The Architecture of C. Anjalendran by David Robson

When I was asked to write an article for the journal of the SOS Children’s Village organisation in Austria for whom Anjalendran had built a number of projects, it was stipulated that the illustrations should not be too glamourous: the journal was used to solicit donations, and his projects, although admittedly cheap to produce, looked too beautiful and therefore too costly. This illustrates Anjalendran’s approach to design: good architecture does not have to be expensive (and conversely expensive architecture is often bad). Building is like cookery: different cooks employing the same ingredients can produce magic or mess. Anjalendran uses locally available materials and robust detailing to make buildings that are utilitarian, affordable and long-lasting, but he also creates architecture which is spatially exciting, enhancing it with colour, texture and pinpoints of decoration. He has perfected the art of making more from less, of turning sows’ ears into silk purses.

Anjalendran grew up after independence in a world of apparent harmony and tolerance, a world which was shattered by the riots of 1983 and the subsequent decades of civil war. Having worked briefly in the office of master architect Geoffrey Bawa, he developed his own practice during the 1980s on his mother’s veranda before establishing a home-office in Battaramulla after 1991. However, throughout the 1980s he acted as Bawa’s unpaid personal assistant and served as a critical point of intersection between the pioneering generation who had worked with Bawa during the 1960s and 1970s and the group of his own former apprentices who would work with Bawa during his final decade. 

Anjalendran side-stepped the ‘tropical modernism’ that had characterised Bawa’s early projects and followed the ‘regional modern’ approach that was first promulgated by Minnette de Silva and later adopted by Bawa during the 1970s.  Like Bawa he exhibits a scenographic sensibility to space and sets up a dialogue between inside and outside, between building and landscape.  However, while Bawa has remained his acknowledged guru, Anjalendran has never imitated him, preferring to develop his own architectural personality. With hindsight, it could be said that he operated as a filter, helping to broadcast Bawa’s ideas to a wider audience. Thus, his work exhibits its own special qualities – a clarity of purpose and directness, a preoccupation with the social implications of spatial hierarchies, a concern for economy, an exploitation of colour and surface texture and an instinctive commitment to low-energy design. 

Anjalendran was born in Colombo in 1951, though his family hailed originally from Jaffna. His maternal grandfather was Suntharalingam, the famous Tamil mathematician and politician, and his father, Chelvadurai, was a successful engineer. Nominally Hindu, the family was western in outlook and spoke English in their bungalow home. 

He studied at Colombo’s elite Royal College, but during his teens he trained as a dancer and became the most promising male exponent of Bharata Natyam of his generation, a fact which probably contributed to his strong spatial awareness. Soon after his coming-out dance, however, his father made him give up dancing to concentrate on academic studies.  He then vented his frustration by turning to origami – dancing with paper – and quickly became an adept, transforming a sheet of plain paper, as if by magic, into a bird with flapping wings, thus demonstrating how two dimensions can be transformed to three or even four, how value can be added by design.

In 1970 Anjalendran was offered a place to study engineering at the University of Moratuwa but later transferred to the newly opened architecture course in the University of Colombo and gained his degree in 1973.  He then moved to the Bartlett School in University College London where he completed his diploma in architecture in 1976 before following a special M.Sc. course in ‘Space Syntax’ under Bill Hillier.

Back in Colombo, he joined the office of Geoffrey Bawa and worked on the remodelling of the British Council Centre in Colombo and designed the sculptural staircase in the house for artist Lidia Ducchini in Bentota. However, it became clear that he was not suited to working in an office environment. He quit Bawa’s office in 1980 and, having worked briefly with Surath Wickremasinghe, set up his own office on his mother’s veranda in 1982. 

But Anjalendran remained close to Bawa and, behind the scenes, he was largely responsible for putting together the so-called ‘White Book’ which was published in 1986 (Taylor, 1986) and helped organise the exhibition which was shown at the RIBA in London. During the same period, he also developed a close working friendship with the designer Barbara Sansoni, who advised him on the use of colour in his buildings, and with the batik artist Ena de Silva, for whom he built a restaurant and workshops at Aluvihare. 

Anjalendran’s practice has always been small.  During its first ten years it operated on his mother’s veranda in Cinnamon Gardens and was folded away at night. Then in 1991 he built a small house for himself in Battaramulla and set up his office along one side of its courtyard where he has worked with a constantly changing team of never more than five student assistants. His engineer for the past forty years has been Deepal Wickremasinghe and he joined forces from time to time with his cousin, architect Shayan Kumaradas. He doesn’t own a car, has never employed a secretary and has only recently acquired a mobile phone. The vast majority of his projects have been built by a small contractor called L.B. Ranjit.

One of Anjalendran’s first commissions was to design a house in Dehiwala for his friends Senake Bandaranayake and Manel Fonseka (1980). This took the form of a compact courtyard house: a scaleddown version of Bawa’s house for Ena de Silva, built on one third of the land and at a fraction of the cost.

Anjalendran believes that every tree is the equivalent of an air-conditioner and that none should be cut down unnecessarily. His house for Romesh Bandaranayake (1984) off Kynsey Road was built on a tiny site around an existing mango tree. Forty years later house and tree are still standing.

His own house at Battaramulla (1991) was built around a courtyard on a plot of ten perches (250 sqm). The main pavilion, on two storeys, incorporated a double height living room which served also as an office, a studio and a teaching space as well as a gallery for his growing collections of art and artefacts. 

The Lilani de Silva House (1992) in Ward Place was built on three storeys on a plot of only seven perches but Anjalendran managed to incorporate three bedrooms and bathrooms, two courtyards and two roof terraces, while providing light, air and privacy. 

The most astonishing house from this early period was that built for the Amerasuriyas at Kotte (1989). This was configured like a small fortress, its rooms contained within rampart walls of dark stone that encircled a tree-shaded courtyard and were topped by raised terraces and loggias. 

In 1983 Anjalendran began a long association with SOS Children’s Villages, a charity that built and managed orphanages and schools in many parts of the world. His first task was to convert an old bungalow in Nuwara Eliya into an administrative centre and this led to a commission to design an orphanage on the sloping land below the bungalow. Over the next decade Anjalendran built Children’s Villages in Galle and Anuradhapura, as well as an agricultural training centre in Bandarawela and a ‘Youth Village’ and school at Piliyandala. These projects demonstrated his ability to create places of great beauty out of simple materials with minimal budgets.

During the same period Anjalendran designed a number of commercial and work-place buildings, including a simple office block for Milco in Narahenpita (1987), an astonishing gem factory in Nugegoda (1992), furniture showrooms for Milinda Ekanayake in Battaramulla (2000) and an office block for SAPSRI in Rajagiriya (2003). In all of these he sought to create efficient working environments that introduced natural daylight and cooling with minimum expenditure of energy.

He went on to create affordable house designs for a newly emerging professional class of would-be city dwellers. The Dharmavasan House (1997) was a larger version of his own house.  Built on a site of 20 perches, it served as a prototype for a series of compact but generous urban houses.  The Coomaraswamy House (2000) was an elegant pied à terre, tailored to the needs of a writer and academic with a large collection of books and saris. The Fernando House (2001) was conceived like a cave, buried in a hillside above the swamps of Kotte. A house for Captain Wahab (2002) was poised on the edge of a cliff and inserted within the branches of a huge banyan tree. The Greenwinds Condominium offered a prototype for a new kind of co-operative living and contained five generous independent apartments that shared car-parking, security services and a swimming pool.

The plantation sector still plays an important role in Sri Lanka’s economy and Anjalendran has produced innovative designs for a number of new estate bungalows.  His first was on a coconut estate near Dankotuwa for the Tyagarajah family (1997) and was inspired by traditional Jaffna courtyard houses.  A second, for Miles Young, was built for a cinnamon estate on a hill above Weligama Bay (2002). Next came a bungalow for Kavan Ratnayake on a remote tea estate near Deniyaya (2014) and finally a bungalow on a cinnamon estate at Makuladola for Satish Abeyasuriya (2015).

His more recent houses have ranged in scale and complexity from grand to compact.  On the one hand, he created a generous canal-side villa for the Vairvanathan family at Maddinnagoda (2006) and the palatial Malalasekera townhouse in Borella with its internal courtyard and generous garden (2012). On the other, he built a tiny jewel-like maisonette on a tiny plot in Battaramulla for his own housekeeper (2019). He also produced a modest but elegant seaside house for a doctor-couple at Pamunagama (2012) and in imposing hilltop citadel in Moruwaka (2017) for a member of parliament. 

More recently he has designed a series of modest hotels.  These have included a guest house for Priyalal de Silva on the beach at Mirissa (2012), the Saffron Villa Hotel at Hikkaduwa (2016) and the Long House at Bentota (2018).

In 2009 I wrote a monograph about Anjalendran to mark his thirty years in practice.  The civil war had entered its final chapter and I portrayed him as a Tamil who, while proud of his particular ancestry, regarded himself first and foremost as a Sri Lankan and who sought to embrace every facet of the island’s rich culture. I also tried to describe something of his life, his eccentricities, his friendships, and to emphasise that, more than simply an architect, he was also a teacher, a dancer, a traveller, a collector.   

Over more than two decades, Anjalendran worked tirelessly as a teacher, first in the University of Moratuwa and later in the Colombo School of Architecture. Almost all of his assistants have been intermediate or graduate students from one or other of the two schools and many of his former students and assistants are now leading members of the architectural profession.

He is an obsessive collector of artefacts and art works and has always tried to persuade his clients to commission work from young artists.  He has built up a comprehensive collection of contemporary Sri Lankan art as well as representative collections of carved Portuguese saints, bronze Hindu gods, Lionel Wendt photographs, Ena de Silva batiks and Barbara Sansoni handlooms. He has also created a library of dossiers on all the leading designers and artists of his day. These activities have enabled him to write with authority on a range of topics and he has published widely across the sub-continent.

Following the death of Geoffrey Bawa in 2003, Anjalendran took on a leading role in the Trust that was set up in his name. It was he who instigated an annual Bawa Memorial Lecture in 2004, an event which continues to this day with the financial support of his friend Miles Young.  He was also one of the prime organising forces behind the triennial Bawa Award scheme.

In 1984 Anjalendran helped Barbara Sansoni and Ronald Lewcock put together the set of measured drawings of old Sri Lankan buildings which would later be published as ‘Architecture of an Island’ (Lewcock 1998).  This inspired him to embark on his own measured drawing project using both his assistants and his students.  Measuring old buildings gave his students a feel for history and honed their surveying and drawing skills, but the results also helped to establish an important archival record of Sri Lanka’s built heritage that now contains immaculate drawings of more than two hundred buildings, many of which he published in his book ‘The Architectural Heritage of Sri Lanka’ (2016). 

Now in his seventies, Anjalendran continues to work, unabated, from his veranda office and has a number of ground-breaking projects in the pipeline.  These include a Guruge or ‘teacher’s house’ for the Chitrasena Dance Company, a Guest House and Ayurvedic Centre in Mirissa, a house at Ranna and a new Cancer Care Centre at Ragama. Although he has become more subdued and less outspoken, it is clear that, through his buildings, his teaching and his writing, he continues to exert a profound influence on the evolution of Sri Lankan architecture.  No longer its enfant terrible, today he has become its éminence grise. 






25th March, 2022 Applied Art | Architecture