Beyond egocentric designs | Daily News

Beyond egocentric designs

Passion for climate sensitive and responsive architecture along with empathy for man, are two founding principles of architecture. Arch World speaks with Faculty of Architecture, Moratuwa University, Senior Lecturer Archt. Prasanna Pitigala Liyanage, on the undercurrents behind trends in Sri Lankan architecture.

Liyanage pointed out that when studying architecture in Colombo, we are confronted with the question, whether the architectural designs that we see are indigenous to Sri Lanka or if what we see is actually a passing trend?

“I feel most of the architectural designs seem to be more about satisfying the ego or fostering the ego. This system which I call to be egocentric, is the same with many other design fields, not only architecture. Creators, designers or architects nowadays tend to develop their own identity through their creations rather than trying to build an image or an identity of the user through the design. To be frank, if someone could point out some architectural piece I have done and identify it as one of my work, I believe that my work has been unsuccessful. What should happen here is to create a design that will recall its users’ identity, rather than its creator.” said Liyanage.

Prasanna Liyanage.
Pictures by Sarath Peiris

Liyanage commented that egocentric designs result in the emergence of different architectural styles which become more popular, then become a trend at the end. Thus society starts following these trends irrespective of the validity or applicability of these trends in different contexts.

“When adopting the trends that emerge in the world, to the local context we must at least consider on the alterations that have to be done accordingly. For example, for a country like Sri Lanka with no shortage of wind, do we exactly need fully air conditioned buildings? Can we make any use of these naturally available resources to our design? We have abundant rainfall and this can successfully implement rainwater harvesting. An entire building can be run through rainwater harvesting. Our strength is that we are a tropical country. You can purify the water using plants. The theatre complex that we are currently constructing on behalf of the John De Silva theatre is one such example. This can use solar energy and rainwater harvesting! However it has to be air-conditioned because it needs to be sound proof because of the noise outside. The building is almost done. It has two theatres and a 1,000 seat auditorium,” explained Liyanage.

Since JDS theatre runs on solar energy and rainwater harvesting, it can be rented for a much cheaper cost like two lakhs, than that of the other existing larger theaters. That is the operation cost. For Air-conditioning you need water that can be reused. Since it uses solar energy, the electricity is free. It is better in Sri Lanka to have small theatres rather than huge ones. We can opt for travelling theatres that can go all over Sri Lanka. In this case we must truly appreciate initiatives like ‘Jana Karaliya’, a mobile theatre where the performances could be done in all parts of the country. This surely opens the chance to the rural or outstation youth to see shows with tickets costing only Rs. 200 or Rs. 300. This solution is more practical than expecting these people to travel into Colombo and buy expensive tickets to watch a show at a luxury theatre. Now this is an approach with a better understanding of the local context - an attempt to go beyond the egocentric design.

“There needs to be an element of empathy. For me at the beginning it was very difficult to keep myself out of the project. For most of us it is ego-centric. If you take the client, I need to understand that my design should not be what I think is best for him. It is his needs or wants. I have to keep myself out of it. So I try to empathize and look through his eyes. If we take identity, it differs from person to person,” said Liyanage.

He pointed out that in order for a design to be in accordance with the style of the user, empathizing is the key driver. Looking at matters through the eyes of the user, understanding his/her needs and wants, his/her way of living and unique styles, will lead to an outcome that is more towards the user’s identity. With such an approach the user can obtain maximum satisfaction. Empathizing also focuses on the other elements of the ecosystem that the user fits into.

“When designing for the client I need to look at the entire ecology. Both humans and ecology matter. I should empathize with you but still put the ecology in focus. If an architect could identify the client as a single strand in the cobweb of the ecosystem, he will start to see the bigger picture –the role of each of the elements including the user himself in this particular ecosystem and the interactions taking place between these elements. Once the ecosystem is empathized with while focusing on the user requirements, the architect can come out with a solution that will address the user requirements accurately. In addition, he will then acquire the capability to do a design that will get the maximum use of the existing natural resources and the natural interactions within the ecosystem of a particular user,” pointed out Liyanage.

What we need are designs that are eco- centered designs where the user will get the maximum benefit or satisfaction while being a part of his ecosystem.

Architecture in Sri Lanka must try to achieve this approach of designing without craving for foreign trends and implementing them in the local context. If an architect could fully understand the natural, cultural and social interactions that takes place within a particular local context and could dig in deep to the purpose that has to be addressed by the architectural piece, prior to building up assumptions or hypothesis based on a few surface research or study, a successful design that is more related to the context would come out.

“They might not look like the tall and compact buildings you will find in a European country, but it will surely be with true Sri Lankan essence. That is what is more important - merging with the Sri Lankan system that includes its people, animals, plants and trees, rivers and all the elements that engage with the country’s ecology. Once we as architects, learn to put aside our ego and likeliness and start to look at the problem through the eyes of the user, we will be able to give our clients the most convenient answer for their problems.

Similarly as a country if we can identify Sri Lanka’s value and potential, we could reach through its ecosystem and let our designs merge with the local context. Then we can bring the indigenous Sri Lankan quality or identity into these designs. This is not only for the field of architecture. This thinking pattern of eco- centric design could be adapted to any design field. I’m not saying that at the end we can perfectly understand the context and satisfy the user 100 percent, but yet we should try our best at least to reach closer to this,” Liyanage said.


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