Like Bawa, Anjalendran draws liberally on the ‘vernacular’ traditions of his country, so that his buildings variously invoke the courtyards of old Jaffna, the columns and arches of Kandyan ‘manor houses’, and the ancient boulder gardens of Anuradhapura and Buddhist temples. And he does so with real and intimate knowledge of these traditions.
By David E. Cooper
It is more than quarter of a century since there emerged the idea of a ‘critical regionalism’ in architecture. While accepting and advocating the ‘confluence of globally prevalent’ styles and technologies with ‘culturally and geographically specific ones’ this regionalism was critical in more than one sense. For one thing, it rejected some of the dominant trends in global or ‘international’ modernism, such as what many had come to regard as a dour functionalism. At the same time, it was critical of the ‘kitsch vernacular’ that some ‘post-colonial’ architects in developing countries were producing in an over-hasty enthusiasm to retrieve lost traditions.
An architect soon recognised as embodying the legitimate ideals of critical regionalism was the Sri Lankan, Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), arguably the leading figure in what David Robson – the foremost authority on Bawa’s work – called ‘modern regional architecture in monsoon Asia’ in his book Beyond Bawa. At the end of that book, Robson refers to ‘the Geoffrey Bawa phenomenon – an ever-changing group of talented people who together invented a new architecture for a newly independent country and ultimately changed a nation’s view of itself’2. Briefly discussed in the book was the work of an important younger member of this flexible group, Anjalendran (b. 1951), who is now the subject of Robson’s new book, Anjalendran: Architect of Sri Lanka. (‘Anjalendran’, incidentally, is the ‘unique name’ of the architect, in keeping with a Tamil tradition, followed by his parents, which dispenses with a family name.) Over many years, Anjalendran was closely connected with Bawa – as pupil, assistant, travelling companion, and friend. For the younger architect, as for Robson, Bawa represented the best in critical regionalism, epitomising – as Anjalendran put it in a 1992 article – the ‘ideal’ of adapting ‘the context of the traditional’ to meet with modern aspirations.
Unsurprisingly, Anjalendran’s own architectural commitments owe much to Bawa’s inspiration – the conviction, for example, that in buildings in monsoon countries, the first and most important component to get right is the roof. At a more general level, his enthusiasm for what he calls ‘formlessness’ echoes his mentor’s view that it is the relationships between the shapes and the spaces created by built structures, rather than the structures themselves, that are the primary locus of architectural interest. Like Bawa, Anjalendran draws liberally on the ‘vernacular’ traditions of his country, so that his buildings variously invoke the courtyards of old Jaffna, the columns and arches of Kandyan ‘manor houses’, and the ancient boulder gardens of Anuradhapura and Buddhist temples. And he does so with real and intimate knowledge of these traditions. (In a review of Robson’s new book, another distinguished architect closely associated with Bawa, Channa Daswatte, recalls with affection the many trips in jeeps that he and Anjalendran made to study and draw the temples, monasteries and other historic buildings of their country.)4. He is, of course, alert to the danger of ‘kitsch vernacular’, and is appropriately critical, therefore, of such ‘incongruous’ gestures as erecting a wattle and daub hut in the grounds of a hotel.
Despite these acknowledged debts to Geoffrey Bawa’s example, few of Anjalendran’s buildings look especially similar to the ones that Bawa himself designed. In part, this is because they have worked on rather different scales. As his career progressed, Bawa increasingly concentrated on large-scale projects – a fine series of hotels, a university campus, and the new parliament building on a lake in the Colombo suburb of Kotte. By contrast, Anjalendran has mainly focused on building houses, most of them modest, both in size and cost. Such differences, however, do not disguise one feature that is common to the work of Bawa and his erstwhile assistant; a palpable sense that buildings exist not simply to perform a function, but to give pleasure and promote happiness. He does not try, remarks Anjalendran in a recent interview, to ‘save the world’, but he does aim to ‘make a few people happy.
The idea that architecture may and should contribute to people’s psychological wellbeing has attracted renewed attention in recent years, largely as a result of the publication in 2006 of Alain de Botton’s vigorous promotion of it in his The Architecture of Happiness. It needs emphasising, though, that the ‘happiness’ referred to in the title is not primarily that of pleasurable emotion, but what the Greeks meant by eudaimonia – the sense that one’s life is flourishing and fulfilling. This is why, for de Botton, architecture contributes to happiness in and through expressing human virtues, for it is the virtuous life that is a flourishing one. Buildings can do this, for example, through exhibiting ‘the architectural equivalents of generosity, honesty or gentleness’. The best buildings, continues de Botton, ‘evoke … the most attractive, significant attributes of human beings’.
It is not difficult, when reading Robson’s commentary on Anjalendran’s buildings, to identify in his work the architectural equivalents of several virtues – simplicity, restraint and modesty, for example, or respect for the integrity of places and materials. Virtues like respect for integrity belong, arguably, to a wider virtue whose ‘architectural equivalents’ have recently been a subject of attention in architectural theory. This is the virtue of what the philosopher Warwick Fox calls ‘responsive cohesion’ – a flexible, mutually beneficial cohesion or harmony not only between a thing’s component parts but, more importantly, between it and its context and environment.8 Good architecture, on this approach, produces buildings that are maximally coherent with their larger environments – natural, cultural and social – and without sacrificing internal cohesion.
Cohesion with the natural environment – which is not necessarily the immediate local one– is an unmistakeable ambition of Anjalendran’s work. It is no accident that his ‘singular inspiration’, as he described it in an interview, was the great garden, Lunuganga, that Geoffrey Bawa created for himself near Bentota over the course of forty years. In several ways – usually under the constraint of building small houses on small plots – Anjalendran’s2 houses constitute what Robson calls a ‘dialogue between architecture and landscape’ (p.235). There is, for example, the incorporation in some of the houses of already existing
trees, a mango, say, or a banyan. Where space is especially limited, ‘vertical’ gardens are included in order to enlarge the scope for introducing plants, and in most of the houses, courtyards enable the buildings to ‘breathe’. Minimal use is made of glass and partitions that would serve as barriers between inside and outside. Through these and other devices, Anjalendran has, in Robson’s judgement, created ‘oases in a desert of public squalor’ (p.88). As this remark implies, the cohesion of the houses with the natural environment is not necessarily with the immediately surrounding one which, in the case of the Colombo suburbs, is liable to be a severely degraded one. Rather, the trees and plants that are integral to the designs resonate with the larger natural environment of Sri Lanka, with the swamps, jungles and orchards beyond the desert of squalor.
Some of the larger projects on which the architect has worked have made possible more ambitious dialogues with natural landscapes. Looking down on a famous house designed by Bawa in the south of Sri Lanka are the buildings Anjalendran has created on the hill-top of a working cinnamon estate. These, as Robson remarks, are designed less to look at than to look out from – towards the jungle covered hills in one direction, towards the great sweep of Weligama Bay in another, and at the plantation of cinnamon trees that grow immediately below. The buildings, one might say, gather together – or responsively cohere with – ever larger natural environments: trees, mountains, oceans. Again, in the ‘village’ for displaced children near Galle that Anjalendran designed for the Austrian NGO, SOS Kinderhof International, there is ‘dialogue’ – this time between the buildings and the great boulders that evoke the monastery gardens of ancient Sri Lanka. Robson remarks on the significance for the architectural success of this ‘village’ of the natural spaces that enable the individual built structures to form a real ‘community’ in which, nevertheless, each of these structures has its autonomy (p.187).
The fourteen years of work that Anjalendran undertook for the SOS organisation is an indication of the importance that social issues and the relationship of buildings to social contexts have in his architectural thinking and practice. (An earlier indication was the topic on which he chose to write his MSc thesis at University College London in 1979 – the architectural implications of caste differences.) A particular concern has been to provide affordable buildings in the suburbs that appropriately respond to the changed needs of young professional families who feel unable any longer to live in the centre of Colombo, with its soaring prices, expanding crime rate and pollution. The demand for these ‘houses at the edge’, as Robson calls them, was greatly accelerated when, in the early 1980s, suburbs sprang up in the swampy environs of the new parliament building. For Anjalendran, the modest but airy, landscaped and individual houses, including his own that he has made in Battaramulla and Kotte are an emphatically preferable alternative, for social as much as aesthetic reasons, to the high-rise apartments that, in so many Asian capitals, have become the sole option for many young families.
The concern with life-enhancement, with ‘making a few people happy’, is not confined to Anjalendran’s domestic architecture. For example, a gem factory he designed in another suburb, Nugegoda, with its trees and verandahs, responds as much to the workers’ need for a peaceful and healthy ambience as to functional imperatives. Like the houses, it is something of an oasis in a generally unattractive locality. Once again, the ‘cohesion’ is not with the immediate social and urban context, but with a more distant and glimpsed landscape and with more traditional ideals of a workplace fit for human beings.
Anjalendran: Architect of Sri Lanka, Channa Daswatte observes, gives more of a sense of ‘who the architect is as a person’ than most architectural monographs. Born into a prominent, but secular and English speaking Tamil family, Anjalendran’s first love was Indian dance, and he turned to architecture only after his father forbad a career in the theatre. (Given his enduring love of dance, it is appropriate that the name ‘Anjalendran’ echoes the title of an Indian dance that his mother particularly admired.) He finally embarked on this career after completing his studies at the universities of Colombo, Moratuwa and London. An assistant, briefly, in Geoffrey Bawa’s firm, Anjalendran has for most of his career worked, in Robson’s words, as ‘that rare animal: a sole practising architect’, working from home with a small and changing team of assistants, and usually taking on responsibility for all aspects of his projects, including landscape design (p.234). Anjalendran emerges from Robson’s book as an engaging, if sometimes ‘difficult’, man whose virtues of integrity, humility and respect for cultural tradition and natural environment find expression in his work. If, as one architectural theorist puts it, a person who ‘leads a principled and generous life promoting responsive cohesion leads a beautiful life’, then Anjalendran’s life is one marked by beauty.9 It is a life, certainly, that is further enhanced by the many art-works – modern Sri Lankan paintings, ancient statues of Buddhas and Hindu gods, masks and dolls – with which his own house is crammed. (Several of these are illustrated and described in the short ‘visual essays that punctuate the main text of Robson’s book.)
David Robson’s book is more a fitting tribute to an architect he admires than an essay in architectural criticism – a tribute, one surmises, which is especially gratifying to pay given that Anjalendran was once a student of the author when he lectured in Colombo nearly forty years ago. There is less theoretical discussion of the ideals of architecture and the criteria for good building than in Robson’s earlier books, especially Beyond Bawa. This reflects, perhaps, his subject’s own reticence, shared with Geoffrey Bawa, in making large pronouncements on the significance of his work. It is clear, however, that for Robson Anjalendran’s buildings embody the ideals of ‘modern regional architecture in monsoon Asia’, not least through their resistance to the barren ‘international’ modernism that has triumphed in many Asian cities and through their ‘dialogue’ or cohesion with natural environments. Indeed, in Robson’s judgement, the buildings serve as a model for regional architecture by, in particular, providing attractive and ‘affordable solutions to the aspiring middle class of Asia’s burgeoning cities’ (p.235). This is a judgement with which, I predict, most readers will concur as they look at the many fine photographs, mainly taken by Waruna Gomis and by the author himself, that make Anjalendran: Architect of Sri Lanka a very handsome volume indeed.
1. K.L. Eggener, cited in Antony Radford, ‘Responsive cohesion as the foundational value of architecture’, Journal of Architecture, 14, 2009, p. 525.
2. Beyond Bawa: Modern Masterworks of Monsoon Asia, London: Thames & Hudson, 2007, p. 259.
3. Current architecture in Sri Lanka’, Mimar, 42, 1992, p.22.
4. ‘The beautiful and the practical’, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 11.10.2009.
5. ‘Current architecture in Sri Lanka’, op.cit., p.27.
6. ‘Living architect of Sri Lanka’, Newstraitstimes, 04.09.2009.
7. The Architecture of Happiness, London: Penguin, 2006, pp.84 & 174.
8. See Fox’s A Theory of General Ethics: Human Relationships, Nature, and the Built Environment, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.
9. Radford,op.cit., p.517.