In Conversation with Sunela Jayewardene

Cultural heritage affirms our identity as a people as it fashions a comprehensive frame for the preservation of authentic conventions, ways of living and tradition unique to a community or space. In this context, cultural sites, old buildings, monuments, shrines and landmarks have social significance and historical value. Culture and its heritage, we believe, reflect and shape values, beliefs and aspirations, thereby defining a people’s national identity. We believe that it is important to preserve our cultural heritage, as it keeps our integrity as people.

Consequently, the retention of heritage buildings also has environmental sustainability advantages. Conserving heritage buildings reduces energy usage associated with demolition, waste disposal and new construction, and promotes sustainable development by conserving the embodied energy in the existing buildings. In conversation with esteemed environmental architect Sunela Jayewardene, we discuss her perspective on the role of architecture in celebrating tangible cultures and ways of living, unique to Sri Lanka. Recognized as Sri Lanka’s leading environmental architect by the Time Magazine (2007), Sunela is not only conscious of sustainability and ecology of sites but perceives buildings as monuments that introduces identities to the world.

Q | In keeping with the critical role that architecture plays in cultivating and preserving culture and heritage, how do you believe the role of the architect needs to be redefined or relooked at?

A | I think that an architect has a responsibility to guide a client to be environmentally and culturally responsible. Sometimes, to achieve that, an architect would have to seek expertise from different disciplines such as ecology, biology, history etc, and that should happen without reservation. The premise of the architect being the all-encompassing, supreme authority is outdated — as the senior consultant on any project, an architect should have the confidence to source specialist knowledge that could only enhance any project. In many of my projects I have sourced the expertise of biologists, silviculturists, geologists and many others, who undoubtedly enhanced the product that I was designing.

Q| In the current global context, the environment needs to take precedence. How do you think architecture can contribute to this agenda?

A | Primarily, all forms of architectural design need to acknowledge their physical context, respecting the given stratum and its natural constraints. The understanding that this acknowledgement will be key to modern design is gradually seeping in to global practices. As this ethic emerges, the popular, post-industrial age practice of impressing skylines through monumental architecture, may soon become less relevant as modern architects aspire to the far more challenging and ambitious goal of designing minimal impact structures.

Q | Architecture is more than a building, it also cultivates lifestyles. In your opinion, how can the spatial understanding of vernacular architecture promote the preservation of culture & heritage?

A | Vernacular architecture is the product of centuries of trial and error. It is an architectural style shaped by vernacular lifestyles, which have been borne out of an ancient understanding of climatic conditions, religio-cultural practices and ecologies. To dismiss this knowledge, is to dismiss, not only an environmental, but a cultural context as well; a return to the short-lived international style, which assumed much and comprehended little. Adopting elements of vernacular architecture need not be a compromise of modern design — on the contrary, would be the design challenge. Sri Lankans live their lives on verandas that catch winds from all directions. Courtyards provide vital cross-ventilation within the house, whilst providing security. A high ceiling allows heat to rise or a sloped roof carries monsoon water off faster. I have found that adopting at least some of these elements, contribute to a more successful design, particularly in the equatorial belt.

The architect’s skill would be revealed, in their individual interpretation of a veranda or a courtyard or any other traditional design element, while successfully retaining its spatial function.

Q | What buildings in Colombo, in your opinion, needs to be preserved for its environmental, cultural & heritage value?

A | Colombo was once known as a garden city, but urban fragmentation, security walls and cover-all paving have long compromised that. Therefore, I believe what is essential is preserving the signature, green urban features of Colombo. Galle Face as a green, with bar on further hard surface paving.

Vihara Mahadevi Park as a green space with a bar on further hard surface paving Tree avenues of Baudhaloka Mawatha, Thurstan Road & Gregory’s Road, with more avenues planted.

Beira Lake and its canals, to drain and revitalize — enforcing a five meter treeline reservation along all shorelines.

Of the many buildings/street characters that should be protected, preserved and revitalized, I believe the following are vital:

Sea Street, Pettah

Red Mosque, Second Cross St. Pettah

Town Hall without any renovations beyond its current foot print

Cargills & Millers, Fort without any construction beyond its current footprint

Malay Street Shop Row

Charles de Soysa Pavilion roundabout, Lipton Circus

Q | In your opinion, how should architecture look at its role in the future in order to remain culturally and environmentally responsible?

A | To accommodate rapidly growing populations in a shrinking landscape, architects and all design disciplines should recognize the responsibility of their professions. From buildings to clothes for the human, designers should accept the tremendous impact of our species on global resources, and design sustainably, to minimize impact. I believe, that a conscious reduction of waste and excess, while greening, should be the ethic, the aesthetic and the signature of successful designers of the future.

However, as this change in attitudes will not be grasped as quickly as is now necessary, legislation will have to provide rigid design templates to protect the diminishing environment. If not, as the American novelist and historian Wallace Stegner wrote in 1960, ‘remnants of the natural world’ will be progressively eroded and the sad reality for our children would become his prediction that, “we would be committed wholly, without a chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive in to a technological termite-life.”



8th December, 2019 Applied Art