Palinda Kannangara on the architectural ethos of Sri Lanka, and the site as narrator

In a sensitive conversation with STIR, the Sri Lankan architect speaks about his studio, the deliberately small scope of their projects, and an invariable anchorage to site and context.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Aug 10, 2022

Among several countries with remarkable architecture in the Southeast Asian belt, each with their own ethos, a proverbial style, and indigenous methods that have led to the definition of that style, it is perhaps the island nation of Sri Lanka, situated akin to a gem in the expanse of the Indian Ocean, that carries an architecture that has not only been definitive of the very character of South Asian building, but also carried those influences farther and wider. Erstwhile Ceylon - the birthplace of a style as adaptive and robust and responsive as tropical modernism despite centuries of colonial influence and strife - boasts a tale of overwhelming proportions, a legend in the architectural canon really, with Geoffrey Bawa's indomitable legacy at its spearhead. While the tenets of the style primarily adapt largely modernistic sensibilities to elements and responses from tropical climates above the equatorial belt, there is no other country in the South Asian ethos that perhaps warrants architectural interventions to be as completely contextually sensitive and responsive to the extent that Sri Lanka does. Within the pocket-sized island, especially when compared with its relatively sizeable neighbours, geographies change almost as rapidly as dominant weather conditions. A stride from the northern tip of the island, along its extensive shoreline, to the marshes, hills, and peninsular south would reveal vast, varied ecosystems that demand to be protagonists rather than settings - as much as the country’s kindred heritage and culture.

A near holy reverence to the site, and the extension of the architectural process as essentially a dialogue between the architect and the site, is what may be argued to be at the heart of Sri Lanka’s tropical modernism, now transfigured into individually modified vernacular versions elsewhere. The site as narrator and director, a prime imparter of definition, signifies an interesting shift in power, a near unequivocal surrender, that encircles the ethos of modern Sri Lankan architectural practices too. Among them, the office of renowned homegrown architect Palinda Kannangara, located in Rajagiriya, is founded and continues to carve a niche for itself charged with the same belief.

  • Facade design, Artist’s retreat in Pittugala | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Facade design, Artist’s retreat in Pittugala Image: Sebastian Posingis
  • The architecture of the Artist’s retreat, along with several other PKA works, boasts simplicity with a strong contextual grounding | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    The architecture of the Artist’s retreat, along with several other PKA works, boasts simplicity with a strong contextual grounding Image: Palinda’s portrait: Courtesy of Palinda Kannangara Architects; Artist’s Retreat, Pittugala: Sebastian Posingis

With a body of work that may be termed increasingly humanistic and yet belonging entirely to the site, merging and morphing with it in ways that births a distinct motif and repertoire that his office has come to be known for, Kannangara boasts a unique confluential training in architecture and mathematics. Championing local narratives, and the use of local labour and material in his projects, Kannangara didactically puts the "style" behind the substance, deriving from the site itself, the heart of his creations, and an originator of ideas. The influences in his creation of a new legacy are rather clear, since Kannangara trained with the Sri Lankan modernist architect Anura Rathnavibushana, who had worked with Geoffrey Bawa for 16 years. As Sri Lanka moves from a crisis of identity to a crisis of conscience, Kannangara’s architecture has remained remarkably democratic at the head of these virtues.

In an insightful conversation that materialised over the course of several months, while this country of inimitable beauty and wondrous terrains overcame a political crisis through a people’s movement, even as the economic crisis stays incumbent, Kannangara opens up about his acclaimed practice and his personal musings on architecture, staying locally rooted with respect to Sri Lanka, and all that the land has endowed him with, leading to a veritable style that symbolically carries the mantle from Bawa. Closing on a solemn note, Kannangara seemed hopeful for the future of the island nation emerging from upheaval and turmoil, citing resilience and reliance on the local as the way forward.

  • Frame Holiday Structure, Immaduwa | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Frame Holiday Structure, Immaduwa Image: Courtesy of Palinda Kannangara Architects
  • The architecture astutely responds and takes into account local site conditions, with the site being a generator of ideas for Kannangara | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    The architecture astutely responds and takes into account local site conditions, with the site being a generator of ideas for Kannangara Image: Courtesy of Palinda Kannangara Architects

Anmol Ahuja: You have formally studied both mathematics and architecture. That’s a curious combination. What prompted the transition from something as theoretical to designing and building?

Palinda Kannangara: As a child, my interests lay in drawing and mathematics, while my mother encouraged my interest in architecture. I obtained a seat to study mathematics at the University of Colombo, and during the second year of mathematics studies obtained a seat at CSA (City School of Architecture). Architecture melded both my interest in art and mathematics and seemed like the right career path.

Anmol: Do you see the two disciplines somehow merge in your practice today?

Palinda: Mathematics was for me a means to eventually discover a path in architecture; it has only enriched my practice. My approach to design tends to be an uncomplicated one, based as much on rationale and logic as with the aesthetic qualities of architecture. Mathematics has led to being quick with analysis, helped make choices uncomplicated, and to be experimental, amongst other aspects.

  • Linear House at Battaramulla | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Linear House at Battaramulla Image: Sebastian Posingis
  • The interiors too boast a simplistic approach with a certain material purity that champions the local craftsman | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    The interiors too boast a simplistic approach with a certain material purity that champions the local craftsman Image: Sebastian Posingis

Anmol: Are there any distinct influences that you were particularly drawn to in the early stages of your practice? Do you still carry them?

Palinda: Geoffrey Bawa has shaped modern Sri Lankan architecture and impacted several generations of architects, and the approach to architecture in my country. I continue to look up to his work to understand his way of thinking and his way of design. To this day, his architecture is still relevant. I am glad that I am completely homegrown and exposed more to my own context before any international exposure.

Anmol: What is the genesis of a design for you? What is the first step in the manifestation of your creative process?

Palinda: The design and working process is always deeply connected to site and program. Our architecture is always an intuitive reading of the site; this understanding is developed through a series of detailed drawings and sketches made on site, for working purposes. Our architecture aims to combine both the visceral and the pragmatic. The first step is always to understand and absorb the site and its essence before the act of moving to the drawing and making.

  • Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, the residence cum workspace for Palinda Kannangara | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, the residence cum workspace for Palinda Kannangara Image: Thilina Wijesiri
  • The studio’s front facade comprises a perforated brick screen | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    The studio’s front facade comprises a perforated brick screen Image: Sebastian Posingis

Anmol: What is the largest and smallest scale of projects that you have worked on, respectively? Do you have any essential, indispensable learnings from that variance?

Palinda: Most of our work tends to be small scale. However, my approach is always to make it suitable to the context rather than a singular building to be looked at. I always carefully listen to the requirements of the clients and reinterpret the brief to include those requirements, and yet matching with the context, feeling absorbed from the site.

Anmol: Is there a particular set of materials that you find yourself going back to, or have particular affinity for?

Palinda: I believe in using locally available materials, using which will enhance the design concept and a feeling of place. I believe in exploring material use in creative ways which are site appropriate or project specific and employing local labor to craft the building.

  • Wellness retreat at Habarana | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Wellness retreat at Habarana Image: Mahesh Mendis
  • The intervention uses extensive landscape design in a bid to meld the structure with its site | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    The intervention uses extensive landscape design in a bid to meld the structure with its site Image: Mahesh Mendis

Anmol: Have you practiced and designed in any other countries apart from Sri Lanka? How different do you think the architecture and its practice is in these countries?

Palinda: I have only recently accepted projects outside of Sri Lanka. Our first project in India is a home for a young family in Bengaluru. We also have a beach shack in Anjuna, Goa, that will be completed soon, and a small resort in the Terai Grasslands of Nepal that we completed before the pandemic. It has given us a great opportunity to understand context and way of living of the people and the rich material culture there. We have also made good friends in the process.

Anmol: Is there something one could call a definitive, recurring motif or theme in your projects?

Palinda: We believe in an architecture that is about the process of reduction; of using available resources wisely and consciously, especially in our tiny island country; of 'de-cluttering' both visually and physically; and of course respecting the environment.

  • Architect Palinda Kannangara at the PKA studio with his team | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Architect Palinda Kannangara at the PKA studio with his team Image: Thilina Wijesiri
  • Materials selected in the interiors do not require any secondary finishes, including paints and polishes | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Materials selected in the interiors do not require any secondary finishes, including paints and polishes Image: Thilina Wijesiri

Anmol: In a time when architecture is rapidly turning global, and somewhat homogenous in the process, you have chosen to remain remarkably local, and smaller in operations intentionally. What are the reasons for that?

Palinda: I am privileged to work in the beautiful country of Sri Lanka, which despite its small size has a rich cultural history and built heritage and landscapes that inspire me. We seek to build sensitively, and be involved in all aspects of building, and for this we need time. We also choose our projects very carefully in order to truly enjoy them and their process.

We believe in an architecture that is about the process of reduction.

Anmol: What according to you best defines the "Sri Lankan ethos" in the nation’s very distinct architecture? Do you find yourself and your work influenced by it, adhering to it, or in the process of defining it?

Palinda: The ethics of minimalism and environmentalism which are part of the Sri Lankan ethos are vital to our works. In a bio-diverse island like Sri Lanka, architectural responses need to move beyond built response to create a dialogue with the larger landscape. We look at sustainability in a holistic manner and seek to use materials resourcefully, promoting the use of local materials, encouraging local craftsmanship, and designing buildings that respond to the climate and the lifestyle of the user.

Architectural responses need to move beyond built response to create a dialogue with the larger landscape.

Anmol: Do you have a muse apart from architecture? Another creative indulgence, perhaps?

Palinda: I enjoy music and like to DJ in my spare time.

  • Kannangara states his architecture to be an intuitive reading of the site developed through sketches and drawings made on site that are then refined and worked upon in the office  | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Kannangara states his architecture to be an intuitive reading of the site developed through sketches and drawings made on site that are then refined and worked upon in the office Image: Thilina Wijesiri
  • Conceptual sketches are an importantpart of Kannangara’s design process | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketches are an importantpart of Kannangara’s design process Image: Courtesy of Palinda Kannangara Architects

Anmol: Geoffrey Bawa and his work have been widely attributed to be definitive of the 'tropical modernist' style of architecture in the country. How much do you agree with the formulation of the term itself, and its description of the country’s vibrant architectural scene?

Palinda: I completely agree with it. Bawa’s work is a modernism that is deeply influenced by responsiveness to climate and lifestyle, and not only has it defined contemporary Sri Lankan architecture, but also influenced architecture in other countries in Asia as well.

While being more sustainable and conscious, the goal of architecture is to always serve the people.
  • Bungalow at Avissawella | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    Bungalow at Avissawella Image: Waruna Gomis
  • The project uses upcycled building material and local labour for assemblage, much like a majority of projects by the studio | Interview with Palinda Kannangara | Palinda Kannangara | STIRworld
    The project uses upcycled building material and local labour for assemblage, much like a majority of projects by the studio Image: Waruna Gomis

Anmol: Do you think the country’s current economic crisis or the civil strife it has experienced in past years have in any way influenced the practice of the profession in the country? How do you think practices emerge from these?

Palinda: It is our belief that architecture needs to be accessible to all. Commerce has never driven our practice, neither has scale or volume of work. This stayed true for us even during the crisis. We have examples of Bawa during the 70s with the county's trade embargo, developing creative ways of using available material. This is a great example and we too continue to build and to modify and be consiously reductive in the design process. This is definitely a good challenge and opportunity for us to find creative ways and means of building during this crisis to enable people to continue their way of living. While being more sustainable and conscious, the goal of architecture is to always serve the people.

What do you think?

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