‘New architectural identity is inevitable’ | Daily News

‘New architectural identity is inevitable’

Architecture is a field that is constantly evolving. This is because the built environment changes according to man’s aspirations, intelligence, desires and beliefs. However, we cannot forget the past because the built environment has an identity and to appreciate that identity we need to reflect on the past. Because the future will be the past one day. ArchWorld speaks to Chartered Architect Chinthaka Wickramage of Chinthaka Wickramage Associates, who speaks of Socially Engaged Contemporary Architecture in Sri Lanka.

The 26 year long War against the LTTE and the 2004 Tsunami reminded the world that Architects are indispensable to society. Because the task of rebuilding was in their hands. The task of healing psychological wounds was in their hands. Wickramage points out that both these traumatic events took the architects out of their ‘comfort zone’. They had to experience what we as a country should never experience again. The full horrors of both events made an indelible impression on them. When you see destruction, it changes you. When you see the dark side of human nature, it changes you.

“The long standing war and tsunami took the Sri Lankan architectural fraternity out of their comfort zone and emphasized the importance of building for the disaster and war affected poor in the remote corners of the island. For example, it was a tortuous 10-hour drive from the capital Colombo to Ampara district at that time, which had long been a battleground between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army. In 2005, when choosing where to take on rebuilding projects, we as architects took on the Eastern Ampara District, to ‘design & rebuild schools’. At the time, the breakdown of the peace agreement and the resurgence of the fighting between LTTE factions meant the security of our staff, supply routes and workers could not be guaranteed.

New signs

Yet some Sri Lankan architects did go there, and there are now signs of regeneration amid the rubble in that most under-privileged poverty stricken, war and tsunami affected region. New schools were needed to replace those destroyed in the tsunami. Schools untouched by the sea were rendered virtually uninhabitable by the hundreds of thousands of people forced to use them for shelter,” said Wickramage.

Wickramage points out that after the twin disasters, the tsunami and the war, the architecture in Sri Lanka took a social turn. New radical approaches which bear environmental, social and economic sustainability aspects, were already contributing to the emerging contemporary architecture in Sri Lanka. It’s variety, diversity and character needs to be understood. It was the foresighted approach to question the role of architecture in the context of modernity and modernisation after the twin disasters to strike Sri Lanka.

Indeed, architecture is for the adventurous and the bold. Redefining ideas to improve the design approach and innovation paves the way for a new architectural language.

“Now Sri Lankan architects do not hesitate to combine materials to search for new forms, to try the un-practiced and to redefine ideas to improve our design approach with the search for a new architectural language. In that sense our architecture responds to the needs of the users and provides pleasant environments for the community including socially engaged contemporary buildings,” explained Wickramage.

New architectural identity

Certainly developing a new architectural identity has always been one of the basic concerns of our architecture. In a specifically Sri Lankan context this mostly involves the use of local materials and building techniques, which today in Asia are still seen from an adopted colonial viewpoint as ‘poor’ and ‘underdeveloped’

Wickramage fully agrees that when it comes to Sri Lankan society, the impact of socially engaged community led projects have been tremendous.

“For example, a school rebuilding project we were engaged in brought in rich dividends to the school children, teachers and education sector in general. Students have classrooms here that they never had before. These children are the future of Sri Lanka and now they have a school which will help them educate themselves, find jobs, make the best of themselves and achieve prosperity. Sixty- two schools serving 31,000 pupils in the war ravaged east of Sri Lanka were rebuilt by the aid agency Goal Ireland with the help of Sri Lankan architects in a remarkably short time - 24 months. Each building was destroyed by the freak wave or severely damaged and rebuilt thereafter.”

Wickramage added that in a vicious, sadistic, 26- year civil war an estimated 100,000 have been killed and more than half a million displaced by the fighting.

Skilled’ people

“An entire society has been brutalized. A twenty six year war does etch indelible scars on a nation, more so on its youth who were born into the war, especially the youth of the North and East of Sri Lanka. However, the end of the war brought hope for peace. The government of Sri Lanka intensified its efforts to accelerate economic development in the war affected North and East. Numerous plans were launched to create a group of ‘skilled’ people by ‘empowering’ them with vocational training to push this economic agenda. After the end of the war skilled youth are needed to confidently and competently spearhead this vision. The need to create and nurture a sustainable and employable base of ‘young people with skills’ in the North and East became imperative,” explained Wickramage.

Certainly the empowerment of youth has had an impact on society in the war torn north. Here we must commend the re- building effort by the Sri Lankan architects when it comes to vocational schools.

“Blend of social skills and economic solidarity is directly linked with architectural language and innovative identity. It is a transformation that is successfully reflected in our buildings. Now in our buildings we see the elements of social relevance, innovative design approach and highest aesthetic standards. As we know buildings are a result of the conditions of its local environment and as a result opens the way for social change. It is important that there is a discourse when it comes to architecture in order to ensure that human society fully benefits from the expertise of our architects. As society changes a new architectural identity is inevitable,” said Wickramage.


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