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5 Nationalizing Space: Nationalist and Socialist Transformations of Sri Lanka Adaptations to the colonial society and space in Ceylon, discussed in the previous chapter, were complemented by challenges to the colonial system, and these became most visible from the 1930s. In this chapter I explore the spatial constitution of these challenges, particularly by the socialists and nationalists, whose politics were dominant in the national political arena between the mid-1950s and the1970s. I also investigate a new development in the field of architecture, critical vernacularism, which also became prominent in the 1970s. As colonialism and capitalism are worldwide phenomena, the challenges to these also cause global effects. It is within, and as part of, this context that Sri Lankan challenges to both these systems are investigated. Anti-Systemic M ovements and the W orld-Wide System of States W ith the stepping up of socialist and independence struggles in the 1910s and 1920s, the movements going against the grain of the system, anti-systemic movements, expanded both in number and in their sphere of influence, posing a formidable threat to the world-society and space centered upon western Europe. The powerful image of the European states was greatly weakened by the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1904-5 and also, during two world wars, by the specter of “white men killing each other by the most horrific means scientific minds could devise.� 1 The Second W orld W ar also provided the conjuncture in which colonial controls became weaker than they had ever been. 2 This context provided the opportunity for the culmination of anti-colonial struggles. As discussed previously, Ceylon’s alternative to being a colony was restricted to becoming a member of the system of so-called sovereign states. This world-wide system of states was, however, not the inevitable outcome of the colonized societies gaining self-determinancy but the one that was swiftly fixed by the core states. As 123


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the “communist” representation in this team, its initial suggestions hardly differed from any other development project of the time, and its language of “growth,” “growth poles,” and “growth corridors” is a good indication of this.3 Overall, transformations in the Sri Lankan national landscape, urban structure, as well as Colombo were in most part the result of the ambiguity of national leaders and governments about the centers of the society, their focus on upgrading the living standards of the rural masses and the urban poor, on restructuring the national economy in response to the problems of the 1970s, and also on deliberate antiprivate capital policies. In effect, they produced a post-colonial national space incorporating outlying and marginal zones, including villages, plantations, “undeveloped” land, and historic sites, in regard to its double meaning; breaking away from the colonial yet reconstructing in relation to it. Despite minimal change in Colombo’s visual landscape, its content, organization, and meanings were, therefore, profoundly transformed. The Construction of a Critical Vernacular Architecture Although the landscape of Colombo had hardly changed since independence, a new type of architectural design emerged as the leading trend in the 1970s, transforming the constitution of the Sri Lankan field of architecture. (figure 5.5) Considering its movement beyond so-called “Modern” architecture and its relation to historic Lankan architecture, I shall call this a “critical-vernacular” architecture of Sri Lanka. However, I am not referring to a mere “style,” the main trait of which is that it is visually distinguishable from others, but to a cluster of broadly defined design practices that draw upon historic Lankan concepts of space in creating culturally, climatically, and technologically more appropriate buildings in independent Sri Lanka. The prominence gained by this architecture led to the commissioning of a leading architect of this tendency, Geoffrey Bawa, to design the most prestigious piece of “national architecture” in the late 1970s, the new Parliament complex--addressed in Chapter Six. This section investigates the production of this architecture, its language, and the changes in Sri Lankan architecture it brought about, focussing on Bawa and his partner in the early stages of his career, Ulrik Plesner. I shall first explore the larger context in which similar architectural design practices were developed. The rise of critical-vernacular architecture has been a particular indigenous cultural response to post-colonial economic, technological, ideological, and historic conditions. W hile the socialists and nationalists contested the colonial system, critical vernacularists contested the colonially produced norms and forms of design. Unlike the restructuring of the village and Buddhism in the nineteenth century, this architecture has no direct continuity with the past. Instead, it uses indigenous and historic spatial concepts, elements, architectural details, and construction methods to construct a built environment for contemporary institutions and functions. This is, however, not a “vernacular architecture” nor an architectural style constructed by borrowing elements of an historic architectural vocabulary to provide visual


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signs. 4 Nor am I referring to W estern architects’ attempts to create stylistically defined place-specific architecture, or to modern hotel complexes designed for the visual consumption of tourists, simulating built forms of the indigenous environments. W hat I am concerned with here is the conscious or unconscious construction of a historic continuity through a particular cultural response from within the society concerned where the trajectory of history has been ruptured by colonialism, or other aspects of European expansion. Critical-vernacular tendencies are apparent in the designs of, among others, the late Hassan Fathy of Egypt, Charles Correa of India, and Geoffrey Bawa of Sri Lanka, as well as in building complexes such the Citra Niaga of Samarinda and Sukarno-Hata airport of Djakarta, both in Indonesia. 5 Immediately after returning home, usually after studying in Britain or the United States, these architects designed in the W estern styles they had learned. Yet they are examples of those architects who increasingly became conscious of the incompatibility of such an architecture within the societies in which they practiced. They gradually incorporated elements of indigenous and historic spaces, architectural elements,

FIGURE 5.5 Critical Vernacularism: Bawa buildings.


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building methods, and materials in developing their approach to design. These decisions may well have begun in the interests of developing an appropriate “style,” yet what they finally produced was profoundly different from an alternative style. Critical vernacularism can also be distinguished from two other contemporary architectural practices. One is the provision of organized support by institutions based in the core for the development of culture-specific and place-specific architecture. The Aga Khan Awards for Islamic Architecture, begun in 1976, and based at Harvard-MIT, is by far the best example. While supporting “Islamic Architecture,” the program has also assumed the role of being “spokesperson” for Islamic culture and architecture worldwide, its paternalism expanded to the broader Third W orld architecture through the journal, Mimar. The second type of practice --the “cultural contextualization” of the non-indigenous presence--can be found, for example, in the US embassies in Kuala Lumpur, Dhakka, and Colombo, built in a “place specific style.” The culture of critical vernacularism is, however, the result of a consciousness of the inappropriateness of colonial and modern architecture of the W est in a culturally different, extra-European, post-colonial site. This is evident in Fathy’s book titles, Architecture for the Poor, and Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture. Although the inappropriateness of his earlier “modernist” designs were signalled by the shortage of steel and cement during the Second W orld W ar, Fathy clearly notes the significance of issues of difference and identity. highlighting the absence of an architectural signature in modern Egypt.6 The consciousness of the cultural context of design was not limited to well known architects. The open pavilions of Citra Niaga and Sukarno-Hata airport in Indonesia, and much contemporary building, for example, in India and Malaysia, illustrates that this trend is a relatively widespread phenomenon. The Yemenese government wrapped the W est German-built glass and steel airport with traditional Yemeni stonework, complete with decorative motifs. 7 Peter Scriver finds in these trends a “cultural revolt against modern technology --specifically the technological rationalism associated with the modern industrial complex of Western civilization.” 8 It is in this wider context that Sri Lankan critical vernaculars can most usefully be examined. Critical vernacularists were, however, not insulated from regular architectural trends of the world. Yet the involvement with issues in Sri Lankan architecture has drawn their attention away from the stylistic controversies of the W est. By referring to the indigenous spatial elements and culture, critical vernacularists have differentiated the field of architecture. Their new designs contested the homogenizing effect of architectural modernism in regard to built forms and the continuing colonial norms. Bawa and Plesner, who began their practice in the late 1950s, and others who engaged in developing alternative approaches to colonialist and modernist architecture, largely practiced independently, outside the government departmental structure of design and construction. By the 1980s, however, the architects employed in government departments and corporations, and responsible for continuing colonial practices,


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had been substantially influenced by critical vernacularism, and many of these offices developed their own variations, for example, in the State Engineering Corporation’s “Summit Houses” and in the M ahaweli townships.9 Critical-vernacular architecture also ended the marginalization of indigenous built forms from this post-colonial structure of architectural production. Architectural historian Lawrence Vale observes that “Bawa’s capitol complex stands squarely between the abstract universalism of high modernism and the literal localism.” 10 For Shanti Jayawardana, Bawa’s work “implied a sharp break with the then modes of the ‘international style’ which were reaching a high point in neocolonial fluency around [the] 1950s and 60s, best displayed perhaps in the arrogant extravagance of Brasilia and Chandigarh.” 11 The most significant impact of Sri Lankan critical vernaculars was that they began to refamiliarize the official and institutional landscape for Sri Lankans. The “innovators” of this practice, particularly Plesner, were apprehensive about the disarray in post-colonial architecture caused by the colonial and modernist imposition of, and the Sri Lankan desire to imitate, W estern building forms and elements which they had no cultural and economic competence to internalize. In Plesner’s words: Architecturally speaking, the country suffered from post-colonial self-denigration ... Some people enthusiastically believed in things like “American Style” and vinyl floors... Most of the new buildings were a reflection of Western ways, climatically unsuitable and visually indifferent... On my part, it was a process of first clearing away the shabby asbestos roofing, the bare bulb lighting, the disastrous flat roofs, the imported rubbish, the slimy black mouldy walls without drip ledges, the admiration for the second rate from Europe. 12 Clearing away the colonial and modernist “mess” was accompanied by the reintroduction of “traditional” elements and spaces, as found in dwellings, temples, and historical remains, particularly the roof, veranda, and the internal courtyard. The Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonials in Ceylon also adapted visually dominant roofs with wide overhangs--with modifications such as the introduction of half-round clay tiles--in their residential buildings. The roofs of the main British colonial institutional buildings were, however, concealed behind dominant and decorated walls that rose above the eaves line, generic to British built forms known as Georgian and Neo-Classical styles. The issue is, however, not just about climatic awareness, that monsoons destroy exposed walls and dampness creates “slimy black molds” on them, since there are many design methods in the modern world to enhance the climatic performance of a building, such as using ceramic tiles as a wall finish. The reintroduction of the roof in a proto-traditional character was rather a selection by Bawa and others, not merely to combat climatic problems, but to do so by deploying indigenous methods, and building elements. Bawa claims: One unchanging element of all buildings is the roof -protective, emphatic and all


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important -governing the aesthetic, whatever period, whatever place. Often a building is only a roof, columns and floors -the roof dominant, shielding, giving the contentment of shelter ... the roof, its shape, texture and proportion is the strongest visual factor.13 Similarly, verandas and internal courtyards are not the only solution to problems of heat and ventilation, and their performance and function is not limited to solving such problems either. For example, air-conditioning is used for such purposes in many buildings in Colombo. Again, for critical vernacularists, verandas and courtyards were culturally desirable. The reintroduction of these elements was, therefore, not merely climatic or functional but also cultural and representational, not least since these elements are not used in every so-called “tropical” setting.14 As Plesner has mentioned, although when judged by European standards they may lag behind in building technology, these buildings were basic “simple houses.” 15 Instead of depending on modern technology, such as air conditioning, these architects have employed historic spaces, building elements, and forms, in developing solutions to post-colonial problems. The particular selection of spaces and architectural elements promoted crossculturally familiar space for indigenous cultural practices. The building elements selected by Bawa and Plesner, such as the roof and veranda, bore a cross-cultural familiarity. These are, however, not the only available historic and cultural references in Sri Lanka. Most intimate religious architectures, for example, represent more of a difference than a commonality. Buddhist stupas (and vatadages), sikhara type masonry roofs of Hindu kovils, Islamic bulbous domes, and the facades of Christian churches articulate their distinctiveness. In contrast, the building type with a rectangular or square plan, extended veranda, and pitched roof is the most commonly used form by all Sri Lankan social and cultural groups.16 Cultural differences among Sri Lankans are largely represented in the organization of particular internal spaces rather than in the basic form or on the exteriors of regular houses. 17 As Vale suggests: “Bawa could [therefore] begin by working with roofs not necessarily choosing sides in so doing.” 18 Despite drawing from historic Lankan built forms, 19 critical vernacularists, however, did neither replicate nor re-produce historic buildings. This can be contrasted with how the British colonial regime conceived and projected postindependent Sri Lankan architecture in constructing a concrete replica of a historic audience hall in Colombo to commemorate independence. Such replication of historic built forms was also an option tried in several buildings, including the Kandy and Anuradhapura railway stations. Critical-vernacular architects rather rediscovered old Lankan buildings within a contemporary context instead of simply replicating building elements. These they transformed, making them compatible with and suitable for contemporary functions. Critical vernacularists have not limited themselves to drawing solely on Lankan historic forms. The hybridization of built forms over centuries through contacts, exchanges, and subjection, has made the field of post-colonial architecture quite


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complex. Between the two poles of highly prestigious colonial buildings using imported forms (for example, the old Parliament) and Lankan peasant dwelling houses was a wide array of hybridized built forms which included colonial bungalows and new middle class housing. Bawa states: I like to regard all past and present good architecture in Sri Lanka as just that--good Sri Lankan architecture--for this is what it is, not narrowly classified as Indian, Portuguese or Dutch, early Sinhalese or Kandyan or British colonial, for all the good examples of these periods have taken the country itself into account.20 In this sense, this is not a historically defined ethnic or religious architecture, but a particular type of “nationally” relevant contemporary production within a postindependent context. As with the selection of elements, the efficacy of an eclectic formation like the critical-vernacular architecture of Sri Lanka depends on their composition. Critical vernacularists have avoided a collage of direct historic quotations, as in architectural postmodernism in the W est, or in the case of Papua New Guinea’s new Parliament. The architect of Papua New Guinea’s Parliament house, Cecil Hogan, has adopted a kind of compendium of roof typologies treating three village types of “typical” house forms merely as decorative shells, which “seem almost obviously concerned with a near-literal representative documentation of the art and architecture of the country’s multitudinous component cultures.” 21 In Sri Lanka, critical vernacularists have not attempted to capture and represent all cultures within a single image or as a series of images each representing a component culture, but employed particular combinations that produced a new character with which Sri Lankans can readily associate. As Vale argues, the Sri Lankan Parliament building is inclusive in its approach to history without descending into a caricature or pastiche; the articulation sought to capitalize upon the elements, traditions, and cultures without trivializing them or rendering them incomprehensibly abstruse.22 Jayawardana finds this practice a reflection of the emerging post-independent nationalism. Yet the elite and the W estern background of the architects involved, the forms they produced, and the language of the critical vernaculars of Sri Lanka have nothing undeniably nationalistic. Nonetheless, the architecture they produced was nationally acceptable and the timing was appropriate. In addition to leading Sri Lankan architecture out of post-colonial denigration, the buildings and their architectural spaces have developed a commonality across diverse social and cultural groups. Its coincidence with the emergence or strengthening of particular nationalist regimes in the 1950s provided the appropriate moment for its success. Jayawardana rightly points out that: “Though Bawa was not the first Sri Lankan to adopt revivalist trends in his work, he was the first to sustain such a course in the building world.” 23 As stated above, critical vernaculars are not specific to Sri Lanka but can be conceptualized as a broader practice taking place in countries like Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Yemen. Although this broader trend does not represent one single


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practice, these architectural practices have many characteristics in common, principally arising from the consciousness of the inappropriateness of European or American models of architecture, and, in some cases, also of notions such as development and modernization, in different social, cultural and political contexts. These critical vernacularist practices have, nonetheless, breached the larger process in which knowledge is produced and circulated, subverting what Goonatilake calls the “imitative syndrome,” or mimicry of knowledge produced in the center. Yet Bawa’s Parliament gained for his practice the approval of the professional peers in the core, expressed through an honorary Fellowship of the American Institute of Architects and an exhibition of his work in London, sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects. As Goonatilake has noted, “If a major breakthrough occurs in a peripheral region, ... it is then usually transferred to other peripheral regions only after legitimation and acceptance in the center.” 24 Bawa, and a few others, have gained the legitimacy of their peers in the core, and entered the world of the architectural “glossy” magazines. As in the case of the national landscape, transformations in the field of architecture, have been part of the larger production of a post-colonial nation, which they also help to constitute. Critical vernacularists have responded to the economic, social, and cultural problems bequeathed by a colonial built environment as well as neo-colonial attempts to mimic western and modernist built forms. In so doing, they produced a particular architecture that average Sri Lankans, as well as its architects, can relate to. Temporally and spatially, critical vernaculars are both a post-colonial as well as a global mode of architectural design. Severing the vestiges of colonialism between 1956 and 1977, the nationalistsocialist governments largely completed the post-colonial nation-building process. Both rural villages, which were operating marginally within the national spatial structures, and the plantations, the labor of which was denied citizenship, were integrated into the national society and space. W hile the governments began questioning the premises of urban and regional planning, critical vernacularism became hegemonic in the national field of architecture. Although Colombo’s landscape did not change much from outside, the social transformation brought it to a threshold from within. Notes 1. John Hatch, “The Decline of British Power in Africa,” in Tony Smith, ed., The End of European Empire: Decolonization After World War II (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1975), 82. 2. See Christopher Clapham, Third World Politics: An Introduction (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985), 28. 3. “Urban Development Strategies,” Economic Review 3 (1977): 14; “Colombo Urban Development,” 4. 4. For a discussion of the use of borrowed elements stripped of their historic substance, see Mark Jerzombek, “Post-modernist Historicism: The Historian’s Dilemma,” in Marco Diani and Catherine Ingraham, eds., Restructuring Architectural Theory (Evanston, Il:


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Northwestern University Press, 1990), 86. 5. For an overview of these architect’s work see Hassan Fathy, Architecture of the Poor (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977); Hassan-Uddin Khan, Charles Correa (Singapore: Concept Media, 1987); Brian Brace Taylor, Geoffrey Bawa (Singapore: Concept Media, 1986); J.M. Richards, “Geoffrey Bawa” Mimar 19 (1986) 45-6; Jayawardana, “Bawa”; Ulrik Plesner, “Ulrik Plesner” Living Architecture 5 (1986): 94-97. 6. See Fathy, Architecture for the Poor, 19. 7. Brent C. Brolin, The Failure of Modern Architecture (New York: Van Nostrand, 1976), 109. 8. Peter Scriver, “Arcadia or Apocalypse? Some Observations on Post-Independent Urbanity and the Notion of a Third World Architecture,” Presented to the International Conference on Architecture, Calcutta, November 16-20, 1990, 4-5. 9. Ulrik Plesner, “Mahaweli Building Program, Sri Lanka,” Living Architecture (1986); Nihal Perera, “Parameters Employed in the Planning of Mahaweli Towns,” (in Singhalese) Isura 11 (1986); “The Scope and Potential for Architectural and Planning Professions in the Mahaweli Project.” Mahaweli Architects’ Union 1 (1988): 11-15. 10. Vale, 194. 11. Jayawardana, “Bawa,” 47. 12. Plesner, “Ulrik Plesner”: 85. 13. Geoffrey Bawa, “Statement by the Architect,” in Khan, ed., Geoffrey Bawa, 16. 14. King has observed that the verandah, for example, is not a universal “tropical” feature and many traditional African cultures do not use this element. (The Bungalow, 265) Therefore there is nothing climatic about the verandah or, in a general sense, any building element since which element to use in what situation is primarily a cultural decision. (See Rapoport, House Form and Culture) 15. Plesner, “Ulrik Plesner.” 16. See Bandaranayake (“Sri Lanka and Monsoon Asia”) for typologies. 17. See M.J.A. Rahim, “Muslim Architecture,” in M.M.M. Mahroof et al. eds. According to Rahim, Islamic, Singhalese, and Tamil houses are similar from outside and the differences are encoded in interior spaces. 18. Vale, 197. 19. Barbara Sansoni’s collection of drawings, mainly of historic religious and royal buildings, and country and town houses, entitled Viharas and Verandas illustrates their main source. 20. Bawa, 16. 21. See Vale, 273, 279-280. 22. See Ibid, 194; Barbara Sansoni, “A Background to Geoffrey Bawa,” in Taylor, ed., Geoffrey Bawa, 172-3. 23. Jayawardana, 49. 24. Goonatilake Aborted Discovery, 111.


Critical Vernacular Architecture