Sri Lankan architecture, is as diverse in its spectrum as anywhere else in the world and yet it is unique in its singular approach to the appropriation of nature. Historically one can see how closely the built form and planning integrates with its natural topography, vegetation and water, using each natural element as opportunity rather than as impediment. Travelling through the island, whether visiting the UNESCO world heritage site of Sigiriya, the pre-historic caves of Dambulla, Geoffrey Bawa’s Kandalama or architect Palinda’s recent projects you can’t help but remark how it is impossible to judge any of these works through binary abstractions; such as inside-outside, form-landscape, envelope-materiality etc; since each of these embodies these binaries as integral to the other.
The landscape traditions in Sri Lanka, have a documented history of more than two thousand five hundred years, and one can discover these through the information enshrined in the archaeological remains which continue to inform the practices of architecture and landscape. Sigiriya; the 5th Century fortified city is considered by scholars to be the oldest and most well preserved city in Sri Lanka. It was laid out along a symmetrical east- west axis and the natural elements on site were respectfully balanced in their asymmetry. The city was integrated into its hilly topography by creating terraces, pathways, waterways, city walls, moats, open spaces and vegetation. Perhaps the large rock outcrops, that cannot be penetrated by an enemy, informed the main criteria for the selection of the site for designing a fortified city with the royal residence on the summit. Termed as the ‘boulder garden’ by archaeologist Senake Bandarnayake to describe the incorporation of rocky outcrops and natural landscape into the formal compositions of buildings and it is this trope that continues through in our readings of Sri Lankan architecture across scales.
In Sigiriya, the ascending axial path was integrated in between a natural arch formed by two large boulders leaning on one another. This not only underlines the entrance, which was considered as sacred in Sinhalese architecture but since one ascends through the gap using steps it also calls out the element of the flight of steps that are used as a device to navigate between terraces. Man-made ponds are used as a definitive element in the gardens of Sigiriya, not just as diversion but also to store water and influence the micro climate in the dry-zone. And finally as ubiquitous as they appear the retaining walls made from burnt clay bricks in lime or clay mortar, plastered and then lime washed were built at Sigiriya to create the extensive terraces and boundary walls. Buddhist traditions, mandated that monks may live in forest groves or rock shelters found in rocky hills identified as Viharas and the Dambulla rock cut cave temples provide a religious reference to the landscape traditions of the ‘boulder gardens’. The Dambulla caves are more primitive and natural as far as human intervention is considered, while at Sigiriya one can see the deliberate and yet seamless integration of architecture. This argument is further extended when one looks at the Kandalama project by Geoffrey Bawa, situated proximally to the above mentioned projects, which perhaps provided the inspiration.
At Kandalama, to say that Bawa’s architecture disappears into the landscape is perhaps stating the obvious. He situates the building by using the terrain to his advantage in section. Bawa, brings nature into sharp focus with how he attaches the building to the rocks. Borrowing from tradition, its as if he grows the building around the natural elements, as seen in how the stone rubble entrance steps, made in situ, wrap around the rock outcrops. As one walks through the cave like corridor that is built into live rock, one can see the homage that Bawa intends to the boulder-arch entrance at Sigiriya and this is brought more into focus when seen against the white wall that curves around the boulders. Moreover from a distance the entire building appears like a retaining wall that is grown over with ground cover, in effect mimicking the retaining walls that hold terraces, as witnessed in Sigiriya. From a birds eye view it would seem like the various infinity swimming pools are catchments of rain levelling into the big lake in the distance.
Given Sri Lanka is an Island it’s people have an integral relationship to water and one can see that in historic examples and in quotidian life. Water was perhaps the most important organizing element in the traditional landscapes created in the dry-zone area of the country. Palinda Kannangara’s studio and home is also situated alongside of a waterway in Colombo, facing lush vegetation and is surrounded by paddy fields in the distance. While the building consistently frames views of the water, water also inhabits the building in between the outer brick wall and inner concrete wall helping to adjust the microclimate. The building at first appears to be a brutalist, modernist box that possibly overwhelms the immediate context but internally the openness of the building breaks down the volume continually connecting the inside to the outside. Upon entering one encounters a large flight of steps, made of reclaimed cobbles from a mountain tea plantation, which leads one to the piano noble. The steps are held between two stark concrete walls that culminate in a large fenestration and are a direct allusion to the boulder-arch of Sigiriya. The scale of the opening and the amount of light that is modulated through creates the exact affect of being within the cavernous spaces of the Dambulla Viharas. In section it doesn’t seem like one is ascending floor plates but rather going from one terrace to the next as in Sigiriya. A created topography through the building is augmented by the large double height windows that allow one to be connected to the outside in perpetuity. As one reaches the apartment level in the building it would seem like one has ascended to a promontory and this is augmented by the biological ponds on the balconies.
The house for the artist by Kannangara, is perhaps even more porous. While trajectory and movement in the studio is non-axial and circumambulatory in the artists’ house it is axial. One enters the house to either descend the large flight to the kitchen and studio space or ascends the narrow axial flight, again reminiscent of the boulder-arch to the private spaces of the bedrooms. But the space of the artist’s house and the central courtyard is dominated by the large flight of rubble stone stairs that descends from the living room to take advantage of the site section. Looking back up from the kitchen, one views the living room as one would view the terraces on the large rock at Sigiriya. The living spaces above which the sleeping spaces are suspended have no doors or windows and the building doesn’t so much as allow nature in as it simply cocoons a small existing bit of it between high boundary walls. No mention of the two projects is complete without mentioning Varna Shashidhar’s landscape design. The interlocking courtyards that allow light and rainfall into the lower spaces have been planted with indigenous species and the biological pond on the upper level reinforces the connection between Sinhalese architecture and water. A very superficial reading of both projects reveals modernist boxes but a closer reading leads one to see the nuances of historic traditions of Sri Lankan architecture that persist in the works of even contemporaries like Kannangara.
All photos © Sahil Latheef
A version of this post appeared in the Dec '18 issue of Domus India.