Exhibition on ‘Architectural Modernism in Sri Lanka’: Interview with Exhibition Curator
Architectural Modernism in Sri Lanka’ Exhibition
As Korea and Sri Lanka celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between two countries in this year, commemorative exhibition on Sri Lankan Modern Architecture was opened on 31st August at ACC Library Park.
The show exhibits selected works by two modern masters-architects of Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa and Valentine Gunasekara. The former dwelt on the island’s architectural traditions to establish the retrospective Neo-Regionalism, is now regarded as having been one of the most important and influential Asian architects of the twentieth century. The latter in his quest for human egalitarianism, adapted a progressive style of Modern Expressionism and is considered to be one of the most influential for the architecture of the country’s post-independent period. Curated by Archt. Dr. Nishan Rasanga Wijetunga, this exhibition is a golden opportunity for those who are interested in Sri Lanka’s modern architecture.
About the Curator:
Architect. Dr. Nishan Rasanga Wijetunge obtained his first degree of B.Sc. in Built environment from the University of Moratuwa with a First Class Honors in 2003. Having received the prestigious Presidential Scholarship in 2004, he was fortunate enough to read for a Masters in Architecture and Interior Design at London Metropolitan University in the U.K. He completed his second Master degree in Architecture again from the University of Moratuwa in 2007, before completing his Charter two years later in 2009 that awarded him with AIA (SL). His Ph.D. in Architecture was completed in 2012 from Nottingham Trent University, U.K., on a Vice Chancellor scholarship. During the 3 year stint in the U.K., he also completed a Diploma in Research Practice from the same university.
<Curator Archt. Dr. Wijetunge Speaking at the Opening Ceremony>
Following is the interview with the Exhibition Curator Archt. Dr. Nishan Rasanga Wijetunge.
Q. First of all, tell us something about this exhibition.
: This exhibition entitled “Architectural Modernism in Sri Lanka: Geoffrey Bawa, Valentine Gunasekara” results from Asia Culture Institute (ACI) funded project to showcase to the Korea public how Sri Lanka-as a nation in the developing world with its unique share of political and socio-cultural problems-reacted to Architectural Modernism, and its implications on the contemporary times.
This exhibition in fact, the first attempt to look at works by the two masters of Sri Lankan architectural modernism as a comparison for an exhibition, with the aim of wider dissemination of the material. For this, the collection has deliberately been limited, only providing a glimpse of projects selected from rich portfolios of the two architects in question. The projects have been handpicked from comparable phases of architectural deviation, and based on building category. The salient factor of consideration here is that this exhibition happens in a turbulent time that a hitherto unforeseen threat of destruction and defacement looms over the works of postcolonial architects of Sri Lanka as a whole; in the name of rapid economic development and growth.
Q. Why did you decided to select these two architects for this exhibition?
: Valentine Gunasekara and Geoffrey Bawa were contemporaries, and once work colleagues who had very disparate approaches to architecture. Although both their respective contributions to postcolonial period Sri Lankan architecture is noteworthy, while the latter has been over the years brought into the limelight, the former has been largely shrouded in obscurity. Gunasekara’s works have never been acknowledged in the form of an exhibition, although Bawa’s on the other hand, have had a few of such opportunities over the decades.
During my PhD research days in U.K., this anomaly became very apparent, I was waiting for an opportunity to do something about it. When the opportunity finally came to showcase postcolonial period modern architecture of Sri Lanka, it was only logical to give equal weightage to both the masters, on a comparative basis.
< Exhibition is Explained to Sri Lankan Ambassador>
Q. How do you compare these two Architects, Geoffrey Bawa and Valentine Gunasekara?
: Having severed their tropical modern upbringings at the very outset of their careers that paralleled, both these architects forged their very own and unique architectural styles- Neo-regionalism of Geoffrey Bawa and Expressionist Modernism of Valentine Gunasekara. It has been established and affirmed by many commentators over the years that Bawa’s retrospective approach that dwelt on historicism won great public acclaim to rise to the level of ‘flagship style’ out of familiarity to the populace, as well as political backing it received among many other reasons. His architecture by the 1980s was elevated to this stature having fed on omnipresent nationalist sentiments in a time of communal unrest and chaos.
Gunasekara’s reliance on the California modernist experiments of the 1950s-60s coupled with his dogmatically-charged quest for human egalitarianism procreated a unique brand of architecture that paid homage to local traditions and natural landscapes, yet in an implicit manner via repetition and replication. The alienation hid modern buildings caused towards a population engulfed in nationalist politics contributed to his gradual detriment as a prolific practitioner.
The exhibition features both domestic and civic realms these two architects helped shape up, starting from the 1960s, into the 1990s. Their works are compared on the basis of phases apparent in their career portfolios – a fact that been widely acknowledged – rather than on their completion dates; as each architect reached latter two phases on their own terms at different times, free of each other’s influence. Yet, these shifting of phases happened for both architects almost with the same decades – phase 2 in the 1960s and phase 3 in the 1980s.
The ‘Tropical Modern’ phase that both architects set out from is overlooked here owing to its negligible influence in the postcolonial era’s architectural rhetoric. The two houses taken up for each master represent phases 2 and 3 respectively, where projects presented under labels ‘religious’, ‘educational’, ‘institutional’ and ‘recreational’ also follow the aforesaid phases, appropriate for a logical comparison.
Interviewed/written by: Tharanga Ranasinge, 10th ACC Reporters Corps
Designed by. Lee Songeun, 10th ACC Reporters Corps