COME AS YOU ARE By Rathindra Kuruwita
[Anjalendran is a grand son of the late Suntharalingam QC, who was a well
-known Tamil politician. This article reminded me of my days as one of his
Field Architecture students at the University of Moratuwa. It may have been
quite possible that the Asoka hotel in Jaffna is one of his earliest
creations. - Editor, Pathivukal]
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.
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?
A: 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?
A: 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
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: (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?
A: 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
Q: You have said that you will not build a house that you will never live
A: 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
Q: You are one of the best architects we have but you do some work for
free. Why would you do such a thing?
A: 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
Q: What’s your favourite project?
A: 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
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
A: 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
A: 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
Q: Finally what are your future plans?
A: To be as I am as long as I can. And not change too much.
Living: Architect of Sri Lanka
Chelvadurai Anjalendran’s work philosophy is matched by that of
his life. SU AZIZ writes.
WHEN you practise a philosophy of “be simple, less pretentious
and build for the less rich” in architecture, your humbleness is
bound to be noticed. And revered.
Chelvadurai Anjalendran, who is named after a dance devoted to Lord
Shiva, was born in 1951 and now lives in Battaramulla, a suburb in
Colombo, Sri Lanka.
A keen performer of traditional Indian dance, he is, today, dubbed
“architect of Sri Lanka”.
Having studied architecture in both Sri Lanka and England,
Chelvadurai worked under Geoffrey Bawa (Sri Lanka’s world-renowned
architect whose designs are famous for working around the environs)
for a few years. Geoffrey became his inspiration.
“I designed my first house in 1979,” he recalls. “It was for Dr
Senake Bandaranayake and his wife Manel Fonseka. Senake was an
archaeologist and had written his thesis on the superstructures of
ancient monastic buildings. He was keen on the discipline and
geometry of gabled roofs around a courtyard.”
|Anjalendran in a dance pose.
As Chelvadurai fondles his dog’s ears, he adds: “There were three
trees on the site, including a spectacular mango tree, which had to
be accommodated within such a roof, on a relatively small site.”
Thus began a house, a relationship with trees and a friendship which
has lasted until today.
“Although they moved into an apartment in 1997, I still see them at
least once a week.”
To date, Chelvadurai has designed some 120 buildings.
“Quite a few houses have been designed for free for close friends
and relations,” he says with a smile,
And his favourite?
“I guess my own house. Built in 1993, around a courtyard. It’s
tent-like space seems to contain my contradictions and anxieties of
How about the most challenging?
“I guess Mount Cinnamon at Mirissa for Miles Young,” he replies
“There was much design precedence. Geoffrey had designed his last
‘line in a landscape’ — the Jayawardena House nearby.
“And Kerry Hill (another famous architect) had his own renovated
house in Galle and was renovating the Amangalle and building afresh
the Amanwella in Tangalle.
“There was also a lot of derivative ‘Sri Lankan style’ among the
expatriates which was the fashion. One wondered whether one could do
something different and perhaps original?”
With his architectural style in tandem with his architectural
philosophy, Chelvadurai’s life philosophy is just as practical.
“Do not try to save the world, but try and perhaps make a few people
happy. However, there is a quotation by Andre Gide which is more
apt,” he says, squinting to remember. He quotes: “You knew me well,
if you thought that by its very excess virtue would entice me, that
arduous and challenging paths lure me, that senseless pursuits
appeal to me, and that a little folly is necessary for the
satisfaction of my pride.” He finishes with a nod.
A simple person by nature, Chelvadurai works from home and is not
burdened by modern technology such as a mobile telephone.
“For me, these are distractions from enjoying the realities of a
simple life. I like going on site and correcting ongoing work,
rather than hold a drawing sacred. I like meeting people, rather
than talking to them over the phone, particularly about building
“I prefer travelling in a Bajaj three-wheeler and helping artists by
buying their work — rather than owning an ordinary Japanese car
which often costs a large fraction of one’s own home and an equally
large fraction of one’s income to run and maintain!”
His singular inspiration is Geoffrey’s garden Lunuganga at Bentota.
“I spent most weekends at Lunuganga with my mentor, between 1983 and
“Here, the hand of the master accentuates nature and geometry
enhances landscape, which is an age old tradition in Sri Lanka.
“The garden is sublime and peaceful, and was a refuge from the many
insurgencies at that time.”
What’s home for him?
“A place where I can chill out with music, often ragas from India.
It’s also where I can come to terms with my limitations and
contradictions, and a refuge from the harsher realities of the world
What was his reaction to the book, Anjalendran, Architect of Sri
Lanka, chronicling his works and life?
A polite laugh before he replies: “One did one’s work and lived
one’s life to one’s own upbringing and ideals. The book celebrates
this ONLY in retrospect. One hopes that this wouldn’t change one.
“One should also not forget to thank the author David Robson,
photographer Waruna Gomis and publisher Eric Wee of Periplus.”
Currently, Chelvadurai is working on ancillary buildings such as the
employees’ quarters at Mount Cinnamon.
“I am also designing a community centre in Galle, overlooking the
sea and sunset. For the moment, these humanitarian projects are the
buildings of my heart.”
If he has his life to live over, what would he change?
“I wouldn’t change anything. Even the harsher realities of life
which have betrayed my innocence and, on occasion, even friendships.
I recognise now that nothing is perfect.”
However, he admits that he “would have loved to have been a dancer”.
“But I wouldn’t make as many happy as I have done with my
architecture and perhaps, less importantly, I never would have made
To Chelvadurai, Sri Lanka will always be home.
“Despite the constant wars, Sri Lanka has always has been and will
continue to remain more than ‘a small miracle’.”
Note: The book review of Anjalendran, Architect of Sri Lanka and an
interview with its photographer will appear in SIX tomorrow.
|Anjalendran with David Robson.
Anjalendran – Architect of Sri Lanka
Chelvadurai Anjalendran is many diverse personalities
rolled into one man. He is one of Sri Lanka’s foremost architects. Some
may find him brusque, others may say he is genuine and genteel, but
everyone agrees he is unique - both in his work and his manner; no two
words about that. He has no office, no secretary, no cell phone, no car,
no bank account but he has generosity of spirit in plenty. He employs
undergraduate architecture students, just four at a time and then
follows their careers and helps them whenever the need for a helping
hand is discerned. He keeps in touch with past students and promotes
them whenever possible. He is often outrageous with a puckish sense of
humour and a just-don’t-care attitude. A picture of him posted on
Internet shows him with towel across bare chest and a hibiscus stuck
behind his ear! Another has him striking a Bharatha Natyam pose. However
gravitas - seriousness - is also a major component of his personality.
He initially worked with Geoffrey Bawa and then Surath
Wickremasinghe, and in 1982 started his own practice, first on the
verandah of his mother’s house in Gregory’s Road and then in his own
uniquely built house in Battaramulla. Anjalendran has built residences,
offices and commercial buildings and most praiseworthily - five
wonderful SOS Children’s Villages at rock bottom cost. His buildings
total 120, some of which were designed free. He is an excellent teacher,
lecturing in Sri Lanka and abroad, and winner of prestigious awards.
Academic & Professional
Grandson of the famous C Sunderalingam – Minister in the
first D S Senanayake Cabinet - and belonging to one of Jaffna’s elite
families, Anjalendran graduated from the University of Moratuwa with a
BSc in Architecture. With British Council sponsorship he moved to the
University College of London where he obtained his Diploma and Master’s
degree in Architecture. He is a member of the Sri Lanka Institute of
Architecture (SLIA) and the Royal Institute of British Architects
(RIBA). He was design tutor/year master at the Colombo School of
Architecture 1986-89 and is presently visiting lecturer at the
Department of Architecture, University of Moratuwa. He also served as a
Teaching Fellow at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT
in Boston (1986) and was convener of Design Workshops for many years in
the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi.
Awards he’s won in plenty: four SLIA Design Awards; the
Herman Gmeiner Silver Medal in ‘Appreciation and Thanks’ for his SOS
Village work; the Kenneth F Brown Asia Pacific Architecture and Culture
Design Award, in Hawaii. These honours and others sit very lightly on
the man. "Over the last two decades, Anjalendran has established himself
as one of Sri Lanka’s leading architects. His buildings have a simple
directness and although totally modern in spirit, they acknowledge the
rich tradition of Sri Lanka. He uses the simplest of material to create
magic, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the series of SOS
villages." (Announcement on Inernet of the launch of Anjalendran:
Architect of Sri Lanka on 19 October)
The Man Within
To me the quality that exemplifies Anjalendran is his
generosity. Not only is this apparent in his dealings with others, it
permeates his work as well. His buildings, even when built to tight
budgets are open and welcoming. Nature included, trees seldom cut since
many of his buildings embrace a tree. Color is ever-present, giving
inhabitants and visitors a sense of delight. But behind the beautiful
facades and the lush courtyards is an underlying rigour and attention to
detail; an understanding of climate, culture and the needs of the
client; that makes his work stand apart.
My daughter-in-law and I were once given a tour by
Anjalendran of a few recent houses and it was an experience not to be
forgotten. A knock on the door and a cursory –"I’ll take them round" to
the owners (they must be used to him dropping by unannounced), and we
were off at break-neck speed from room to room, with scant notice of
sleeping occupants in some of them. The rapid progression was
interrupted by instructions to perch on a toilet seat and admire the
view of the sky (an open-air shower is an unexpected delight in many of
his houses), or to stop at a certain point and take in a carefully
He inherits, I am sure, many of his qualities from his
mother, Lingawathy Chelvadurai – a wonderful woman who looks on life
with positivity and humour. A pleasure always to visit her as one comes
away refreshed with a sense of optimism to life transferred from her to
the visitor. She knew his students when they worked with him on her
verandah and now welcomes them when they visit, keenly interested in
their progress: academically, professionally and life-wise. That is the
generosity of spirit and concerned interest that has been transmitted to
this second of her three sons.
David Robson’s book on his friend and fellow architect:
Anjalendran – Architect of Sri Lanka was launched on 19
October and a presentation made at the British Council on the evening of
26 October. Published by Periplus, the book features text by Robson and
photographs by Waruna Gomis. David Robson is also the author of
Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works; Beyond Bawa: Modern Masterworks of
Monsoon Asia; and Bawa: the Sri Lankan Gardens. He is Professor of
Architecture at the University of Brighton and a visiting professor in
the National University of Singapore. He met Anjalendran when he was
working on his first book on Bawa and drew heavily on Anjalendran’s
recollections and archives. Prof Robson taught in Colombo in the early
1970s and was subsequently an advisor to the government and involved in
Prime Minister Premadasa’s 100,000 houses project.
The presentation at the British Council was riveting –
due to both the speaker and the subject spoken about. Most of
Anjalendran’s buildings were projected on screen with comments on the
special features of each building. But what I found most interesting
were insights to the man – his penchant for collecting artifacts and art
objects wherever he travels with no consideration of cost, bulk or
weight, and how he was taught Baratha Natyam as a young boy and took to
it again recently as a reliever of stress.
The Man according to himself
Excerpting from an interview given by Anjalendran to the
New Straits Times Malaysia in August this year, I’ll
present his views, his philosophy on work and life and a glance at who
he really is.
His philosophy on architecture: "Be simple, less
pretentious and build for the less rich."
His philosophy on life: "Do not try to save the
world, but try and perhaps make a few people around you happy."
If he were given his life to live over, what changes
would he make? "Nothing, even the harsher realities of life which
have betrayed my innocence and on occasion even friendships. I recognize
now, that nothing is really perfect."
If not an architect, what would he have been? And why?
"I would have loved to be a dancer, but I would not make as many
others as happy as I have with my architecture, and perhaps, not less
importantly, I could never have made a living".
About his architecture, I quote just a couple of
The building that most inspired him: "Geoffrey Bawa’s
garden Lunuganga at Bentota where I spent most weekends with my mentor
between 1983 and 1992…."
His favourite of the buildings he’s designed: "My own
house, built in 1993, around a courtyard. Its tent-like space seems to
contain my contradictions and anxieties of life."
His most challenging building: "Mt Cinnamon at
Mirissa for Miles Young as there was much design precedence around.
Geoffrey had designed the Jayewardene House nearby, and Kerry Hill had
his own renovated house in Galle … There was also a lot of derivative
‘Sri Lankan Style’ among the expatriates which was the fashion. One
wondered whether one could do something different and perhaps original."
He explains at the end of the interview what home is to
him and what Sri Lanka means to him: "A place where I can chill-out
with music, often the ragas from India. It is also a place where I can
come to terms with my limitations and contradictions and a refuge from
the harsher realities of the world outside."
"Sri Lanka will always be my home, and despite the
constant wars till now, Sri Lanka had always been and will continue to
remain more than a ‘small miracle’".
The human aspect of the man behind the buildings is what
I am impressed by; over and above the brilliance of his architecture and
the fame he has earned and won. His personality is complex, but within
is a humane being with childlike wonder still intact.
David Robson’s comprehensive Anjalendran –
Architect of Sri Lanka is a must buy not only for architecture
buffs, but for all Sri Lankans who are interested in design and culture
and what it truly means to be Sri Lankan. 240 pages are packed with
photographs of buildings, places and people and includes two paged
articles on Barbara Sansoni, Ena de Silva and Lucky Senanayake, plus
much more. The feeling I get when I open the book and look through is
serenity and joy that there is so much beauty to appreciate