Tropical modernism in Sri Lanka

Saturday, 29 September 2012 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Jennifer Chen

For years, Channa and Ajit Gunewardene lived with their mother in a 1950s bungalow in the posh Cinnamon Gardens neighborhood of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. It was spacious and comfortingly familiar.

But it had a serious flaw: Most of the rooms were interconnected, a design quirk that was becoming increasingly problematic as the couple’s then-teenage sons grew older.

“Our bedroom was like Clapham Junction,” said Mrs. Gunewardene, comparing the constant traffic of children, relatives, servants and dogs with the busy London railway station.

Fortunately, the desire for more privacy came just as they were embarking on a building project next door. The couple originally had purchased the adjacent parcel of land in 2002 for about 20 million rupees (about $152,300) to construct a house to rent out. But as it was taking shape, the Gunewardenes realized that they were designing their ideal house.

“There was no way we could rent it out to somebody else,” said Mrs. Gunewardene, a 51-year-old homemaker whose husband is the deputy chairman of John Keells Group, one of Sri Lanka’s largest conglomerates.

Designing the house was Channa Daswatte, a protégé of Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s great 20th-century master builder. Bawa’s style, known as Tropical Modernism, fused traditional Sri Lankan and Colonial architecture – reflecting pools, colonnaded passages and terra-cotta-tiled roofs – with the modernist emphasis of flowing spaces and clean lines.

Another crucial element to Bawa’s style was the way it accommodated Sri Lanka’s balmy climate. Bawa designed buildings “where you can actually live outdoors and where the boundaries between indoors and outdoors can be erased or moved or made more subtle,” said Daswatte, now considered one of the country’s most prominent architects.

It was the notion of semi-outdoor living that most appealed to the Gunewardenes. “We wanted a tropical retreat in the heart of Colombo,” said Mrs. Gunewardene. Dedicated art collectors, they also sought to showcase their acquisitions. The site, however is small, just 5,380 square feet. Moreover, as part of their wish to have a home that allowed them to spend time outdoors, the couple wanted a garden.

Instead of building out, the architect built up, eventually creating over the course of two years a house that cost roughly 40 million rupees and totals 8,000 square feet. Set right against the street, the house is shielded by a high white wall. But past the wall, it is open to the elements.

On the ground floor, high ceilings and glass doors on two sides of the living room make it feel like a part of both the back garden and the small front lawn. They’re often open, eliminating the need for air-conditioning. (Located by the Indian Ocean, Colombo is cooled by sea breezes and the temperature seldom rises above 88 degrees.)

Outside is arranged as an entertaining space: There’s a narrow swimming pool in the small garden and, in lieu of a formal dining room, the patio has a large table that seats 14—the exact number of the Gunewardenes and their immediate family. When it rains, guests can retreat back into the living room, where a mezzanine was added to house the Gunewardenes’ books and soften the room. Next to the teak staircase is a large kitchen.

Providing privacy was still a top priority. To that end, the upper floors are reserved for the family. The couple’s sons, now aged 17 and 25, share the second floor, which also has a guest room. The third floor is the couple’s domain, with a bedroom, an office, walk-in closets, an enormous bathroom with double vanities and a small terrace.

The couple will often end the day stargazing from the rooftop deck. Their rooms are furnished with a mix of antiques and clean-lined, custom-made pieces. Both top floors are lined with shutters, an old-fashioned touch which also allows in the breeze. Colonial Dutch-style terra-cotta tiles line the roof.

Another link to the past is found among their artwork. While the Gunewardenes are enthusiastic supporters of emerging local artists such as Sanjeewa Kumara, they also have a collection of paintings by Donald Friend, an Australian artist who lived in Sri Lanka in the 1950s and ‘60s and was part of Bawa’s circle. The living room and patio also showcase striking steel chandeliers by Laki Senanayake, another close Bawa cohort.

The family, which includes two friendly beagles, quickly settled into their new home. There were a few teething pains – one drawback they discovered was that the living room became inundated during Sri Lanka’s torrential rain storms. Otherwise, the couple said they were delighted to finally have a home with enough space to host frequent family get-togethers while maintaining their privacy.

A city of gracious colonial buildings and streets lined with enormous banyan trees, Colombo, with its low-key ambience, lends itself to Bawa’s style. But a construction boom following the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war could change all that. Among the new high-rises being built is a $550 million Shangri-La hotel, which will have 661 rooms when it is completed in 2015.

Daswatte, however, remains sanguine. “Tropical modernism is very adaptable. I am sure people will continue building in this way, even among the high-rises,” he said.

The wall Street Journal