Monumental memory | Daily News

Monumental memory

Independence square
Independence square

Sri Lanka celebrates 73 years of Independence today. Since its inception, the Independence Square has become a familiar sight for Sri Lankans. Independence Square still looms large in the Sri Lankan consciousness and will continue to do so. It is a constant in the public lives of citizens. The Daily News speaks to Chartered Architect Susil Lamahewa on the Independence Square, the pride of our homeland.

Of course, the main reason that the Independence Square/ Memorial Hall was built was that the government felt that we should have a memorial to commemorate the independence. It was built new in the administrative capital of Colombo and the square was named as independence square. As in other countries, it is a public square now.

The main reason it is revered by Sri Lankans is that Sri Lanka finally achieved Independence after centuries of colonialism. It was the Public Works Department (PWD) of Ceylon which designed this building and at the time it was TN Wynne Jones who was the chief architect of the department. But Sri Lankan Architect Shirly De Alwis was also involved and he completed the building in 1952. Architects Wynne Jones and Shirly de Alwis assumed leadership when it came to the design. Both of them were attached to the PWD, now known as the Department of Buildings. Certainly, the whole department would have rendered their services with great enthusiasm. They would have been very excited about the event and meeting the deadline. “Once, the late architect M Krishnapillai told me (during my apprenticeship under him) that many ideas were taken into consideration during the initial design stage of the memorial building – whether it should be the architectural designs in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa (Audience hall) or Kandy. Eventually, the team wanted to do something similar to the Kandyan period architecture. The Independence Memorial Hall is a hybrid design of Sri Lankan architectural elements. There are similarities between the Magul Maduwa in Kandy and the Independence Memorial Hall in the Torrington Square. The Magul Maduwa was the Audience Hall or the Courts, where historically the king met his ministers and carried out various administrative tasks. The Independence Memorial Hall sits on a high platform and Kandyan style columns carry the Kandy style roof but using concrete as the main material. Magul Maduwa is primarily built on timber structure whereas the Independent Hall is held up by numerous stone columns which feature elaborate and intricately carved ornamental designs, similar to the Embakke wood carving,” explained Lamahewa.

“It has many similar architectural characters or carved elements from many historical buildings in the country. Timber column carvings, Temple frescoes, valance tiles of the roof, similar stairs of ancient buildings, Figures of Lions and the scale of the building gives the monumental quality to it. Since the memorial building has to be a grandeur place which is its built purpose, it also acts as a monument, a rendezvous, a landmark and also as a public space in today’s context.” explained Lamahewa

He added that it is a gathering space. The building behind the Independence square used to be the asylum for some period. The face of the city changes with time. But once you plant a monument it’s not moved from the original location unless there is some danger to the monument and needs to be rescued.

The material that has been used to build the Independence Square and the Memorial Hall is mainly concrete; it was a novel material during that time. Concrete is easy to mould and durable. But the roof tiles and pinnacles are made of clay.

“The location of the monument was most suitable at its inception. And still is. It has its own language. The avenue leading to the monument is a vista. It is surrounded by lush greenery and gives you a feeling of inner peace and a sense of freedom. It is very calming and the setting adds to the sense of tranquillity. The space around the building adds to the quality of the venue. The present Nelum Theatre (Nelum Pokuna) and the Independence Memorial Hall are in close proximity. Today its surroundings are changing due to the current needs of the populace and the city development drive. But this monument still maintains its grandeur,” pointed out Lamahewa. The Independence Square/ Memorial Hall is a fitting symbol of Sri Lanka’s self -rule and the ending of almost five centuries of Colonial rule. The populace has accepted it as a symbol. And right throughout it has maintained its grandeur status. At the four corners of the rectangular platform, stand stone lions, larger than life-size, based on the historic lion sculptures found in the Yapahuwa Kingdom. These imposing guardians were recreated from the lion statues of the 13th century the Yapahuwa Kingdom.

“In Lankan buildings from the Anuradhapura period, the Lion was used as an icon or as a design element in architecture. Polonnaruwa, the ancient audience hall has Lions at the entrance. At Yapahuwa there are Lions as design elements in the grand stairs. Maybe they are different styles of lions due to various influences. In temple paintings, they have used the pictures of lions. It had become/ or it was a custom to use the lion or ‘Sinha’ on statues/ sculptures/ as part of iconography in the building design elements,” said Lamahewa.

He pointed out that the ruins of assembly halls in all ancient cities exist throughout Sri Lanka. If you carefully analyze the form of it, the rectangular plan of it and the symmetry you may find a similarity. They all have a podium/ or a platform reached by a flight of steps. The two lines of columns or many parallel lines of columns can be seen. The Polonnaruwa assembly hall has stone columns and Kandy has timber columns.

“This memorial building was built to reassert that we are free from Colonialism (colonial architectural elements were not employed in design) meaning that the time of colonialism is over. During the British period, the British had introduced their architecture and architectural language to our country through the PWD using British architectural characters at that time such as colonnades, arcades, arches, columns, pilasters, column bases and capitals, windows, motifs and many decorative elements, and now they are labelled as colonial buildings today,” added Lamahewa.

He enthused that in another 27 years this building will reach its centenary and automatically comes under the listed buildings of the country.

When Independence Square was built, no doubt those responsible were far-sighted. It is this farsightedness and vision that has served to make the Independence square practical and sensible. It is a building that is used on numerous occasions for public events. The design of the monument has made it possible for the attendees to have a clear view of the ceremonies held within the Hall, the arrival of all dignitaries and their ascent by the main steps and of course their departure through the same route. In fact, it was at this building that President Sirisena took oaths. The place caters to all segments of society! Not just politicians but ordinary citizens too. It is both formal and informal. Ordinary but extraordinary! It is a melting pot! All kinds of ordinary citizens patronize the square.