Srilankan Architecture - Earliest Times to Present Day

Architectural Styles from around the World Dated:  Dec. 2, 2015
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The colonial heritage of Sri Lanka

An island country in South Asia, Sri Lanka is officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka shares its maritime borders with India to the northwest and the Maldives to the southwest and is located near south-east India. Its geographic location and deep harbours made it of great strategic importance from the time of the ancient Silk Road through to World War II.1

A republic and a unitary state governed by a presidential system, Sri Lanka has a rich Buddhist heritage. It is an amalgamation of many religions, ethnic groups, and languages which gives it the reputation of a diverse and multicultural country. In addition to the majority Sinhalese, it is home to large groups of Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils, Moors, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs and the indigenous Vedda.

Sri LankaFig 1- Sri Lanka

The architecture of Sri Lanka displays a rich variety of architectural styles and forms. Introduced to the island in 3rd century BCE, Buddhism has had a great impact on Sri Lankan designs. Apart from this, techniques and styles developed in Europe and Asia have also significantly influenced the architecture of this region.

Architecture of Ancient Sri Lanka:

The architecture of ancient Sri Lanka displays a rich diversity, varying in form and architectural style from one end of the country to another. Predominantly religious, Buddhism has had a great impact on the style of architecture in this region, with more than 25 styles of Buddhist monasteries – including the Stupas of Jetavanaramaya and Ruvanvelisaraya in the Anuradhapura kingdom.

Jetvanaramay and RuvanvelisayaFig 2- Jetvanaramaya                                                                                          Fig 3- Ruvanvelisaya
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The ancient palace of Sigiriya, located in the central Matale district was designed as an environment friendly structure, dominated by a massive column of rock nearly 200 metres high.2 This is today a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site. Among other such notable masterpieces of architecture and ingenuity are the Fortress of Yapahuwa and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.

SigiriyaFig 4- Sigiriya
Temple of the Tooth and YapahuwaFig 5- Temple of the Tooth,                                                                                                Fig 6- Yapahuwa
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Among the ancient constructions of this island are its cave complexes. The Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa and the cave temples of Dambulla were initially constructed to be temples but are now used as image houses. Similarly, the dagobas or stupas of Sri Lanka are significant to the architectural and engineering development in the island. The stupas designed in Sri Lanka are the largest brick structures known to the pre-modern world, some of them being the Abhayagiri Dagaba(370 ft high) and Ruwanwelisaya(300 ft high). These were mainly constructed to store the relics of Buddha.

Gal Vihara, PollonnaruwaFig 7- Gal Vihara, Pollonnaruwa

The Colonial Period:

With the arrival of Western colonists to Sri Lanka, there was a visible difference in the style of architecture here. They established their own forms of architecture to the island and made a deep influence in the modern architecture present today.

The colonial heritage of Sri LankaFig 8- The colonial heritage of Sri Lanka

Few buildings of the Portuguese era have survived till date, but the coastal part of the country still has quite a few of the Dutch constructions. The old town of Galle and its fortifications, built by the Dutch in the year 1663, is today a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site.

The old city of GalleFig 9- The old city of Galle

Colombo witnesses the presence of many buildings of the British era, such as the Colombo Fort. The important historic buildings were built by the colonial government, predominantly in a European architectural style or Neo Classical styles.

Post Independence Modern Period:

The period of Tropical Modernism, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, saw the rise of many leading architects like Geoffrey Bawa. Keeping in mind the local aesthetic, the style comprises of varied elements from different times and places to amalgamate and create something new and original. It is almost impossible to not mention about Bawa’s architecture when talking about the designs in Sri Lanka.

Geoffrey BawaFig 10- Geoffrey Bawa

Many architects today follow in his footsteps, keeping his influence alive. Architects like Channa Daswatte continue to design in Bawa’s style, paying close attention to how the designed environment interacts with the needs of the users and the climate and nature around.

Channa DaswatteFig 11- Channa Daswatte

By the 2000s and 2010s, there is also a significant presence of Postmodernism awakening in the country. Incorporating the historical Sri Lankan cultural elements to make something modern and monumental that conveys meaning and context seems to be the idea of the growing architectural form. The Nelum Pokuna in Polonnaruwa, a historical landscape design feature has been translated beautifully in the Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre in Colombo, by Kahawita De Silva and Associates.

Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, ColomboFig 12- Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, Colombo
Clear Point ResidenciesFig 13- Clear Point Residencies
Source- inhabitat.coma

The idea of Sustainable Architecture also seems to be flourishing in the region since the year 2010. The 610 ft tall Clear Point Residencies building is expected to be the world’s tallest vertical garden, which uses harvested rainwater, recycled bathroom water and drip irrigation technique to water the plants around which naturally cool the building and clean the air around, thus reducing the need for air conditioning.


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