Some call him the architect of Sri Lanka or the next big thing after Geoffrey Bawa but I doubt Anjalendran gives a damn about the labels. Sitting in his home, a place where he can be himself and clad in a sarong he is too busy doing things the way he wants.

The Nation met him last week to talk about his philosophy in life ‘do not try to save the world, but try and perhaps make a few people around you happy’ and architecture ‘be simple, less pretentious and build for the less rich’ and also the book Anjalendran: The architect of Sri Lanka by David Robson.

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Q: Your childhood seemed quite fascinating, I have been told that you grew up in the households of Doric de Souza and Vivian and Leslie Gunawardane?

Well I would say I had a very normal childhood, as many of my friends I went to Royal, although I was not thoroughly enamoured with studies, I did other kinds of activities. Well but as luck would have it, I grew up in two Trotskyites households, Doric de Souza’s and Leslie and Vivian Gunawardane’s, I grew up with their daughters. And these individuals were very socially conscious and were very down-to- earth. They were not pretentious and thought about the common man and about equality. And I think that what I was exposed to influenced me and changed my world view and living down to earth and these came from living close to these people. Even in my own household ,my mother was involved in charity. And for us education was the most important thing, second was to be a professional rather than a businessman, thirdly to help the community rather than oneself. The basic philosophy of Hinduism is that you act without self merit. And also activities like dancing and paper folding and music played a major role in my architecture. While dancing gave me a sense of space, paper folding, which is in essence is creating something out of nothing I think also helped me in my future career. My philosophy in architecture is ‘be simple, less pretentious and build for the less rich.” And I think what I was exposed to as a child played a great role in shaping this view.

Q: You were named after a dance devoted to Lord Shiva and you said you were every much into dancing as a kid. Are you still into Indian dancing?

Yes, I am. But for a time I did not dance at all because of work but a few years ago my doctor told me that I had cholesterol and high blood sugar and he wanted me to join a gym. I was not every keen about this but after thinking about it I called my dancing teacher 40 years ago and I said will you take me back. He accepted and now I do that twice a week. I really like the activity but also I like the music and it also gives me a chance to improve my Tamil, a language that I am not really good at although I am one.

Q: After graduating from the University of Moratuwa with a BSc in Architecture, you moved to the University College of London where you obtained a Diploma and Master’s degree in Architecture where you met the legendary Geoffrey Bawa?

Well, I had met him before at university in Moratuwa. His tall figure was some what familiar site at the University but I really did not speak to him much. But my real acquaintance with Geoffrey begins when I went to England in 1974, to do higher studies. Geoffrey also came to London at that time and I bumped into him one day at the University. That was the first time we really had a conversation, after that we met often and went to lunch, theatre and film, things that we were not able to do in Sri Lanka. When I came back I worked for him for two years and I also worked for two and a half years for Surath Wickremasinghe. But I was not really sure of what I wanted to do and Geoffrey understood that and told me “why don’t you go and do on your own. I will help you with one or two jobs.” Geoffrey has been the biggest influence of my life and his garden Lunuganga is the site that inspires me the most and I used to spend most weekends there with Geoffrey between 1983 and 1992.The thing is a lot of my values come from Geoffrey and he is the guy who took away the pretentiousness from architecture. He thought that architecture was a background to life and not what’s in your face. After JR opened up the economy a lot of new money came in and with that a lot of pretentiousness and architecture has moved from the functional to the decorative again but I would like to hold on to the notion that a building should be functional above all.

Q: Most of your houses are built around a tree/s and does this also comes from Bawa’s appreciation of nature?

The first house I designed was for Dr Senake Bandaranayake and his wife Manel Fonseka and when I went to the site I saw three magnificent trees, including a magnificent mango tree, and I immediately decided that these trees had to be accommodated within the building. I would always choose to build the building around a tree than to destroy it and that is also the philosophy of Geoffrey. Geoffrey who would always choose a tree over a building any day, he always thought that the house should always play a background for the tree. But then again this is not only a choice of aesthetics; this is also based on practical reasons. Both of us believe in functionality and a tree acts as a natural air conditioner. Its does not guzzles down energy and it gives character to a site, making it unique.

Q: You also have an extensive collection of paintings and sculpture?

I always liked art and it has been a part of my life from the beginning. And in all the houses I design art and craft plays a major role and I must admit I’m very much influenced by Geoffrey in this respect too. Geoffrey’s buildings were not decorated and art and crafts were a major part of his architecture. People who had their houses designed by Geoffrey spent money on paintings and sculpture and I think this is how Barbara Sansoni and Ena de Silva happened. Anyway buying art is very important and I think by buying art we encourage and nourish a new generation of artists. Although I bought my paintings from people like Laki Senanayake now I buy a lot of art from a much younger generation, for example Jagath Weerasinghe and also recently I bought a set of ‘Bullets’ by Kusal Gunesekara, most of these younger artists use art as a reflection of society, something an architect would never do. It’s almost the antithesis of architecture. Unfortunately a lot of professionals including architects would buy is a big car when they get hold of some money but I would spend that money on art. I can buy that many paintings and I think it will encourage young artists, another way of continuing society. And there are dozens of paintings and sculpture and hundreds of curiosities in my house and a specific chapter is reserved for all these in the book “Anjalendran – Architect of Sri Lanka.”

Q: Talking about David Robson’s Anjalendran – Architect of Sri Lanka.” How has the response been? Did it bring any new work?

(Laughing) not really, well I got a call last week about a project from someone who has not seen the book. But the response has been excellent, when the book came out Vijitha Yapa bought 1000 copies of the book and in the last month or so they tell me they have sold over 800 copies, that very good for Sri Lanka and I when I went to Singapore for the launch of the book at the Singapore architects festival, the book was very well displayed. The book still hasn’t gone to Europe and USA, but the company that published it, Periplus, is an aggressive distributor. Whenever a new book is published they always display it prominently at book stores. Only after a month, the book has already covered the costs, I guess its going to be good. I’m surprised and glad. And as luck would have it the timing of this book is perfect. It appears that this notion of low energy houses which have an aesthetic appeal has become fashionable in world. If you look at the Royal Institute of British Architects they are promoting the notion of energy conscious architecture. they recommend things that a building like my house does automatically, the thing is that if you focus on functional architecture in a developing country it automatically becomes energy conscious. The traditional notion is that architecture is for the rich people, if you look at any book of this sort you will see a lot of corporate buildings and houses of multi billionnaire, but this book is not like that, it shows a lot of low budget projects, orphanages, low budget NGOs and this makes the book very different.

Q: You can’t put everything in a book, what did you omit?

I have done around 120 projects as an independent architect and David saw 90% of the sites and basically the book showcases a variety of my work. Work that would have relevance to the people who would look at the book and by and large I like it, it just shows that down to earth architecture can be done for ordinary people.

Q: You have said that you will not build a house that you will never live in?

Yes, I will never design a house that I will not live in, that comes from my values. And I believe that we can create functional architecture that is also aesthetically pleasing for a low budget, it takes a bit of effort and planning but it can be achieved. For example if you take the SOS villages that I designed they are rather functional things but they don’t forget aesthetics. I have lived in those SOS buildings till we built the guest houses, which we built last and I would have no problem living in one of these houses for life. And it’s the same with the housing scheme I did for cinnamon workers in Mirissa.

Q: You are one of the best architects we have but you do some work for free. Why would you do such a thing?

Number one is that this is not a business number two is that there is a code of conduct among architects, I have to charge a certain amount/percentage, so that I don’t undercut at another. But I’m allowed to do that free. But in Asia transactions are not always about money, we also deal in favours.

Q: What’s your favourite project?

Well I would like to say what ever I do currently is my favourite project. But really that is a lot of bull, if I really have to make a choice its the house I live in, because I designed it in a very difficult time in my life, I was moving out from my ancestral home, I didn’t get a loan, its in a way a symbol of a new way of life for me. I’m very content living here, it has given me a space to be myself. Mirissa, there is a building by Bawa, by Carry Hill and there are many house/villas of the expats and I wanted to see what I can do. I told the owner that I will not do a fashion house but something interesting,

Q: You are one of the few Tamil architects we have. As a lecturer at the Colombo School of Architecture do you see that changing, are there a lot of Tamil students?

No, there are not many Tamil students. There are quite a number of Muslim students though, if you take a batch of 4o about four are Muslims and only one Tamil. Its not surprising because many people who would have been interested in a subject like architecture left Sri Lanka in the 80s.

Q: Over the years, you have taught many, at the Colombo School of Architecture, at the University of Moratuwa as well as at your atelier at home?

My assistants are usually students who are most of the time first year or second year, this becomes a training ground. They get a good training and when they leave they can apply for courses anywhere. But most importantly I find that the mistakes they tend to make are the mistakes made by the people on site would do. In the last 20 years around 60 students have passed here and they have done very very well, initially my assistants like Channa Deswatta, Anila de Mel all worked for Geoffrey Bawa after they finished their masters. And in his last 10 years Geoffrey took, all the Sri Lankans who worked for me were the ones recommended by me. Now most of them work for others but I know that they really have no problem, despite the fact that at the moment most architects don’t have much projects, some don’t even work full time, but all the students who worked for me are doing good . also teaching helps me complement my thought process and these students I taught in mid 80s are very happy. I hope David will do another book called generation three that focusses on students.

Q: Finally what are your future plans?

To be as I am as long as I can. And not change too much.


In the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, there is a beautiful painting of “Echo and Narcissus” by J.M. Waterhouse. It tells of a particularly beautiful myth: Of Echo, the beautiful Oread or nymph of the mountains, who annoyed Diana by her ceaseless chatter. Diana pronounced punishment. In “Myths of the Gods’; (Everyman’s Library) Diana decrees:

“You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated
me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of - reply. You shall
still have the last word, but no power to speak first.”
Echo was sorely vexed. She had wished to attract the love of a beautiful youth, Narcissus, who had kept repelling her advances. Shamed and angered, she retreated to the rocks and high places where she pined away. Only her voice remained, and it is this “echo” we know of to this day - “still [having] the last word, but no power to speak first.”

Narcissus, who refused to love any maiden, fell in love with his own image in a pool. He, too, pined and died of longing, being unable to embrace his own image. He turned into a flower - the narcissus - and this story has been touched on by Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and Goldsmith.
In his epigram, “On an Ugly Fellow”, Cowper wrote:
Beware, my friend, of crystal brook
Or fountain, lest that hideous hook,
Thy nose, thou chance to see;
Narcissus’ fate would then be thine,
And self-detested thou would’st pine,
As self-enamoured, he.

So you see, these old Greek myths are no esoteric study for highbrows only. There are hundreds of instances where the Greek myth is enclosed: Scylla and Charybdis”, “as rich as Croesus”, “Cerberus”, “vulcanite”, “amazons”, “the heel of Achilles”, “lethal chamber”, “sibyl”, “nemesis”,
“Europe”, “titanic”, “mentor”, “Nestor”, “Pandora’s box”, “Champs Elysees”, Aeolian harp or hall”, “Gordian knot”, “the pillars of Hercules”, “atlas”, even a newspaper called the “Daily Argus!”
There are so many, many more.

When we come to the “Beginning,” we see the huge impact the myths have had on the Creation story. The Bible opens with a simple, yet sublime statement: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Greek myth was much more confused, but was as deeply concerned with the beginning of all things. We have Hesiod who believed that some great power impressed itself on Chaos and, out of nothing, all things were brought forth.
The first ministers of this “power” were Uranus, the most ancient of all the gods, and Grea or Ge, from whose name (being the name of the earth) we have our words “geology”, “geography”, “geometry”, etc.
It was from this marriage between heaven and earth that the Titans came, each typifying a tremendous force of nature, and the three one-eyed Cyclops. The most formidable of all the sons of Uranus was Cronos or Saturn (time), who, by his sister Rhea, sired Zeus (Jupiter), Aides (Pluto), Poseidon (Neptune) and three daughters, Vesta, Demeter (Ceres) and Hera (Juno).

Saturn slew Uranus with an iron sickle and then reigned over heaven and earth. Fearing his own children, he swallowed each of them at birth. This may be reflected in the truth that Time swallows all things, but who knows, perhaps there was a darker meaning. However, when it came to the last child, Rhea saved it by wrapping a stone in the baby’s clothes, which Saturn swallowed. That was how Jupiter (Zeus) was saved. He was then taken to a cave of Mount Ida, where he was suckled by Amalthea, a goat, and guarded by nymphs.
When he grew up and learnt of his father’s wrongs, he confronted him, compelled him to disgorge his brothers and sisters. They then banded together to defeat Saturn. Jupiter seized the throne. He then took his sister Juno (Hera) to be his wife, and by her and others, begat many more of the greater gods and goddesses.

But Jupiter also had to fight the Titans who assailed his throne on Mount Olympus. In his magnificent unfinished poem, Hyperion, Keats tells of the Titan leader’s assault on heaven: