Mihindu Keerthiratne: An icon in hotel design and tourism

Thursday, 6 March 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Archt. Kanchana Senasinhga The community of Sri Lankan architects recently celebrated the long distinguished achievements of one of its initiator architects by felicitating him with its highest honour - the Gold medal at the inauguration of annual sessions held by the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA) 2014. Architect Mihindu Keerthiratne is the seventh architect in the country to receive the said award. Mihindu Keerthiratne is the eldest son of the late Minister of Posts and Telecommunication N.H. Keerthiratne. He received his education at St. Anthony’s College Kandy and after graduating from the University of Hong Kong in 1969 winning the prestigious Edward D. Mills award for outstanding performance worked in Japan and later joined Justin Samarasekera Associates and became a member of then Ceylon Institute of Architects. He started his own practice ‘Mihindu Keerhtiratne Associates’ in 1976. Among his contributions to the country for nearly 40 years his services to the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects, architectural education and the field of architecture are considered most valuable. He is also responsible for taking the SLIA to a regional and international pedestal by representing Sri Lanka on many such occasions. However, little is discussed about the most unique, immeasurable and distinguished gift he has presented to Sri Lankan tourism in a trend setting and visionary level – the long line of celebrated hotels he has produced in all parts of the country. Both local and foreign tourists stay in these hotels and appreciate the comfort and tranquillity of these without any knowledge of their creator. In a time when the concept of ‘hotels’ is novel, groups of persons including developers architects interior designers funding agents all made tours around the country searching for great destinations that can become hotels – places untouched by human interference and by ways of commerce. In such a time the selection of the site was entrusted to the instinct of an architect and was not defined by the so called feasibility studies of the modern day. And at a time when sustainability was not even discussed, the love of that person to the environment that was selected by him was the sole reason to protect it and not because there were regulations governing the same. Thus he moulded the buildings to catch breezes, used the water bodies to cool the interiors, directed vistas to contemplate and caught light and shade to suit the various moods of the day. His designs were un-wasteful and minimalist because his culture taught him to do so rather than because some green building rating system said that it was a marketing gimmick. With a humble almost Buddhist approach he designed these hotels as abodes of peace seeking travellers. Archt. Mihindu Keerthiratne commenced his eco-friendly hotel designs with projects in Polonnaruwa and the east coast such as Passikudah National Holiday Resort and Nilaweli Beach Hotel. The Passikudah-Kalkudah reef system was proposed as a Marine Sanctuary by NARA in the 1980s. To undertake projects in such a sensitive area with clear emerald waters, a varied number of tropical fishes, dolphins, whales and exotic coral reefs itself, was a challenge at the time. “An incredible hotel in an amazing beach” was the comment of many a tourist about Nilaweli Beach Hotel that was built in 1974 when tourism was booming on the east coast before the onset of the troubles after 1983 and thus was the pioneer beach resort on the east coast. Kandy also boasts about a number of hotels designed by Archt. Mihindu Keerthiratne. Hotel Hanthana, Victoria Golf and Country Resort, Citadel Hotel and the famed Earl’s Regency Hotel are these prestigious designs as demanded by the colour of the past era of the Kandyan kingdom. Citadel Hotel, now known as Cinnamon Citadel or Chaya Citadel Hotel designed by Archt. Mihindu Keerthiratne for Walkers Tours Ltd., won the Design Award  in the category ‘Hotel and Tourist Development’ in 1987 presented by the Minister of Education the Honourable Ranil Wickrmesinghe. The new wing designed by him for the hotel in 1992 also won the same award and Design Award in the category of Interior Design presented by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Designed for the site of former ancestral home of Dunuwila, one of the King’s Ministers, and set down a long winding road the Citadel Hotel offers the taste of history and culture joined by and ingenious arrangement that presents you the heart of nature, adventure and inspiration. The tiered building form truly emanates the spirit of royalty rising above the trees like a crown while the scenery offered from its terraces and balconies expand due to the receding layering of its floors. One could spend hours sitting in these balconies gazing at the river, sweeping green hills, and the lush forest cover that makes a postcard view. It is truly a tribute to the ancient Senkadagala Citadel. Among his hotels designed for Negombo, commencing from Ranweli, Sea Shells and Blue Oceanic Hotel, Ranweli Holiday became the true masterpiece of his architectural endeavours. He pioneered the first Eco Resort Hotel “Ranweli Holiday Village” in the year 1976 which won many international awards. This hotel led to the concept of eco tourism in Sri Lanka. The site which is embraced by two rivers as a peninsula provides a delightful view joined by the lagoon to the south and the Indian Ocean to the west. It is also inhabited by a wide range of migratory and local birds. Tourists are ferried across the Gin Oya to the hotel veiled by the surrounding extent of mangroves spread over 16 acres in the brotherhood of the coconut plantation. These offer the visitor with an exciting mingling of a rural atmosphere and an elegant yet simple living environment. The design was conceptualized on a 11 feet grid spacing so that for every chalet only one coconut tree had to be removed as oppose to the 22 feet grid of the coconut plantation. A total of 84 chalets were designed connected by a series of interlinking corridors. This way privacy for the chalets was also achieved without any physical demarcations. Ranweli is simplistic and eco-friendly at heart in material, detail and technology and rich with a spirit of the vernacular and indigenous culture. It blends with the unique and rich natural environment as the lines of a weaving in a traditional mat. Archt. Mihindu Keerthiratne won the SLIA Design Award for Ranweli in 1995 and the resort was also awarded the prestigious PATA ‘GREEN LEAF’ membership in the same year. South of Sri Lanka is also marked by the presence of Archt. Mihindu’s designs. Tangerine Beach Hotel that won yet again another Design Award in the category Interior Design in 1987 presented by the Minister of Education Ranil Wickremesinghe, Royal Palms Hotel in Kalutara, and Taj Exotica in Bentota are among the finest of his works. Completed in 1996, the geometrical feast of Royal Palms created an interesting explosion of volumes pronounced by exposed RCC structural roofing elements. Natural light penetrating from sky lights, clay roofs with a dominating pitch broken into tiers, the unique play of glass in the facade and the carved timber furniture all contributed to this experience. Taj Exotica Resort Hotel on the other hand is a totally different experience rising above an extensive rock formation encased by lush green foliage and silver sandy beaches in an interesting sculptural composition. Taking full advantage of its unique topography and features of the site, it integrates into the site in total harmony, providing vistas, an unusual architectural splendour and interest with terraced buildings offering spectacular views of the Indian Ocean. Public areas and bed rooms sprawling over the site as four integrated blocks encounters nature at its best embracing through glazed surfaces rocky overgrowths, beach and the sea. The swimming pool is sited on the top of the knoll with an impression of infinity towards the sea. The form of the building is said to reflect and compliment the topography by receding terraces and cascading planters. Internal finishes are rich in timber with exposed rafter ceiling, timber veneered panels and detailed balustrades. Spread thus around all parts of the country the numerous Hotels of Architect Mihindu Keerthiratne are an immense contribution made to tourism industry in Sri Lanka in the past four decades. They speak of success in terms of function as well as aesthetics. Each design is unique in the making because they have not been carried out to produce egoistic self conscious statements of style but as mere voluntary mouldings demanded by their places and time with a humble tribute to the natural environment and its strange and amusing moods.