Shirley De Alwis: The Hand behind Peradeniya University’s Designs

KNO Dharmadasa**

Shirley D’Alwis, the first University Architect, died in harness. He was working day and night to complete the job entrusted to him – the preparation of the buildings he had designed and started constructing – for the university to be shifted to its intended site in Peradeniya. After a long and protracted “battle of the sites” fought in the legislature and in the media, the State Council had finally decided in September 1938 that the proposed University of Ceylon was to be a unitary and residential university and that it should be sited in the land to be acquired from the New Peradeniya Estate, a tea and rubber plantation on the lower Hantana range on the banks of Mahaveli Ganga. It was a picturesque site with the tree clad hilly terrain sloping down from the Hantana range to the river bank.

The colonial administration in Ceylon enlisted the services of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, an eminent British architect who was serving in the Royal Institute of British Architects, to create the site plan for the university which he did tastefully, with an eye for a classical site design, obviously having Greek precedents in mind. It was such a wonderful site plan, created with such imagination that Sir Ivor Jennings, who had arrived in the island to take over the job of establishing a university was stunned by the envisaged architectural magnificence. Now let us hear this from Sir Ivor himself:

The first public holiday after my arrival in Ceylon in March 1941 was Good Friday and I seized the opportunity to pay my first visit to Peradeniya. I went alone and told nobody I was going…..I drove along the Old Galaha Road until I reached the plateau we now call the Convocation Hill. Climbing through the incipient jungle was no easy matter and I knew not whether there were snakes. Sitting on a tree stump on the banks of the Mahaveli Ganga I spread Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s site plan before me. I began at last to see the magnificence of the scheme. There was no doubt about it. Mr. D.R.Wijewardene was right. This would be a great university.” (The Road to Peradeniya, p.178)

Sir Ivor wanted to see the site from other angles as well and he crossed the river and went to the area where the New Gampola Road was being built.  “I climbed up to the railway bridge and walked along to Nanu Oya. It is from that point where the New Gampola Road is being driven through, that the finest view of the site may be obtained. In a few years’ time the view from the Nanu Oya Bridge will be one of the most famous in the world.” ( italics added)

That was Sir Ivor’s heartfelt view. He was categorical in stating that this would be one of the most beautiful university campuses in the world. Furthermore, the statement shows his great enthusiasm and the fervent hopes he had for the university he was going to create.

Let us now come back to our tribute to “the man who built the university.”I borrow this phrase from Sir Ivor’s Obituary on Shirley D’Alwis which was published in the Ceylon Daily News of 24 September 1952. I quote below the last paragraph of Sir Ivor’s tribute:

“He will have his monument which will last to the end of time. We often spoke of what would happen in a hundred years, not as an exercise in imagination, but as part of our normal jobs, for he was as conscious as the members of the University of the permanence of University institutions. He died knowing that centuries hence young men and women of his own people would ask themselves ‘who built this University’ and that since Universities are proud of their history and do not let it die, somebody would answer, ‘A man named Shirley D’Alwis’.” (Italics added)

In the tribute above  to Shirley D’Alwis, it is clear that the ‘monument’ Sir Ivor mentions, refers to the University buildings themselves. We know from another source, namely, Ian Goonetillleke’s Foreword to The Road to Peradeniya that Sir Ivor was known to his own family as a man who “never displayed his emotions.” But obviously he was moved by the sudden demise of Shirley D’Alwis whose creative genius and untiring toil he would have admired. No doubt therefore, Sir Ivor would have taken the lead in proposing and constructing the sober and dignified monument in D’Alwis’ honour that is situated at the first roundabout in the Peradeniya Campus.


In Peradeniya we have an architecturally proud set of buildings worthy of the traditions of this country and Shirley D’Alwis goes down in the history of modern architecture in Sri Lanka as the pioneer in blending the past with the present in architectural designing. Independent Sri Lanka in the post 1948 era was in fervent search of traditions and in restoring the cultural links we had lost during colonial times. We were looking for national idioms in painting, music, theatre and so on. Monumental works such as the drama Maname appeared only in the mid 1950’s. But Shirley D’Alwis had successfully recovered the strands of ancient architectural tradition way back in the 1940’s when we were preparing for independence.

Shirley D’Alwis was educated at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia and proceeded to the University of Liverpool from where he obtained his training as an architect. He joined the Public Works Department in Sri Lanka on his return from the U.K.

Intellectuals in Sri Lanka in the early decades of the 20th century were agitating for the establishment of a university so that the young men and women of the country could receive their tertiary education in the country itself instead of going abroad for the purpose, which only a few could afford to do. Furthermore, the leaders of the university movement like Ananda Coomaraswamy, D.B Jayatilleke and Ponanbalam Arunachalam were keen that the envisaged university would be a repository of learning worthy of the cultural heritage of the land.

In order to address these agitations, the colonial government established a “University College”, as an affiliate of the University of London in 1921. This was an interim measure. The subject of a national university was debated in the country’s legislature and as mentioned earlier, the Peradeniya site was finally selected.

It was in this context that Sir Patrick’s services were obtained by the colonial authorities in 1940 to prepare the site plan. Thereafter the Public Works Department of Ceylon was entrusted with the work of designing and constructing the University buildings and in 1946, ShirleyD’ Alwis of the PWD was appointed the “University Architect”. This was a decision that proved to be a momentous one, for what D’ Alwis created became, in itself a symbol of Sri Lanka’s potential for creating anew from the foundations which we had inherited from the past.

National Identity

Writing about “Ceylon’s first University” in 1948 (to The Souvenir 0f the Pageant of Lanka’) Shirley D’ Alwis calls the site “an Amphitheatre of hills dominated by the majestic Hantana range…. An inspiring one with its rushing boulder hewn torrents, its highly moulded hills and varied foliage.”

Shirley D’ Alwis was trained in Liverpool , just as Sir Patrick had been, and his teacher was Sir Charles Reilly. By this time Shirley had already obtained his Fellowship from the Royal Institute of British Architects. But above all he was inspired to look for indigenous models for the buildings he was to design for the first national university of Ceylon – which was on the threshold of independence in a few years to come.

D’ Alwis says in his article that “the dominant note in the lay-out is the traditional Sinhalese openness and spaciousness as found in Anuradhapura” He adds further, “Anuradhapura has often been quoted as showing the same freedom of grouping and planning as Ancient Greece. There is the same delight in the naturalistic setting, the same desire to place in it formal units of buildings in sharp contrast, but so freely and nicely placed so that the irregularity of the site is not lost”.

In fact he was thinking mostly of the Maha Vihara area, and perhaps the Vessagiriya site as well. But if we think further, isn’t the same dominant features of siting and the effortless blending with the natural surroundings apparent in Sigiriya, another creation of the Anuradhapura architects who were employed by King Kassapa in the 5th century. What is most striking in this context is the fact that D’Alwis with his sensitive feel for the national heritage, was able to identify the essential features of architectural designing in what has been called “The golden age of Sinhalese art”

The university Architect was keen that the buildings he was designing should be sited, taking full advantage of what nature had provided in abundance in Peradeniy. The whole site was landscaped and turned into “magnificent open glades planted with foliage, fruit and flowering trees”. Also, “the valleys are planted with ferns and in the streamlets which fussily flow in them cascades and waterfalls have been designed. Occasionally a stream is trapped to form a pond where water lily and the lotus thrive.” All this goes to explain how much trouble the architect took to design a beautiful campus in which man made structures blend harmoniously with what nature could provide. I cannot help making the observation that even after so many years of neglect and unconcern about the care with which the University Park was conceived and constructed, a visitor could still enjoy the beauty of the place.

While D’ Alwis knew that going back to the roots was a desirable principle as a whole, he was aware of the pitfalls involved. He was alive to the need to cater to modern requirements. He added therefore “to bedeck such essentially modern buildings with a thin veneer of archeological detail, would produce a grotesque sham.” He therefore chose to turn to the grand monuments of ancient Sri Lanka for inspiration, for which he had the freedom as the university architect. We learn from other sources that money was not a problem,as the university project received the fullest support from the Minister of Works, J.L Kotalawela and the Leader of the House D.S Senanayake who was soon to be the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon. It was Sir Ivor’s personal contact with these powerful politicians that helped in the matter. (K.M de Silva, D.S.Senanayake : A Political Biography. 2017 p-86)

“It became necessary” wrote D Alwis, “to turn to the mighty dagobas standing in their paved platforms” to design the larger buildings. If we are to mention some of these buildings designed by Shirley D Alwis’, the star products of his inspired designing are the Senate building and the A Room (Arts Theatre), and the B Room of the Arts Faculty. If we go by the drawings that are available, the Convocation Hall (which he designed but never came into being) was in the same grand design. The Senate building is raised on granite pillars – following the designing of the Lova Maha Paya, the Brazen Palace of Anuradhapura. The B Room with its double pitched roof typical of Kandyan architecture, is so pleasing in its appropriate blending of parts big and small and its pleasant overall effect that it reminds me of a classical poem such as the Selalihini Sandesaya.

The Mulachari

In my view, Shirley D’ Alwis was the first modern architect in Sri Lanka to attempt expressing the national identity through his architectural designs. He was persistent in his search for the most fitting feature for this or that detail in his buildings. For example, the grills in the Halls of Residence and the Senate building are reminiscent of some grills found in the Vata Da Ge, buildings of Medirigiriya and Polonnaruva.We can see the utilization of the Gajasinghe balustrades, the Koravak Gal and the railing motifs of Anuradhapura in the bridge spanning the Kuda Oya (near Arunachalam Hall) and so on. His sense of appropriateness, the principle of aucitya in Sanskrit aesthetics, was such that there is never any inappropriate blending of these classical motifs. One can only marvel at this man’s highly refined taste. (I think a separate illustrated volume should be compiled dealing with a detailed description of his art.) Even on the last day of his life he was planning to go to Anuradhapura to check on a certain structural detail he wanted to include in a certain building. Sir Ivor writes in the Annual Report for 1952, where he reports Shirley’s death (an unusual step, for the Vice Chancellor prefixes his report with the phrase “Although he was not an employee of the university we should report the death of the University Architect, Shirley D’ Alwis”). According to Sir Ivor, he was working in the VC’s office when an urgent call came from the office of the University Architect, to where he rushed and found D’Alwis collapsed while at work. He was conscious, and “his last words were some indistinct references to ‘my buildings’. This was the man who worked day and night to provide for us a set of buildings which, as things of beauty, will remain “a joy for ever.”

In his autobiography, referring to the work of constructing the buildings in Peradeniya, Sir Ivor often writes about the laborious processes involved because there was hardly any modern machinery and work was mostly through manual labour. We must remember that D’Alwis was assigned the job in 1946 and was expected to complete it within a few years. Obviously, keeping to deadlines as the University Architect was compelled to do, would have pressed heavily on D’Alwis. At first the deadline was 1950, then it was postponed to early, 1952 and then to mid ’52 and finally to September when the most substantial shifting from Colombo took place with the students of the Faculties of Oriental Studies and Arts coming into residence, and the establishment of the Vice Chancellor’s office in Peradeniya . But D’Alwis did not live to witness that day.

The term mulachari refers, as we learn from Ananda Coomaraswami’s Medieval Sinhalese Art, to the “the chief architect.” Here we are reminded of the legendary Devendra Mulachari who is accredited with the construction of the Magul Maduwe, audience hall of the Kandyan kings. If Shirley D’ Alwis was alive today, deeply respectful as he was for our cultural heritage, I believe that he would have loved this epithet being used after his name.

Acts of Vandalism

While dealing with the monumental contribution of Shirley D’Alwis I need to draw the attention of concerned readers to two acts of vandalism on the original plan that occurred in recent years. Although Sir Ivor believed that normally “universities are proud of their histories”, some of the later university communities of Peradeniya, have been both ignorant and negligent of the proud history of their university. Why I call them ‘ acts of vandalism’ will be apparent when the reader goes through the accounts I have given. The first was the usurpation in mid 1990’s of the site that was designated for the Convocation Hall. D’Alwis wrote in 1948 “…the University buildings are grouped in a logical sequence of academic function. The Convocation Hall was the climax of the group as it is for the students’ academic career. The dominating feature of the site is the plateau, which has been treated as the acropolis on which the principal buildings stand- the Convocation Hall at one end the Library at the other – connected by the long Administrative Building.”

The logical sequence is obvious: After studying in the Faculty and obtaining intellectual enrichment in the library, which is the repository of learning, the student goes through the examinations, facilitated by the administration, and he/she reaches the climax of the student career, the obtaining of the Degree which is formally awarded in the Convocation Hall. This highly appropriate‘ logical sequence’ envisaged by the original planners was wantonly shoved aside to build an extension to the Senate Building which is ugly inside as well as outside and totally incongruous with the dignified classical beauty found in the original section.

The second instance of vandalism, as I call it, came in the early years of the 21st century with the infantile ‘modernization’ of the Senate Room which brazenly destroyed the principles on which D’ Alwis based his work. The Senate Building was purposely designed on the principle of using natural ventilation which the Anuradhapura architects utilized so effectively in the Brazen Palace. Placed as it is parallel to the Mahaweli Ganga and the Hantane Mountain Range, the long administrative building raised on granite pillars, has, at its centre (on the second floor) the Senate Room. Here, when the large windows were open on either side, the winds wafting from the Mahaweli Ganga on the South and the breezes from the Hantane Range on the North would mingle to create natural ‘Air Conditioning’ as D’ Alwis would have intended. We who were fortunate enough to sit in that room, prior to the sealing off of the windows with blinds drawn, and the installation of artificial air conditioning, can only nostalgically think of the shutting off of a beautiful view and fresh air which was our privilege in the past.

Now I have to go back again to Sir Ivor, who had stated quite innocently, “since universities are proud of their histories.” Was he mistaken as far as his own creation, Peradeniya was concerned? The above acts of vandalism seem to indicate that we have at times been remiss in this regard. In 2017, when we are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Peradeniya, I can only have this pious hope: let the Peradeniya University Community wake up even now and start being concerned about their rich and unique heritage.

When we are celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya), there is another note that has to be added, particularly with reference to Sir Ivor’s remarks about Shirley D’ Alwis being fortunate enough to have a monument to remember him. Now in this Diamond Jubilee year, the grateful university community has made arrangements to erect a statue to commemorate Sir Ivor Jennings, the founder Vice Chancellor of this University. We should add something more. Not only is he the Founder Vice Chancellor of the first national university of our country, but he is also the father of University education in Sri Lanka and worthy of being commemorated by every university in our country.

A NOTE: The writer [] gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mr. N.T.A de Alwis, former Deputy Librarian in Peradeniya, in tracing the Obituary of Shirley D’Alwis by Sir Ivor Jennings

Ivor Jennings’ final walk through Peradeniya Campus, 1954(?) and a statue recognizing his central place in its conception & design    at the ‘invocation’ ceremony in 2018 

** This article was presented in 2017  and bears the title “Shirley D’Alwis: The Mulachari of Peradeniya.”

Shirley D’Alwis : The Mulachari of Peradeniya


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9 responses to “Shirley De Alwis: The Hand behind Peradeniya University’s Designs

  1. Pingback: Designing Peradeniya Campus | Thuppahi's Blog

  2. Lalith Lankatilleke

    Thank you very much for sharing insights into Shirly de Alwis’s thinking behind the design of one of the most beautiful campus’s in the world. Reminds me of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.

  3. Pingback: Shirley De Alwis: The Hand behind Peradeniya University’s Designs - serendibnews

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  5. Daya Wickramatunga

    A worthy acknowledgement of a great work of art.

  6. Laleen Jayamanne

    Sir Ivor Jennings’ bronze statue was sculpted by Sarath Chandrajeeva, Lanka’s foremost monumental sculptor.

    • Siri Ranawake

      I was one of the so-called pioneering students in Peradeniya in 1952 /53 who enjoyed the well-maintained buildings and academic atmosphere and still consider those years as the best years of my long life.

  7. Arun

    My late father, Alick Dias Bandaranaike was a protege and junior draftsman in the office of Shirley D’Alwis. Father would consider his time in Peradeniya on the project as being ‘truly magnificent’, and those halcyon days illuminated his memories all through the remainder of his life. Later, father was transferred to Transworks House in the Fort (PWD), and was working under T. Wynne-Jones and later Pani Tennakoon. But the Peradeniya University scheme was considered an outstanding experience for the younger man.

  8. Pingback: Peradeniya University Along the Mahaweli River in the 1950s | Thuppahi's Blog

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