In Conversation with Rajiv Wanasundera

Anjalendran’s tutelage to a generation of architectural students is a significant achievement. As a mentor and academic, Anjalendran’s life and research, enriched by his deep cultural understanding has augmented inventive and authentic ways of approaching architecture. They carry on not only understandings of technical knowledge but also the concept of creating works that are inherent to the persona of our nation, of which each generation shall imbibe his guidance and teachings in applying it to their own. The importance of tutelage and sharing of knowledge fosters a system that preserves and reflects the cultural significances, sustained over time. In our research for this edition of ARTRA Magazine’s Architecture of Anjalendran Edition, we converse with Rajiv Wanasundera, a former student who also worked under the creative direction of the maestro in his formative years, as he unveils Anjalendran’s pedagogical impact and the ways in which the architect shaped his perspectives.

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

A | I first met Anjalendran in 1988 when I was 19 and starting the Year 1 program at the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects, which is now called the City School of Architecture. Anjalendran was our year master and he arrived like a whirlwind into our class, and we immediately knew that we were in for an experience that we would never forget. He was in charge of our education for the year, so not only did he teach us design, but he co-ordinated with the other instructors so that our entire curriculum was in-line with his pedagogy. I had lived in Sri Lanka all my life but there was so much I didn't know about the country and about our architecture that Anjalendran opened my eyes to. It is truly remarkable that Anjalendran has impacted so many students over the more than thirty years of his teaching career and I believe it is one of his most significant contributions to Sri Lankan architecture. It’s not just the buildings he has designed, it's not just the archive he has created, it's also the deep understanding of Sri Lankan architecture that he has instilled on a generation of students.  It’s an understanding that good architecture on this island is not Sinhalese or Tamil but that it is truly Sri Lankan.

Later on, I worked for him along with Murad Ismail at his office on his mother’s veranda on Gregory’s Road. It was a little pink house and he had lived there for thirty years. Every morning we’d set out the chairs and desks and he would direct us from his hansi-putuwa and every afternoon we’d put away the desks and return the veranda to its natural state. This was an amazing experience and a lovely introduction into his life. There were statues of Hindu Gods and posters and art on his walls constituting the things that interested and appealed to him. His approach to design is minimal and straight forward, and working for him, I realized you can do great architecture without the trappings of a fancy office.

Q | Can you share some of your most memorable encounters?

A | In 1989 we received an opportunity to work together on an article, ‘Trends and Transitions’ and he was very generous to credit me as a co-author. The article was published in an Indian magazine called Architecture + Design. They published an entire issue on Sri Lanka and ‘Trends and Transitions’ was the principal essay. So, in our research we looked at Sri Lankan architecture from 1948 to the 1980s. And this experience of surveying how Sri Lankan architecture had developed after independence was a great learning experience for me.

Q | In the context of Sri Lankan architects that of the past and the present, what do you feel is the significance of his aesthetic or his approach?

A | Firstly, I think that Anjalendran needs to be commended for his holistic understanding of Sri Lankan architecture, from that of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa periods, the vernacular, to the work of contemporary practitioners. Secondly, he was fortunate to work closely with the pioneering figure of Sri Lanka’s post-independence architecture, Geoffrey Bawa. He also got to know the artists and creative personalities who worked with Geoffrey such as Laki Senanayake, Ena De Silva and Barbara Sansoni. He became friends with Minnette De Silva and Senake Bandaranayake among others and this enhanced his understanding of both the past and the present. Additionally, I believe Anjalendran’s innate curiosity makes him someone who is constantly learning and evolving and applying these lessons to his work.

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

A | At the end of my year of working with him, I left Sri Lanka and went to the U.S to start my undergraduate studies, which unfortunately curtailed my time with Anjalendran. But I would have to say that my first year at the SLIA was incredibly formative. I took what I learned from him and carried it on to my academic study throughout the years. He established the foundation of my architectural studies and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Even now, I’ve always kept abreast of his projects and fortunately, he sends me articles and we visit museums and exhibitions together. I think a lot of wonderful lessons can be learned from him; how to run a sustainable practice by keeping your office small so that you don't need to take on projects that you don't want to work on. Having young people work for you so that you give them a practical understanding of architecture and set them up on their careers. Anjalendran should also be commended for having a practice that devotes a significant amount of its time and effort to research and documentation, which is something that most architectural firms don’t do. Most importantly, Anjalendran has shown us how one person can make a difference, how one person can make a positive contribution to their field and society as a whole.

Former student of C. Anjalendran, Rajiv Wanasundera started his architectural career as an intern in Anjalendran’s studio, when it was located at Gregory’s Road. Having left to continue his education in the United States, Rajiv obtained his Bachelor’s Degree from North-Eastern University in Boston and dual Master’s Degrees in architecture and urban planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He is an associate at Lord Aeck Sargent, an architecture firm headquartered in Atlanta. Rajiv has published articles on contemporary Sri Lankan architecture in Architecture + Design, Indian Architect & Builder and the Journal of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects. He was a contributor to Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet, published by Thames & Hudson in 2017. As a visiting lecturer, Rajiv has taught design studios at Georgia Tech. He is currently working on a documentary film on Sri Lankan modernism with filmmaker Jesse Freeman. 

14th July, 2022 Applied Art | Architecture