Nanda Pethiyagoda, in the Sunday Island 18 September 2011
“Sri Lanka is an incredibly beautiful island with fine people. I left my parents and job, my apartment and London to start this project in Kalpitiya and it has been a great adventure, very challenging and rewarding. The entire concept of Palagama Beach was inspired by how villagers live in this area, in keeping with nature that surrounds them. Kalpitiya is unique.”
This is how young John Balmond introduced his project of constructing and running a beach resort in Kalpitiya when I chatted to him seated, actually stretched out on a wide green mattress, leaning against cushions – large and roll ones, in one of the `ambalamas’ at Palagama. We faced the intensely blue water of the swimming pool designed on the infinity concept to be continuous to the eye with the sea, now roaring and a turbulent gray-y green.
Three friends and I decided to go spend a weekend in Kalpitiya before it became overcrowded with tourists once the season starts in November. One of my friends was advised to stay in Palagama Beach and we were very glad about our decision. She was in contact with the manager of the place, very helpful and efficient Amith Senarath. Three other resorts – Khomba House, Bar Reef and Udeki, with Palagama, fall under the destination Alankuda Beach.
Palagama is so very beautiful with its cabanas made of wooden slats, good wood used, John said, consideration being given to beauty and durability. Roofs are of woven cadjan. The ambalamas have illuk roofs. Supporting columns in all the buildings are of wood – trunks of trees with knots showing where branches were lopped off. No nails have been used; instead the beams and taps and showers are tied to these tree trunks with coir rope. The spacious rooms with French windows open out to private spaces for-relaxing with reclining beach chairs or mosquito net covered beds so you can sunbathe. The room interiors were designed by Shirley Rogers. The large toilets lead out to another covered space with an open air shower with fences made of coconut leaf and logs and dwarf tambili trees giving shade.
I remember Kalpitiya from fifty years ago and again from around forty. It was ankle deep sand and very little else, only sparse scrub vegetation. We used to stay in the Rest house, the only building of some proportion. John Balmond has erased the desert nature of the land with coconut palms and other trees, grass in many areas and winding paths in brown soil to contrast with the white sand of the place. Strikingly pleasing, actually a bit startling, are petunia and other flowering plants healthily growing to line the paths.
John said he is a first generation returnee to Sri Lanka. His grandfather was in academia – registrar of the University of Ceylon and him and his son, Cecil, schooled at Trinity College, Kandy. The family migrated to Nigeria and then to London when `Sinhala only’ was introduced. When I wanted more information on his father, John very simply said “Internet”. Before did is my son faulted me for not knowing about Cecil Balmond, at least that his most recent major project was the ArcelorMittal Orbit – a 120 metre high sculpture designed with Anish Kapoor for the 2012 Olympics in Stratford. London. Cecil Balmond was recently in Sri Lanka to deliver the Sawa Memorial Lecture. Wikipedia lists Cecil Balmond as “Sri Lankan/British – designer, engineer, artist, architect and writer, hailed as one of the most outstanding engineers, designers, and contemporary architects of today”.
And here was the son of this very illustrious person who mentions his Sri Lankan origins, returning to the land of birth of his father and grandfather to start a project which ultimately places Sri Lanka on the world map and also helps generate employment to many and introduces innovative building design and construction using local materials. He said he had a strong designer streak in him, but acknowledged he’s learnt from the villagers of Kalpitiya who know best. He’s on his feet most of the day with twenty people working on Palagama Beach. He’s pushed the use of cadjan to its limit in building. He was full of praise for his workers and said they were hard working and committed. John is looking forward to settling down in Sri Lanka introducing more innovation to Palagama like barbeques on the beach. The concept he works on is: “Back to basics in an elegant way”.
John Balmond is a man to be greatly admired. He was possessed of a design dream; he moved to remote Kalpitiya from London and has developed a holiday resort along with other foreigners using only local cheap material, not disturbing the villagers or the ecosystem of the place, and very importantly, while giving employment to many ranging from coconut leaf weavers to builders to chefs and managers, he has retained the ambience of Kalpitiya infusing much needed green growth – grass, flowers, coconut palms and maybe vegetables too. It has cost him much in money and effort, but he says his project is successful, though it’s only a little more than a year after completion. Cadjan and other material have to be replaced every three months, mostly due to sea spray and strong winds. While we were there we experienced the full force of receding monsoon winds.
The strong plea is: Let not the development hysteria of high rise hotels invades Kalpitiya. Let these entrepreneurs who have successfully completed resort projects that are eco-friendly and designed in keeping with surrounding nature and not spoiling it, go on with their work.
John can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org