Valentine Gunasekara: His Architectural Virtuosity and Heritage

Anoma Pieris, with highlighting emphasis imposed by The Editor of Thuppahi

Architect Valentine Gunasekara passed away peacefully at sunset on Monday 4, September 2017; and I felt it was important that his passing did not go unnoticed. The ebook version of Imagining Modernity: The Architecture of Valentine Gunasekara published 14 years after my 2007 book is an effort at ensuring he would not be forgotten. He mirrored the struggles of my parent’s generation across the hard years of import-substitution and Socialist policies when every bag of cement was purchased with a special permit.  In fact, even attempting to build with concrete appeared foolhardy. However, he persevered, leaving a small coterie of buildings that are comparable to the works of Van Molyvann (1926-2017) in Cambodia or the Malayan Architects Co-Partnership (1960-67) in Singapore.  These buildings have not garnered the attention and care that is afforded mid century modernism elsewhere, largely because their attempts at design synthesis are overlooked. The tropical climate is also hostile to pristine architectures and plastered concrete surfaces are high maintenance. But if one is willing to look beyond everyday tolerances to the aspirations behind the aesthetic responses that surround us in our rapidly growing cities, one needs to engage with Gunasekara’s repertoire.

I am not an architectural writer. I am trained as a historian of architecture and urbanism and my interest is in the social critique that arises from a deeper understanding of the social and political changes that manifest in the built environment. And yet, ten years ago, I published a book on Valentine Gunasekara, because his work appeared to depart quite radically from the currents of vernacular regionalism prevalent and largely institutionalised in Sri Lanka.

I had met Valentine in my second year at the architecture school at Moratuwa, on the suggestion of his one-time partner, Christopher de Saram, who had practiced alongside him and the engineer Jayati Weerakoon on some of his most exciting work. I visited the home of another engineer, Sathi Wignarajah, a client of Valentine’s and studied a building replete with references to the Eames House, and the work of Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler, although I did not know this at the time. I was impressed by the ways in which the bedrooms had been designed for Sathi’s three children, with open terraces to view the sunset and the moonrise, something you could not do in the conventional hipped-roof house. My education at Moratuwa was narrow; circumscribed by the requirements of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) accreditation program to which we were bound and to which we looked for legitimisation. American modernism lay largely outside its ambit. Who was this architect? Why was he not discussed in our curriculum?

Many years later, when I was pursuing my doctorate in California, I met Valentine’s son, Rabindranath (Raba), who asked me if I would be interested in writing about his father. At the time Valentine was teaching at The Wentworth Institute of Technology a small college in Boston, Massachusetts and living in Bedford. He had not practiced in America. I met with him several times, at his home in Bedford, and later in California, getting to know his family and conducting day-long interviews as we went through his drawings. As I did so I realised that I was being given a unique opportunity to understand American modernism through the work of a Sri Lankan architect! — one who had embraced its liberating ideologies and adapted them to the local climate and context. Valentine was particularly inspired by California regionalism, attributes of which were apparent in many of his designs. But he also had a firm grounding in the European tradition which he learned at the Architectural Association in London, in particular through the lens of its Programme in Tropical Architecture.

The tension between these two forms of modernism was evident in his early designs. But, as he matured as an architect, they tilted in favour of the American West Coast traditions that are adapted to a milder climate, an expansive sky and a family-centred design culture most aptly disseminated by the Case Study Houses of architects like Richard Neutra and Joseph Eichler. A visit further south to Mexico was also influential.

I published a book on Gunasekara through Stamford Lake – an associate of Lake House Publsihers, and the Social Scientists Association, deliberately choosing to use a Sri Lankan press. While I had the opportunity to publish overseas, I wanted greater control of the final outcome, and a sense of a home-grown product. I wanted a black and white book, to reflect the ethos of modernism – but also the prevalent photographic genres during the time when the buildings were built. Some of Gunasekara’s own photographs were preserved on glass slides.

I knew that my audience was local. They were the colleagues and clients of the architects – a narrow band of people who numbered among the post independence professionalised middle-class. They expressed mixed sentiments about their homes, some complaining about weathering or plumbing; others excited at being included; none of them had understood the significance of his design approach at the time. Their life- stories mirrored his. My book, Imagining Modernity: The Architecture of Valentine Gunasekara, sought to understand how this group of Lankans who were given opportunities through new universities post- independence, imagined their modern subjectivity. Not as extensions of colonial or indigenous elites but as socially mobile citizens of a new nation.

How did they interpret modernity? Entwined in these conversations was a story of the expansion of Colombo to its outlying suburbs where many of the clients lived. The prominence given to women in the home, as many of the female clients were university-educated, struck a positive chord. This too is reflective of the Case Study Homes that sought to locate the kitchen as the command centre of the house. The familiar feudal hierarchy of cooking and servant spaces was overturned.

Important support for this project was offered by Michael Fonseka, whose firm Muck Shifters were the main contractors for the Jesuit Chapel in Bambalapitiya, and who were close family friends with the Gunasekaras. Gunesekara designed the house they lived in at Joseph Lane. His daughter Michele was the first friend I made when I left school in 1984 and, during the year before release of A Level results, joined Surath Wickramasinghe’s office as a lowly apprentice. She started work there on the same day. We drove all over … looking for his buildings.

The central idea for the book followed a conversation with Rhys Isaac, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who in the early 2000s was authoring a book called Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom. The book used the diary of a Virginia planter to trace the early stirrings of the American civil war. I thought that the work of an architect might likewise shed light on the tensions and challenges of a nascent nation, negotiating Cold War alliances and testing incipient forms of modernisation. The book did not seek to glorify the figure of the architect, neither did it neglect the team of people that supported him; I saw history as created by multiple forces irreducible to singular figures.

Apart from some negative comments on my audacity at producing such a book, I had no real feedback on its effects. Valentine, I feel appreciated the time and trouble taken in winning him the recognition I felt he deserved. The profession subsequently recognised him with membership of the association of architects and he was invited to speak to students at the university. Now 14 years later, with the launching of Taprobane Academic Publishers, and recognising the necessity for ebooks during the COVID pandemic we are experimenting with an ebook version of the 2007 book. I am so grateful to historian Nira Wickramasinghe for supporting me in this effort at making the book available at an affordable price and in a manner that would enable its dissemination for students. We have spent the last nine months adapting it for reading by multiple devices, changing its format and the book being launched on 21 August 2021 is the outcome. My students here at Melbourne University will benefit greatly as we can’t use our library due to multiple lockdowns!

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2 responses to “Valentine Gunasekara: His Architectural Virtuosity and Heritage

  1. Anoma Pieris

    I want to add that a lot of people helped me in producing the book in addition to those mentioned above. Valentine’s family – especially Aunty Ranee, Nashtaka and Nishanthi, who hosted me on many visits, and Surane who continues to support me. Milinda Pathiraja created wonderful drawings for the original book. Albert Dharmasiri helped with the physical layout, and Ajith Jayamanne digitised it. Like any work of architecture there were these several hands that produced the initial project! Gunasekara also mentions his baases whom he wanted to upskill from ordinary mason’s to contractors by working on these complex structures. Sirisoma and Siripala.

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