Are we on the right course….

by Tamara Wijayapala

Globalisation simply put, can be defined as the movement of people, language, ideas, and products around the world. While some see this as a positive element, in terms of technology transfer, others see it as the dominance of multinational corporations and the beginning of the destruction of cultural identities.

Hidden House ( Photo : Kesara Ratnavibhushana )

Bar, Deck | Hidden House (Photo: Kesara Ratnavibhushana)

Today, the prime focus is on an architectural image which is cosmopolitan and good to look at, overlooking the simple basics followed through in the past. It is not that the new concepts, systems and materials put to use are futile, but it lacks the basis of simple truth to survive with time. It becomes just a simple experiment serving to confuse and dilute the culture already in existence.

Here Dr. Ranjith Dayaratne an Architect by profession presently an assistant professor at the Department of Architecture at the University of Bahrain and a past senior lecturer of the University of Moratuwa and Architect Madhura Prematilleke a distinguished practicing architect, express their views, insights and experiences in dealing with the current issues of globalisation and its effects.

Q. What exactly does ‘Identity’ of a culture mean? What is its standpoint in the process of globalisation and how do you perceive Sri Lankan Identity in the present day context?

Dr Dayaratne: The issue of identity is truly very complex. It is not fixed but “time bound”. Identity is the expression of how different one is from what or who it is being compared with. Comparison is what makes an individual, a place or a building, distinct, unique or recognisable from others. Thus identity is not independent but relative, always comparative with the others who exist in the picture.

The process of globalisation, loss of identity is not unique to our country. It is also a global phenomena happening everywhere in the world. If you compare us with India we are far more vulnerable and far more open to the concept of quick change.

Living Room and Garden | The Hidden House (Photo: Kesara Ratnavibhushana)

There are other countries who have done that even faster and speedier than us, take the example of Dubai. The Gulf is a classic example of the contradictions of globalisation. In Dubai and in many of the Arab countries at the beginning of the confrontation of international trends they looked at the western ideas as very superior and almost abandoned everything that was there from the indigenous to this; to the extent that in some countries there’s almost nothing left; architecturally nothing left; all the old buildings were demolished and now they are in serious trouble and trying to rebuild something from the past in order to discover some sort of distinctiveness. There are other countries and cultures that are far more adversely affected than us.

Archt. Prematilleke: “Identity” is not static, it must evolve. As a nation we have a tendency to believe that our identity lies in the past. It is the “burden of history”. As a consequence, our society is right now bent on creating an ultra-nationalistic, historicist identity. What about a modern Sri Lankan nation? Can we not have a contemporary identity? To my mind, the reason we cannot evolve a contemporary identity, is because we refuse to admit that our true identity lies in acknowledging ourselves as a truly multi cultural nation. It is a fact that we are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge, and which prevents us from evolving a confident self-image as a nation. Without a confident self-identity, we tend to adapt fads and fashions without digesting them and making them our own. However, let us hope that this is a learning process for us, and that hopefully we will acquire the ability to adapt global trends rather than simply ape them.

I once attended a lecture by a Danish Architect; who talked about how Danish society preserves its Danish-ness, while possessing a vibrant and contemporary international culture. He said Danish Architecture absorbs various influences but then makes it its own, very much like a python which swallows various animals and digests them, and in the end you cannot point to the body of the python and say “here is the rabbit it swallowed”. It all absorbed into the python. But the python is energized by having swallowed and absorbed it.

To be like that, we in Sri Lanka must be confident in the ability to borrow without wounding the inherent quality of our culture. I would say the education system has a big role to play in the making of the confident contemporary Sri Lankan.

Dr Dayaratne: I think with globalisation, there is a superficial tendency – a multi-cultural sphere of things, changes happening at an increased pace which may be seen visually. There is a very distinct dilution where architecture in Sri Lanka will appear to be very much like what is seen in the rest of the world. However, I think if you go deeper into architecture, as in the way we conceptualise, understand and relate to a building and subsequently in the way we live in them, taking a totality of it I’m sure we are “different”. I firmly believe that our cultural context cannot be eradicated unless we are individually and personally modified and erased.

Kalametiya Village

The very European way we dress is an ideal example. For instance – the denim is now a global form of dress. However, the way it is worn by an American and a Sri Lankan differ; it has undergone a “culturalisation process”. Maybe the initial adaptation will be a copy and seemingly a sorry sight graphically. However, unless people have lost complete consciousness of their cultural core, the architecture borrowed will eventually adapt and redefine all globalisation idioms that are used. Whatever we do, we cannot stop the “process of borrowing”.

Q. What are the positive aspects of Globalisation which enable the existence of a distinct identity?

Dr Dayaratne : What is special to current times is that the filtering process of ideas, technologies systems and details take place concurrently, in layers, rejecting and accepting at an unforeseen chaotic pace with the help of modern technology. We seem at length, to be repeating the historical process in a different but faster pace.

Globalisation has allowed us a fair chance to adapt and transform architecture, due to research carried out in an attempt to localise, prior to transfer from one country to another. Culturally and environmentally however it can be localised only with experience in use and wear and tear. This brings us to the conclusion that globalisation ultimately allows the filtering process to happen quickly and effectively.

Q. What are the key elements of a culture to exist within globalisation?

Dr Dayaratne: What is important is to understand that culture has two distinct areas one is the cultural core – the hard core and the other the outer core or periphery. The cultural core embodies the long lasting values and attitudes and beliefs of society and don’t necessarily change easily. The outer core holds a peripheral loose adaptation of many things that have been there in their history. These are loosely tied to this core and the periphery is what tends to get eaten up. But although the core is also changing, it changes slowly giving time for people to “stomach” it. What happens with speedy globalisation is that the change within the core is also accelerated. In indigenous communities where cultures were more similar it was possible to establish individual identities – according to religion or region for example. The context now changes, with the mingling of lots of other different cultures creating a mosaic of a picture. It is necessary to redefine our existence which requires borrowing from the big picture while at the same time maintaining a certain degree of distinctiveness.

Kalametiya Village

Kalametiya Village

Q. How is tropical identity perceived in this context?

Archt Prematilleke: To derive an identity from a climate, one needs an understanding of that climate, and a way of life in sync with it. A tropical climate is a very mild and unforgiving climate, and to design for it is not magic.

It’s not the heat one must address, but the humidity. To deal with humidity what you need is cross ventilation, and to screen the direct sun you can easily use either the built or natural elements. These factors must always combine with a way of life that is at ease in its climatic context.

Q. How has the understanding of the tropical idiom reflected in your practice, especially in different types of projects executed under varied social and physical contexts, for example The “Hidden House”, Kalametiya & the Chithrasena Kalayatanaya?

Despite the physical differences in the projects, they all embody the same principles.

These three projects reflect the same ideas in different ways. If you take “Hidden House”, a typical instance where you are largely able to explore design and detail. Kalametiya on the other hand was a project where one defines a concept and allows the details to evolve in response to social aspirations and the School of Dance is probably somewhere in between.

The roof end, Chithrasena Kalayathanaya

Hidden House: When you work with a private client and site and have a reasonable budget, you can experiment much more. But basically what we tried to do was to keep it extremely simple, keep the language very clean and contemporary. The “Hidden House” is within a garden full of lush greenery within Colombo. I wanted the building to be secondary to the trees in its surroundings. And the house evolved around a huge bamboo grove. The structure was screened, covered and filtered to let the air flow through, keeping the architecture very simple, straightforward, and scaled down.

School of dance Chithrasena Kalayathanaya

Chithrasena Kalayatanaya; the Dance School defined by a shed was initially conceptualised by Archt. Sumangala Jayathilake. Here, both Sumangala and I were instrumental in persuading the client to build a simple affordable structure. Once the basic structure was erected, things like how you screen it from the weather, the sun and the rain, how you create privacy, how you create solid areas, how you handle it so it doesn’t dominate the open spaces and how you relate to public space were easily and most enjoyably addressed. Another important factor here was the use of materials, in terms of function, aesthetics, textures, and robustness. This is used by students of all ages, and therefore important to define materials which will take that beating and survive the test of time.

Kalametiya is completely different but runs along the same principles. We studied houses in the area and evolved a simple building. Basically it consisted of a common space which we can call a living area, with two rooms and –most importantly, two verandahs, one on either side. The front verandah usually becomes a public or male domain. And the rear verandah worked as the female domain, being next to the kids play area and kitchen. The people of Kalametiya have changed and adapted the houses very creatively. Some have turned the houses front to back having grown gardens around it. Addressing issues of ventilation in a dry climate; I tried to incorporate wooden shutters with little holes drilled into them to cut off the glare while at the same time filtering light in a pattern inside and also to ventilate the interior. But this didn’t happen. They wanted glass windows, and also aluminum windows instead of cement grilles. Their aspirations were for an image which in their eyes represented progress and modernity. You could call that an influence of globalisation!

Q. How important is it to sustain the condition of materials and details in tropical climates?

Dance Studio, Chithrasena Kalayathanaya

Archt Prematilleke; All you have to do is let it weather. Trying to maintain pristine environments takes an enormous amount of effort and expense. This is where “robust architecture” comes into play, where since it will anyway go to ruin; you let it go to ruin gracefully.

Photos by

Archt Madhura Prematilleke (Kalametiya & Kalayatanaya)

Kesara Ratnavibhushana

(Hidden House)