In Conversation with S.Dharmavasan

The life and works of C. Anjalendran are significant for their celebration of culture and country. His use of colour, unique approach to perceiving architecture and most importantly, the relationships he fostered over time are unique constituents that contribute to the significance of his esoteric buildings. Anjalendran’s curiosities seeped into his encounters, of which friend of the Dr.Dharmavasan and his wife Julie were privileged to have experienced, profoundly. They found Anjalendran’s understanding of culture refreshingly distinct in impacting those around him to adopt an inventive way of thinking that nurtures one’s appreciation for Sri Lanka’s history and heritage.

Dharmavasan, first met Anjalendran in 1975 as students at the University in London, having been in the same hall of residence on the same floor. The two developed a close friendship visiting many theatres and having hearty meals as young boys enjoying the entreating cultural life of London in the 1970’s. In our conversation with Dr.Dharmavasan and Julie, they shared their manifold experiences with the architect, from their mutual love for exploring their cultural oddities to wonderful times spent together across the years.

Q | Please share some of your most memorable encounters with Anjalendran during your days as students in London - and perhaps in your opinion, how they have also contributed in shaping Anjalendran and his works.

A | It was late September 1975 when I arrived in a cold and wet London to start my undergraduate degree at the University College London and had just moved into Ramsay Hall, a UCL hall of residence just under what was then the 177m tall Post Office tower and just round the corner from the offices of Ove Arup, the engineers responsible for the Sydney Opera House, that I ran into this thin young man in denim bell-bottoms, denim shirt and a rather fashionable waistcoat. That was Anjalendran and he happened to be two doors down my corridor.

His room was unlike any of the other student rooms. Instead of posters of musicians or sports personalities, there was a poster of a blue nude by Matisse, a chocolate brown abstract Marimekko cloth hanging, a very colourful Barefoot bedspread and a small music system that was belting out an eclectic selection of ragas, Gregorian chants, the Beatles or the latest pop music.

Friday night was free movie night at UCL’s Bloomsbury Theatre screening interesting films like ‘The Music Lovers’ based on the life of Tchaikovsky, Sundays would be BBC’s Top of the Pops after an early cold dinner and during the week as students we could get front row seats to the West End theatre for just a pound where we saw some amazing productions like Equus. Anjalendran would comment on the elegance and simplicity of the theatre set over a roast duck and rice meal at Lee Ho Fook’s side canteen in China Town or a kebab from Gigs.

At that time, Charing Cross Road was full of second-hand bookshops and Anjalendran would spend hours browsing through these bookshops and would always turn up with the most amazing books on architecture, art, history and science to build an amazing library in this tiny room at Ramsay Hall.

We both worked as night porters and this gave us free board and lodging during the summer vacation when the halls would be rented out to American students on summer courses. We sometimes joined them on their trips and one such was to Stonehenge and Salisbury cathedral where we discovered the most enchanting garden. To this day, Anjalendran continues to visit gardens around the world and where possible we still do trips to gardens.

He hated those grim days when we never saw the sun. I wonder if his bold use of colour in his architecture to bring in sunshine and joy was a result of those cold and grey days in London.

Q | How would you describe your relationship with Anjalendran, and of his presence in your life?

A | It is an extraordinary friendship.

He treats and looks after me as an older brother would. He returned to Sri Lanka at the end of 1977 whereas I stayed on in London. Julie and I were planning to marry in 1995 and move to Sri Lanka. When I told Anjalendran this, he suggested that we live in the house next door that he had designed for one of his cousins and was coming up for rent. We did. This was the start of the next stage of our friendship. He lives on his own but hates to eat on his own - this led to his coming over for dinner on a regular basis. So much so, that when he designed our house just around the corner, a back-door was designed in so that he could come in to have his dinner!

With the birth of our two children, he and Kumar became part of our childcare setup. He would frequently walk up and down the lane to put our daughter Laxshmi to sleep as she cried her heart out in her first few months. Our son Sanjay’s birthday parties would become a design exercise for his students. He would take them on trips and excursions to experience culture in all its variety of forms. He would be there at all their school performances and takes his role as their cultural guardian very seriously, to this day. They are now adults but they still wish him goodnight daily.

When we moved back to Europe in 2010, he would visit every year to spend time with us and visit antique markets, second-hand bookshops, museums, gardens and a couple of concerts and ballets. Julie’s and his birthday are two days apart and we have always had joint birthday parties up until the pandemic hit. Similarly, when we were in Sri Lanka he would ensure that he spent time with us and that we did not miss out on any cultural events, visits to artists and trips.

He is an important part of our family.

Q | From a professional standpoint - what do you feel is the significance of Anjalendran’s architecture, and its significance in sharing the Sri Lankan story?

A | Anjalendran has dedicated his life to architecture - without compromise.

I am an engineer and for me, the beauty of Anjalendran’s architecture is that it is logical but also full of joy. He designed our house in Battaramulla, a smaller version of that for Neeta our nanny, helped me with refurbishing my mother’s old Dutch period house in Batticaloa and finally rebuilding our ancestral house in Akkaraipattu after it was burnt down. The results have been extraordinary and I believe this is all down to a very rigorous process that he follows where his contractor Ranjit, himself and us as clients become part of a process beyond simple site visits but also visits to museums, artists, antique shops and other cultural and historical venues.

For instance, he knew our children and how we lived intimately, which in turn influenced his design of our house in Battaramulla. When Anjalendran set out to design the house, he knew our requirements even more than we did. The other part was the site in which grew a rather majestic ‘val ehela’ tree. He decided to keep it and make the tree the focal point for the house. However, to see the tree would mean lifting the roof another ten feet. Consequently, we have an enormous roof which keeps the house cool, a structure with a very slender column providing centre support of one of the beams so that the view is not interrupted, and eaves that go out ten feet so that when the rain beats down, it does not come inside the house. Even with the heaviest monsoon rain, we would hear the music of the rain and witness the cascade of water flow from the roof that no explicitly designed water feature could match. The water disappears magically in minutes.

The use of old doors and windows and other unique items that Anjalendran insists upon not only reduce the total build cost but also provide memory to a Sri Lankan past.  For instance, we received a call on a working day to turn up at a junk shop where there was an exquisite Portuguese altarpiece, which he wanted us to buy to place on the upper terrace. We did, and this makes that view and space extraordinary.  His execution of a contemporary structure with the use of traditional materials together with re-used and re-purposed elements reflects a link to the past. This house in fact has withstood the test of time with the materials used and is still fresh.

The house worked extremely well with small children with adequate spaces to play and experiment, privacy for our frequent visitors and an exceptional space for parties including an event with acrobats for Laxshmi’s birthday. Every corner has a vista but even with the enormous space there is an intimacy – this was important with small children as they had their space and freedom, but we were always connected to them.

The same care and thought went into the design for Neeta. She first showed us a plan that had been proposed by a draughtsman – that design required all the trees on their plot to be cut down. Anjalendran’s design was a smaller version of our house with two rooms upstairs and a bedroom, kitchen and living room downstairs on half the plot.This meant that the front garden was preserved and gave Ajith a fantastic gardener the opportunity to further develop the garden. As a result, they were able to build this house at a fraction of the price of the other design.

With the Dutch house in Batticaloa, Anjalendran measured the house in 1994 during a brief ceasefire and came up with a plan to add two bathrooms in this dilapidated house where there were none before and to open up a wall so that every room had a view of the lagoon. In addition, a room was added into the kitchen space for a caretaker. The basic floor plan did not change one bit. The work to renovate was done during the war and he gave me precise instructions to have the work done during my monthly visits to my Council Meetings at the Eastern University. This property is now used as a guest house and has rave reviews from guests for the simplicity and authenticity of the renovation.

In re-building the Akkaraipattu house, Anjalendran again kept the floor plan the same and made only three changes: reduced the size of three of the columns around the courtyard so that they did not disrupt the view, added two extra doors and closed another one to improve connectivity, added two bathrooms so all bedrooms have attached bathrooms without compromising on the comfort of the bedrooms. Today, it is as if the house was never burned down but the subtle changes make the house function so much better.

In summary, I feel in addition to all the other things a good architect should do in terms of use of space, functionality and technical mastery, the magic Anjalendran achieves is memory and a distinct calmness of Buddhist temples.

Q | In your opinion, how has Anjalendran been a cultural conduit to you, and your family?

A | We have spent a substantial amount of time with Anjalendran, especially in the past 25 years. As a result, we as a family learnt significantly about architecture, art, music (especially Indian classical music), gardens and Hindu and Buddhist culture. We have also met so many interesting personalities over these years. We would hope that we were also able to share some of our favourites in terms of culture, especially in Europe and the East coast of Sri Lanka with Anjalendran.

Over the years we have built up a small but interesting collection of Sri Lankan art from the ‘43 Group to emerging artists from the East coast of Sri Lanka. This would not have been possible without our friendship with Anjalendran.

How much has Anjalendran contributed to our cultural well-being? Immeasurable and continues to this day.

Dr.Dharmavasan, an engineer, spent twenty years in London as an academic at University College London and set up a company to commercialise the research in 1984. Returning to Sri Lanka in 1995, he set up Kingslake, a software company providing mission-critical software to the manufacturing industry.  He is currently developing his family estate on the East Coast to produce heirloom rice and organic virgin coconut oil while increasing the biodiversity of the property. Julie van der Bliek is a physical geographer who has worked for the past 35 years in international development cooperation and research, with a focus on water and food security, since 2003 working with the International Water Management Institute. She started her career in Sri Lanka in the mid-eighties and has since then worked and lived there on and off for 20 years. She has worked and travelled in many countries in Africa and Asia, and currently lives and works in Rome, Italy. 

15th June, 2022 Applied Art | Architecture