Channa Daswatte

Cover personality of imminent character, Channa Daswatte, artist, designer and architect explains the scope of architecture in preserving culture and heritage. His innate style of embracing the lightness of structure in tandem with nature, allows his architectural creations to be environmentally characteristic while expounding minimal complexity. Channa inventively interprets his in-depth understanding of the Sri Lankan vernacular and its influences over time in approaching contemporary design, which is laudable as he lets the artistic stimulus of the past impact and influence the contemporary design of the future.

Channa studied Architecture at the University of Moratuwa, and later at the prestigious Bartlett School of Architecture where he earned a Masters in Advanced Architectural Studies. Currently a partner of MICD Associates, Channa was a friend, confidant and the principal assistant to Sri Lanka’s most prolific and influential architect, Geoffrey Bawa. Currently, he is the Chairperson of the Geoffrey Bawa and Lunuganga Trusts. Channa has written extensively on Sri Lankan architecture and practice and is one of the prominent figures of the field in the country. Channa’s designs in their quintessential element can be seen locally in the form of hotels, villas, offices, schools and many private homes. He has also completed well-received projects in India and Uganda. As Chair of the Galle Heritage Foundation, he is also involved in the management and maintenance of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Walled City of Galle.

In conversation with ARTRA, Channa unveils the process through which architecture has enriched him, while illustrating the role architecture plays in sharing the narrative of the country and its significance in upholding its social and cultural integrity.

Q | Tell us about Channa Daswatte.

A | Channa Daswatte lives his life on his own terms although he will not do anything that will put someone else’s life out of sync. Some people call him diplomatic, but it’s best summarized in the simple dictum of not saying something if it really need not be said. He is respectful of others’ opinions, but will reserve his right to act on it; he would rather step away from unpleasantness than confront it, if by doing so it does not change the course of human existence and thought. He enjoys his own company and that of a close knit group of friends and of course his partner, though he cannot be called an introvert. He loves to dance often to the detriment of his knees and a good walk in the woods or in the mountains when opportunity arises. 

Q | How did your journey in architecture take form?

A | I got into architecture through a suggestion made by my Zoology teacher Mrs Lillian Fonseka, at Trinity College, who took pity in my total inability to cut up a live frog in class and suggested that I take up a more aesthetic pursuit. Architect C. Anjalendran offered me a job within my first week at university, after pointing out to the class that I was someone who would talk about a white wall for hours! In between work in his office he introduced me to my own culture and showed that it was second to none, if only you learnt to truly appreciate others. At the Bartlett School at University College London, I came under the influence of Bill Hillier, a philosopher turned architectural theorist and learnt to separate the grain from the chaff of architectural thinking. Working with Bawa, I learnt to appreciate style, taste and simple but elegant living and beauty. The greatest influence on my architectural thinking has been travel. Each destination has been a lesson about life and its containment or otherwise by architecture.

Q | What is the architectural project you enjoyed most working on?

A | The Kandalama Hotel taught me that you need not stick to singular ideas and do what the world around you expects you to do. Like the legendary master musician Guttila in the Jataka story breaking the strings of his Veena and making music all the more divine, Bawa threw to the wind what was expected of him and built something that was unique and exemplary. Being part of that process and the young team that made it possible was indeed a privilege. Of my own projects two stand out: The Water Garden Sigiriya gave me the opportunity to link a landscape project to the ancient tradition of harnessing water to benefit humanity. Linked to the existing waterways in the landscape, the hotel’s garden harnesses that water not just for cultivation but for making beauty that would attract people to the hotel and benefit the economy and the people and allowing it to go through the system to benefit others down stream. At the moment, the refurbishment of the iconic and hugely influential Bentota Beach Hotel originally built by Bawa in 1967 is engaging and fulfilling.

Q | In your opinion, what roles should architecture play beyond that of functionality?

A | Architecture is a major investment of any society community or individual. Functionally, architecture can make or break communities and sometimes even create social dysfunction. But beyond fulfilling its crucial functions, it must act to lift up the spirit or the part of the mind that is affected by external stimuli. In this process of speaking with the spirit, architecture must begin to accommodate other plastic arts such as painting, sculpture and design to create markers in the spaces, which will help nuance, that conversation. This is something that architects sometimes forget. Art is today hardly used within architecture as a part of it. Cheap decoration has come to replace art in most spaces. Incorporating art in architectural spaces can enhance those spaces and sharpen that conversation beyond function.

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2nd August, 2019 Applied Art | Architecture