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Rethinking the boundaries of architecture

November 14, 2011

Long before I came to study architecture and history, I had the chance to visit the historic port city of Trincomalee, a center of Tamil culture in northern Sri Lanka, where I came upon one of the most memorable buildings I have encountered. The building was not the very ancient Koneswaram temple which was destroyed by the Portuguese and recently rebuilt, nor was it the 17th century Dutch trade fort, the largest in south Asia. It was a small house on the outskirts of town, into which I was invited to share a cup of tamarind tea and a few moments of conversation.
The house was a comfortable single room structure, built entirely out of flattened cardboard boxes. The boxes were cut into shingle-like sections and tied with bits of string and wire onto a thin framework of saplings, twigs and a few pieces of lumber. In the corner was a stove made from a five gallon cooking oil tin, and along the far wall were low wooden shelves lined with storage bins, tin containers and folded textiles. The floor was soft clean sand and a single low window looked out towards the distant beach. The Hindi printing on the cardboard sections were purposely arranged in patterns along the walls and a well weathered batik cloth hung from the ceiling.
There was nothing ingenious about its construction, but the young owner seemed proud of his creation. And why not. It provided shade from the overhead tropical sun and let the cool Indian Ocean breezes filter into the space. It furnished privacy and a respite for me and a group of his friends, who ultimately joined in our conversation. The earthen tones of the cardboard blended with the sand and wood, and formed an aesthetically pleasing contrast to the colored print and faded blue batik above. In its basic form, it appeared to meet the owner’s needs.
In the 25 years since, this house has come to mind often. For me, it seemed to represent a fundamental quality or basic principle of architectural design derived from necessity, expediency and circumstance. It connected the builder to the built form in a way I had not considered or experienced before, and helped me realize the importance of looking at buildings as a way to understand the world and the people I encountered.
As the weeks and months past, I thought often about this house and wondered if it would survive as the monsoon season began. As the years past, I wondered if the owner was able to upgrade the cardboard sheathing to flattened steel cooking oil tins, which rusts to a dull ochre patina from the ocean mists and formed the ubiquitous building material among his neighbors. Maybe then the house would have survived a few more years, possibly a decade or two as I was told. Eventually, if the owner prospered further, these walls would have been replaced with more permanent concrete blocks and corrugated steel roofing, a true symbol of success in such informal settlements, the “slums”, which fringe the modern cities throughout the Asian subcontinent and the developing world.
Today, I still wonder about this house, and whether it or the owner survived the 2004 tsunami which left 35,000 dead in northeastern Sri Lanka, or the devastating war with Tamil separatists which raged for 26 years, ending only recently with the crushing defeat of the Tamils.
Such a flimsy house surely. A house which now likely exists only in my thoughts. But one that left me with a lasting lesson about architecture.

Squatter Dwelling- Calcutta, India

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nishan Wijetunge permalink
    November 29, 2011 6:12 am


    I ama final year PhD student from Nottingham Trent University, UK.

    As I happen to be exploring the same area Dr. Devi Widyalankara is interested in, I would like to contact her.

    I got to know about this via the lecture on Youtube.

    Could someone please find me her e-mail address.

    I am in a bit of a hurry as I have a Feb deadline.

    Fingers crossed!


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