend on the national grid for power supply? When it comes to power supply we do not have enough for ourselves!!

“What I say is that the Port City has three natural assets – the waves, the sun and the wind. Why don’t they use that? Get the source of energy sorted out. And then give part of it to us!! These natural assets need to be used. There are undoubtedly positives that come with the Port City. It will have a 1 ½ kilometer beach and I am told that they also want to grow corals at the edge of it. There is also a marina coming in accommodating 150 or more yachts. The government wants to encourage cruise ships coming into port,” explained Wijeratne.

Wijeratne pointed out that we must and cannot forget the Colombo Fort. Is it going to retain the same old anti-social environment and a haven for anti-social activities? Is it safe to walk around Colombo Fort after 6pm? Wijeratne argues that Port City and Colombo Fort need to be given equal attention. If you are getting tax reliefs for the developers in the port city, why can’t the same be done to preserve the heritage of the Colombo Fort?

“In Sri Lanka we have the regulations. UDA has it and the archaeology department has the regulations. What we lack is a mechanism to monitor it and implement it. Today we know that in construction, apartments go two or three more floors above than what has been approved. There is no monitoring mechanism. In England if you want to get an extension from the back, you have to get permission from the two neighbors on either side. Otherwise they will not allow it. Of course if it is an unreasonable objection, then the local authorities will solve it. But otherwise the consent of the neighbors is important. In some other countries where historic areas are concerned, the approvals must be posted at the entrance to the building. So then the passers by know what the procedure is. Then anyone can see if there is any deviation from it. Why don’t we do the same? It is very simple. If a new building is allowed 10 floors and it goes beyond 15 floors then everyone knows about it,” pointed out Wijeratne.

Pollution levels

At the moment Wijeratne is handling the task of conserving a building in Colombo Fort. It was built in 1895. It is a totally green building. It is cool. It has cross ventilation. It has a lot of windows with light coming in. So, Colombo has all this potential.

“If you take old photographs, all the streets were lined with trees, unlike what we are seeing now. If you take York Street, it is about 50 – 60 feet wide. It is a one- way street. In addition, there is an Arcade on either side of it for people to walk. Why do we have a 50-60 ft wide one- way street? Can’t we have a few trees around?” stated Wijeratne.

Wijeratne suggested that it might not be a bad idea to open up Colombo, like what President Gotabaya did when he was Defense Secretary. There you felt the difference. He said that Colombo has the potential to become a Green City. We just need to make the effort. The responsibility lies in the hands of both the people and the administrators. Colombo not only has the potential to become a green city but a green/blue city with its water bodies.

Decentralization Vs. Centralization? What is the way forward? Should all the amenities be concentrated in Colombo which is Centralization? Or should the amenities be spread throughout the country. Supporters of Centralization say that amenities need to be all concentrated in Colombo so they will be within walking distance. Other argue that if hubs are located around the country then the rural areas will have the facilities.

“Today’s trend is that you do not have to go to work. You need not travel from one location to another in your car. Today you can do your work from home. You can do banking online. That is the future. Of course, for essential services you need to travel - like going to the hospital and courts. But other than that, everything can be done from home. Now even children can be brought to the office. Parents do not need to take leave to look after the children!

We have a 90 percent rural population in Sri Lanka. If we centralize all amenities within Colombo, bringing everything into the cities, how will the rural population be serviced? Is it fair? Should the rural farmer be expected to travel to Colombo several times a month to do his banking? Should a school kid have to go to an urbanized area within or around Colombo to buy his uniform or books? Surely for the rural population there need to be services within walking distances? More than anything the congestion within Colombo needs to be sorted out. So, I am all for Decentralization and giving the amenities to the people,” explained Wijeratne.

Commenting on whether the rural populace needs to become urbanized, Wijeratne feels that you can take modernism into the village and at the same time not make it a concrete jungle. If you have an ancestral home in the village, would you like to live in it in its present condition or the condition it was in the past or would you adapt it to suit your way of life but still retain the character of the old building?

“I feel that you can take your modernism into the village and at the same time not make it a concrete jungle. This is left to the architects and the planners because with higher education available with 90 percent literacy, you are definitely going to uplift your way of life. We still do not need to change our identity, regardless of how the world outside is changing. Bawa brought the vernacular to modern day architecture. Today he is virtually god’s gift to Architecture in Asia. I feel the facilities need to be provided to rural areas, but at the same time not destroying what is there. While providing the modern facilities, we should not destroy its character,” explained Wijeratne.

Wijeratne however had a word of warning. Colombo should not encourage too many high-rise buildings facing the coast. This may create problems in the future. Colombo is polluted. But it is not as bad as Delhi or Beijing because the sea breeze takes it away. But if we build these high walls, which are now happening around marine drive, we may have a problem. We need that natural blowing that nature has given us.

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