Art Deco Architecture in Sri Lanka

Documentation Project
Peter Gerlach, Köln

The topic of this article is concerning the scientific documentation and evaluation of colonial architecture in cities of a part of the former British Empire. For to be more precise: it is dealing with the former southern part of British Indian Colony: Ceylon, the actual Socialistic Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka (Ilankai Sananayaka Sosalisa Kudiyarasu).
The period under consideration covers the modern style architecture from 1915 to 1950.

On occasion of an ICOMOS conference held in Colombo in 1994 first time I visited Sri Lanka. That was the day to start photographing some buildings, located in the center of Colombo, especially the Pettah area. (Gerlach 2004:SL).
In the context of this conference there was offered a guided visit to the Fort of Galle, which was build as a fortified harbour in the 17th century, placed on the southern end on a rocky promontory. Shortly before its historical center has been surveyed and documented in a very excellent way. G. Wijesuriya, director of Archaeological Survey of Sri Lanka, in 1992 has published a detailed volum of the whole Fort (Kuruppu/Wijesurija 1992) on occasion of the Galle Fort being declared a monument of cultural heritage by ICOMOS. In this publication are listed detailed informations of every historic building according to an uniform scheme, a map of the place, a ground plan, a section and a drawing of the facades including the adjoining buildings as well. A huge variety of types of domestic and commercial buildings as well is to be found there, which were built in different times, from the 17th century untill the 20th century as well. I was especially interested in those buildings, which were on the first glance more or less from the 20th to the 40th of the 20th century. Consulting the detailed information in the publication of Wijesuriya I found, that there was never given any information about the time of construction. And later on personal discussions with the author resulted the simple insight, that there were no documents to be found at all, and nobody had any idea, how to find out this date, as no historical-critical research has been done so far - and is not yet done, as far as I am informed. Anyhow I started to visit Sri Lanka since then regularly every year tripping around the country and photographing all that types of buildings, which I thought - with my European educated eye - should be somehow related to the cubists, expressionists, art-deco or international modern style, more or less of the period between ca. 1915 to ca. 1950.

Photos of some examples will demonstrate the design of a whole ensemble at Galle Fort (row 1: photo 5 and 6). There are to be seen those details, which are the most significant indications for getting closer to a first suggestion of a solution of that outstanding problem. At the end of that street there is to be seen a one-story bungalow (1, 1), covered by an arched veranda along the whole facade. This should be the most recent type here judging from the half circles at the left (no. 71) and right end as with the last one on right hand side (no. 89). Left hand next to it we find a totally different type (no. 73). A row of 6 columns is bearing the roof covering the veranda running parallel to the street, likewise as with the over next building (no. 77). The next building there after - 7th from left (no. 83) - is different again: the two story facade is decorated with four pillars, which are dividing the three axis of windows up to the roof.
Two other buildings in between are dominated by arches instead of columns. Judging the houses at each end the facades of them result to be of a modern stile - in a most general sense of the word - would be not even doubtful. So just at first glance we can distinguish different types of facades according to the style of the design.
What a surprisingly lot of varieties are to be found in Galle's and Trincomalee's architecture can be seen on further three examples. (1, 2, nos. 39 and 41)
Similar to the one on the left end of the last drawing, here we have an other modern-style type. This facades are decorated by a linear ornament in a form which reminds of art deco ornaments. The rhythm of three is the basic aesthetic element of this design (no. 41). The veranda of a very simple design with four pillars and a low boundary wall shows on the other side a remarkable design of the windows (1: 2-3), best of Art Deco, a style which has been promoted in occasion of an exhibition held at Paris in 1925. It is a late transformation of the Art Nouveau style like a Cubo-Futuristic variation, which was accepted in the following years all over the world.
An other example of sophisticated, elegant design of the same period is to be found at the entrance of an office building. The windows still present the same sort of design (1: 1-3). Besides the huge variety of Modern Style houses, there are to be found series of older styles, houses of which the veranda for example is dominated by wooden lattice. (1: 2, 2: 1 and 4)

Far from the administrative and industrial center in a - at that time - remote provincial harbour town, which had more than local importance for the colonial commerce, in the last decades of British dominance there have been created a lot of modern buildings, or at least build up Modern Style facades. In as much more there should be larger and more impressive examples in Colombo itself or at that places, where the British themselves should have been living. This favorite places would be Kandy in the hillsides for climatic reasons or at Trincomalee, the town with the biggest natural harbour, for strategic reasons.
But several visits to Kandy led to dilutions concerning the Modern Style architecture. Not at all as significant as in Galle, Colombo, Negombo up to Puttalam or many other places along the western coastline the architecture there did not show such impressive examples, as are to be found in other places all over the island.
Whereas Trincomalee - although neglected in recent years since the occupation by the Tamil Tigers and following destruction of hotels and the major administrative buildings (1983/1987) - offers some impressive examples of British administrative architecture besides old types of residential architecture. The Harbour Commissioner's House is one of British neoclassical architecture at its best, as well as the General Merchants, dated 1892 (1: 1-2). Recently renovated private houses are obviously of an older period, as well as many of the more or less neglected ones (1: 1, 2: 1). On the other hands even there are to be found well maintained examples of Modern Style (2: 4) or (3: 6).

In downtown center of Colombo, the Pettah area - at that time the most populated center of that part of the British colony - still nowadays a commercial center close to the main harbour and main bus- and railway station of Sri Lanka, a lot of Art Deco commercial buildings have been erected. Here many of the facades are covered with huge billboards, mostly hiding a view to the details here under consideration (1: 2-3; 2: 2 and 4). But anyhow one gets aware of the ornamental, decorative details, which are sometimes connected with inscriptions and dates (or International, or Buddhist's = + 483, or Islamic = - 622 years). Some of them are repeatedly to be found on residential-, commercial- and administrative buildings as well as on temples (1: 4 and 5; 2: 4 and 6; 4: 3). Some of them are bearing names, which might have indicated the owner or the builder (which still has to be verified), or even the business or function of the building (1: 3 and 2: 1 and 3: 6 / 4: 1).
This wonderful peacock (3: 3) is one the most beautiful motives, which you will encounter on such a neglected, but very decen commercial building with such a impressive decoration of the gable.
Why this eye catching disproportion? No where else in any other Asian country such impressive decorative variety of motives is to be found, besides on facades of faked buildings in American western films. If we compare Art Deco architecture in Indonesia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico or Cuba as well as in South Africa, South or North America, we will find out, that she shape of the facades will be comparable, but that variety of decorations you will not find on architecture of these other countries. (Excellent documentation is to be found in the Internet searching the topic of Art Deco; for India see Deshpande 1931, Deshpande 1945, Dwivedi 1995).

There are finally three major questions to be posed for further research:

  • 1. What can be considered as indicators for the date of construction ?
  • 2. Are there regional differences regarding the design and the decoration ?
  • 3. Is there any specific character in Sri Lanka architecture, and it's decoration ?

An answer to the first question can be found in sorting the objects according to stylistic differences. All in all there are to be distinguished three main different types:

1. Dutch Type:

There is indeed a type of architecture, which still nowadays is called the Dutch Type (1: 3 and 2: 3). There are different shapes of this type to be found between the ones on the western coast area (Galle to Negombo/Chilaw: see Wijesurija 1999, passim) and the ones to be found along the eastern coast area indeed, and nearly no example is to be found in the rural areas of the central provinces (1: 1 and 2: 3).

Specific for that Dutch Type is the rectangular ground plan with a uniform saddle roof running parallel to the veranda front, with columns or pillars supporting the side of the roof running parallel to the street (1: 4 and 2: 1, 2). The ones of the western provinces sometimes show a very specific detail at the end of the veranda: A small double or triple arched window, with one or two column in the center. For sure this examples are not from the 17th or 18th century. Almost they have been renovated in more recent times, in so far the problem of chronology cannot be solved by the typology itself. Besides the classical type on a rectangular ground plan there are later modifications by adding one ore two rooms at the left or/and right side of the central veranda, a modification which seems to be a result by British adaptation of this Dutch invention. In how far the original Dutch Type is an adaptation of traditional Sri Lankan domestic architecture (1: 3, 4-6) has to be taken in consideration, although there are no domestic buildings preserved dating from the times before the Dutch or Portuguese came to Sri Lanka.

2. British Colonial:

This neoclassic style (1: 3-4 and 2: 1-3) nearly never has been used for the design of private villas besides some almost rare examples (1: 3-4 and 2: 1). There was introduced an other type by the British of sometimes wooden, sometimes stone structure: the British Colonial Bungalow Type (Lewock 1998), which has a characteristic multi fold roof landscape (1: 1-2 and 2: 2, 4, 6). Yet with the architecture of British Colonial Style Type many examples are to be found which bear a name and/or a date or on the arch of the porch or the gable shaped segment of the pediment, which are mostly ranging in the 20th of the 20th century the latest (1: 1-6 and 2: 1-3).
There is one importent document dating from 1901: Ordinance N°.8 Municipal Council, which says: "The walls shall in no case be built of cadjan but of mud and wattle, brick, cabock or other suitable materials to allow of being properly plastered and white washed...". That means, that obviously many houses at that time have been build out of trationally available local materials, which could not be kept in a way to show a clean outlook and caught fire easily.

From the chronology of the British presence in Sri Lanka, starting at 1796, 1815 the conquest even of the kingdom of Kandy was completed, 1867 to 1877 the railway was built, 1902 the first cars came to Sri Lanka and 1931 the Donoughmore Constitution provides for the first time opportunities to the local leaders to participate in the ruling of the country. So we have to look for architecture which should be older than this British Colonial.

The Portuguese came in 1505. But there are no remainings of houses, besides some prominent churches, from this period. They were followed by the Dutch in 1656, ruling this country until 1796.

At that time and surely of newer date of construction are many villas, which seem to be a sort of reduced type of British Colonial. Some of them show in detail a remarkable difference in the shape of pillars or columns, which is not British Neoclassic at all (1: 4);(2: 4). Were as this details, to be found on the edges of the pillars, can be read as deriving from European inspired Art Deco - after the middle of the 20th - the next one (2: 2, 4 and 3: 4) is far from any comparable European source. Their source of inspiration seems to derive from historic Sri Lankan temple architecture (1: 1-4). Insofar we can distinguish the first traces of an undoubtedly local style about the 20th or 30th of the 20th century. The shape of this two items instead again seems to be deriving from European inspired modern prototypes (1: 6); (2: 4). Modern in the very best sense of the term are some villas, which show this characteristic half circle shapes ends of the veranda (2: 2-5). This type is not to be found in the southern or eastern part of the island, but only in the Greater Colombo area and the adjacent districts.

3. Modern, or International Style

Architecture based on modern western design is to be found as a Bauhaus like shape in some varieties (1: 1-3 and 2: 1-2). Round elements are deriving from Art Nouveau architecture, but as transformed by architects like Mendelson (1917), Oud (1922), Scharoun (1928) and others. In European architecture this forms never have been adapted to domestic architecture whilst this is the case more often in Sri Lanka. This functional design seems to be deriving from that of airplanes, ships etc. (2: 2-5 and 3: 1-3).
In most cases the modernity seems to be reduced to the attached facade, so we have to take in consideration, that the buildings themselves might be of another date of origin than their facades (1: 4-5 and 3: 2, 5). Some times modernity is demonstrated by extremely extravagant details (1: 1) / (1: 5).

Symbols or Decoration ?

Very common still today in Goa are to be found in front of many houses small temples of more or less larger size, a place for worship and offers. This seems to have been even in Sri Lanka much more common some times ago (2: 2 / 1: 5 / 2: 3 / 1: 3-6). These examples may let imagine the great variety of shape and design. But from this older habit only a very few examples are remaining. The one reproduced here has been demolished recently, when new owners have been setting up a new house on the ground (1: 1).
Considering the enormous amount of building activities, which took place in the Greater Colombo area and the increasing cost for ground may have led to find a new solution for substituting these outdoor house temples and led to transfer the indication of the owner/builders religious confession to the upper part of the facade or elsewhere on the building facing the street. This seems probable, as on old buildings we do not find this type of signs, but mostly on buildings which can be dated stylistically from the 20th onward. And we do not find them any longer on buildings which have been erected after the 60th of the 20th century.

A short list of examples of mostly found types of these signs will follow:

But there will remain some doubt whether all and every ornamentation can be interpreted in this way (4: 2). There is another significant object to be found nearly at every building: the grills. Their ornamental shapes are sometimes repeating well known ornamental elements which are to be found at the outsides walls as well as in wooden frames, on wall, pillars and elsewhere connected to architectonic details. But even here raises a yet unsolved problem: that of significance. Is each and everyone of these combined elements of a meaningful concept, a sign of some determinable meaning, related to the persons who have built the single architecture? Or - to go somewhat further into the problem - is there any significant relation between the selection of architectonical type or style and the forms of the ornamentation on the exterior - and some times even of interior details? There is no answer on this questions so far. But there seems to be some primary evidence that may lead to further research in the future. It has to be found out, why there is this specific preference for some typical ornaments to be found on more traditional types of architecture and some others on Art Deco and International Style architecture in Sri Lanka. Confronting them with examples from other South East Asian (Thailand 2: 1-6 / 3: 1-6), Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia), South American - especially Mexico and Cuba (1: 1-5), or South African countries results a specific preference in Sri Lanka for the application of ornaments at some typical areas of the outside architecture. This seems to be true with domestic architecture as well as with commercial buildings, schools, and temples. The ornaments are comparable and the places where to find them are more or less unchanged independent from type and time of erection.
In so far there are some specific characteristics to be described and analysed of architecture in Sri Lanka in the future. Or what about this ornament (1: 1-6 and 2: 1-6)?
Sometimes it seems to be more or less the same, as in examples of European neo classic or neo renaissance style: the ornament is just a typical traditional architectural decoration. But some of them which seem to be mere decorations we can find in temple areas as well (1: 2-4).

What distinguishes Modern Style architecture in Sri Lanka from that of other tropical countries is the rich decoration of the front, including ornamental elements, which are to be found elsewhere around the world. Considering the context of definitely religious symbols and signs even these ones lose their innocence of being mere decoration, and get inevitably uploaded with a specific significance, which is occurring especially in Sri Lanka. A multi religious society consisting of Buddhist (69%), Hindu (15%), Moslem (8%), Christians (7%), and a Jewish minority tends to create visible signs of distinction, not only with names, and religious rituals, but even with their architecture. This is reflected even with the choice of styles and combination of architectonic elements taken from abroad as well as from the proper architectonic heritage.


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Bandaranayke 1977, S., Form and Technique in Traditional Rural Housing in Sri Lanka. In: Proceedings of the National Symposium on Traditional Rural Culture of Sri Lanka 1977. Department of National Museums 1977, p. 39-73

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 © by P. Gerlach 2003