Shayari De Silva

In the current context where the digital footprint is taking on precedence as a mode of communication, the art platforms which have conventionally been experienced in a physical or tangible sense reaching a reconciliation upon which the digital and physical are being smoothly streamlined. One could supposedly ponder upon the practicality of this system as architecture, in particular, is meant to be experienced without the hindrance of a screen. In such context, how can structural design and its intricate detail translate its characteristics through the cyber space? In conversation with Shayari de Silva, the curator of The Geoffrey Bawa Trust, we explore the significance of technology in articulating architecture without compromising on its structural integrity whilst understanding the premise upon which the digital workings of the Trust during the lockdown have promoted the architectural prowess of the iconic artist, Geoffrey Bawa.

The Geoffrey Bawa Trust is a non-profit, public trust that was established in 1982 with the objectives of furthering the fields of Architecture, the Fine Arts and Ecological and Environmental Studies. The present trustees are Ward Beling, Channa Daswatte (Chairperson), Chamika de Alwis, Sanjay Kulatunga, Suhanya Raffel and Nadija Tambiah. Shayari de Silva, an architect and architectural historian who works on curatorial and editorial projects overlooks the Art & Archival Collections at the Geoffrey Bawa Trust whilst directing the exhibition, publication and conservation of the Bawa Collections. She is also the curator of the year-long Bawa 100 Centenary Celebration programme, launched in July 2019. Shayari was an editor of Perspecta 51: Medium, the Yale Architecture Journal, published in 2018 by MIT Press. In conversation, we deliberate the innovation of virtual tours and the Trust’s journey to provide to their viewers the same opportunities through a screen. 

Q | What challenges did you encounter when shifting mediums between the actual, physicality of the tours versus virtual tours considering that architecture in particular is one that’s meant to be experienced with a physical being?

A | Our team at the Trust was keen not to attempt to replicate any of the programmes we had planned to be experienced in person – we wanted to ensure that the exhibitions, interviews and talks we brought online were always meant to be accessed via audio files or as images and would not be compromised by a digital platform. We were a little fortunate because we had planned to launch our oral history programme starting April anyway, so we were able to work on this remotely without too many challenges. Certain programmes, like the launch of Dayanita Singh’s and Chandragupta Thenuwara’s works for The Gift at Lunuganga, we decided to postpone until people could come see them – those are site-specific works that are absolutely best experienced in person. The same with our exhibition It is Essential to be There: Drawing from the Geoffrey Bawa Archive which really explored the idea of the archive as a repository of corporeal objects – we will open it next year instead.

Q | What measures did you take to translate the same experience virtually?

A | I guess following from my previous response, our goal was to provide an experience that worked virtually and not try and make it the same as a physical experience. Our designer Thilini Perera did this quite deftly with the two virtual exhibitions we did; Decorative Arts in the Geoffrey Bawa Collection and Unseen Bawa, where she used the linear sequence of a webpage to guide you through Luka Alagiyawanna’s, Ruvin Silva’s and Sebastian Posingis’ photographs. When we installed these last year, we were able to use the spaces of Lunuganga and the Paradise Road Gallery to do this, and you had a little bit more agency as a viewer in how you approached the works.

Q | What were the differences you noticed between the virtual and physical tour in terms of the capturing of detailed architecture and the physical particularity perceived through a screen?

A | I noticed this difference the most when Channa and I did a live tour of No. 11 for AD India. While movement through spaces is a big part of experiencing any architectural work, this is especially so for Bawa’s buildings. The richness of many of those spaces we showed comes from not just what’s in front of you but knowing the layout and sequence of the spaces. The experience becomes unidirectional when you show it via a screen. But maybe that’s okay, because the tour introduced the house to a lot of people and hopefully they will come to see it in person and that will still be a unique experience for them!

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19th August, 2020 Applied Art