‘Sustaining’ Kandy

City Profile / 3rd Quarter 2021

‘Sustaining’ Kandy

by Milinda Pathiraja

September 24, 2021

Tucked in the central hills of Sri Lanka, Kandy is a city of great charm and splendour, prompted by its unique mix of historic solemnity and scenic beauty. Being the last capital of the Sinhalese monarchy, Kandy resisted the Portuguese and Dutch occupation for more than 300 years before submitting to the British with the signing of the Kandyan Convention in 1815. The former royal palace of the dethroned kings still defines the cultural heart of this city, together with the Temple of the Tooth Relic of Buddha, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world. Juxtaposed with this history and sacrality is Kandy’s picturesque landscape derived by the hilltop setting, wooded mountains and the spectacular lake that was once called Kiri Muhuda or the Sea of Milk.

At present times, Kandy is a buzzing commercial centre and the second-largest city on the island. Yet, its political and symbolic past is still visible in its changing physical fabric. Built as a grid city following the cosmic planning principles of the Mandala concept, Kandy’s main streets run along the east-west and north-south axis. A part of the contemporary city still maintains this grid while the general orientation of the buildings faithfully follows the gridded street network. Surrounded by the river Mahaweli and three forest hills—namely Hanthana, Udawaththakele and Bahirawakanda—the city still sustains its original defence strategies of water, mountains and forests.

The sacred forest of Udawaththakele that rises behind the majestic royal complex, the Cloud Wall that surges along the lake’s periphery, the landscape and built form strategies that separate the sacred and profane ‘worlds’ of the grid city, and the existence of a ‘pleasure’ island in the middle of the lake, etc., all refer to a cosmological symbolism that once nurtured a heavenly place of power with a god-king mentality. Nowadays, too, the reflection of this entire setting on the lake—with the wooded mountains as the backdrop andthe sounds of drums and trumpets emanating from the religious performances at the Temple—evokes a sense of divinity despite the ill-conceived constructions swelling within the city limits in the name of ‘urban development’.

While the city’s administrators and political decision makers grapple with these large-scale expansion and conservation projects, other more burning problems have seemingly not captured their imagination. Increasingly, many substandard buildings have been built in and around the city for commercial purposes with no formal continuity with the city’s past or credible understanding of the city’s future. As a result, the streets in Kandy are transforming into ad hoc built-up corridors, similar to those found elsewhere in the island’s arterial towns.

Increasingly, many substandard buildings have been built in and
around the city for commercial purposes with no formal continuity with the city’s past or credible understanding of the city’s future.

A city like Kandy can be ‘sustained’ only if such a coordinated revival of its building culture can be instigated to resist the exploitative and culturally meaningless forms of development in lieu of socially and environmentally relevant practices. In parallel to this, new traditions of building—based on the existing relationships between labour, material and production—must be explored, targeting various aspects and objectives of city building. Indeed, such an approach must be led by the institutional and political stakeholders of the city if a more significant impact at the ground level is desired.

In the meantime, however, it is worth questioning whether there is a role that individual practitioners can play in contributing to the redefinition of the local building culture through their individual acts of creation. At least at a research level, our work in Kandy has attempted to address this complex issue, albeit within the programmatic, economic and technical limitations offered by real architectural projects.


The SWP Lodge, for example, moves from a strategic position in city building (for Kandy), which calls for a building culture that fuses industry-organised production modes with the necessary support for traditionally-formed craft practices. On the other hand, its contextual approach of veiling the building amongst the green landscape is partly a phenomenological response and partly a form of social activism, which advocates greater responsibility in protecting the ecological pockets left in the hills above the lake.

The broader research objective of this work has been to use architectural design to generate a critique—and a dialogue—about the city that nestles these buildings, without compromising the necessary commitment to their functional and experiential programme, the immediate topographical conditions, or the definition of an appropriate technological vocabulary.

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Clarke L, 1992, ‘Building capitalism: historical change and the labour process in the production of the built environment’, Routledge, London
Davis H, 2006, ‘The Culture of Building’, Oxford University Press, New York

Milinda Pathiraja is Co-Founder of Robust Architecture Workshop (RAW) based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is academically involved with the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. Milinda completed his PhD in Architecture at the University of Melbourne, for which he received the RIBA President’s Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis (2011); the CIOB Australasia Excellent Building Postgraduate (Research) Award (2011); the University of Melbourne Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence (2012); and the Australian Alumni Excellence Award for Education (2014). His practice RAW won the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Silver prize in 2015; the regional Bronze prize for Asia Pacific in 2014; a Terra Award for Earthen Constructions in 2016; and the LafargeHolcim Building Better Recognition in 2017. In 2016, RAW was profiled at the 15th edition of the Venice  Architecture Biennale.

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