Milinda Pathiraja, PhD

FuturArc Interview / 1st Quarter 2024

Milinda Pathiraja, PhD

by Candice Lim & Dinda Mundakir

March 20, 2024

Speaking with Milinda Pathiraja feels a lot like being in the presence of a bright light—in terms of an architectural analogy, perhaps a lighthouse. Personally speaking, it would be a familiar lighthouse: Milinda was not only a former FuturArc Prize 2017 juror, but his highly acclaimed projects were also profiled frequently in this magazine over the years. His work and approach are measured, methodical and meticulous. 

Milinda’s projects are strongly rooted in the local socioeconomic and cultural contexts where the methodology, materials and manpower come together in the construction and architectural design processes to form a foundation, as it were, upon which each project is created organically. The elements are not separate from one another—and every component is there for a reason. 

After being informed of this issue’s focus on architecture and health/well-being, he told us about a sanitary facility he recently completed for his alma mater, which, aside from being an apt project both in theme and tone for this issue, has further implications beyond its primary functions.

CL: How did you and your team come about to doing the sanitary facility for the school?

MP: They approached us about improving the existing sanitary facilities at the secondary school in Kandy, where I had studied. The old boys, whom I knew, spoke to us about the project, and it became an opportunity for us to experiment with the ideas that have always interested us in our practice. 

Our practice is research-based, and designing a toilet as a building type intrigued us because it involves social infrastructure and responding to a spatial need that is inevitably connected to our everyday life. In this part of the world, toilets are often seen as places to be avoided and repelled than those to be ‘in’ and ‘experienced’, and something that is often overlooked within the celebrated practice of architecture. We saw it as a chance to explore the design potential embedded in a building of that calibre.

We went to the school, spoke to the teachers and kids, and discovered a real problem within the public school system. We realised that some students don’t even drink water in the mornings to avoid using the toilets. They sometimes wait until the end of the day to use better public facilities in the city. This problem extends beyond this particular school and is a challenge across the public school system. So, we believe it was essential to get involved.

Although we’re creating public toilets, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to just that. We aimed to establish a civic territory, a public space.

CL: Yes, we thought it’s a brilliant project. The architecture reminded us of the reading room (Library at Boralukanda Primary previously published in FuturArc Q1 2019) you designed earlier, which brought back nostalgic memories for me. Could you share some insights into the design?

MP: Certainly, yes, I’d be happy to discuss the design. It’s interesting that you mentioned the reading room project. When we conceptualised it, our aim was to develop a modular building system that can be used for various spatial programmes. The modular units could serve as a reading room, a classroom, a play space, a gallery, or even a washroom. We envisioned a module that could transform into different types of social infrastructure for the public school system.

Now, with this current project, we are designing toilets for an urban school, a different context compared to the rural setting of the reading room project. The challenges, therefore, lie in adapting the same module to a different programme, context and usage. In the case of the reading rooms, we relied on volunteer labour, mostly parents of school children. Here, in an urban setting, we face different industrial conditions and resource availabilities. How do we adapt the module accordingly? That’s one thing.

The second thing was, in terms of design, although we’re creating public toilets, we didn’t want to limit ourselves to just that. We aimed to establish a civic territory, a public space. As I mentioned earlier, toilets in this part of the world are typically dark, unhygienic and unsafe places—spaces people stay away from. But here, we wanted to provide a series of spaces that kids would love to use and experience, and have a sense of ownership of the overall place. From an environmental perspective, we aimed to create spaces with plenty of natural ventilation and light. The target was also to achieve generous volumes in order to avoid tight and dark areas for the kids.

Materiality also played a crucial role, considering the challenges faced during the construction over the past two years. As you may have heard, Sri Lanka has been going through economic difficulties and shortage of dollar reserves since the late 2019. During this time, the government restricted the import of non-essential items, affecting the construction industry, which is heavily reliant on imported goods such as glass, steel, aluminium, and even timber. However, one of the very few materials locally produced is cement. So, we saw this as an opportunity to think about a new type of ‘language’, a new morphology of using concrete to build social infrastructure and also as a response to the times that we are living in.

So, we devised the building with a series of kit-of-parts systems using cementitious materials. This included ferrocement vault for the roofing system, perforated blocks produced locally for the ‘breathing’ façade, and a prefabricated concrete floor decking system, all embedded within a cast-in-place concrete structural skeleton. We also opted for cement tiles over expensive ceramic tiles, using the constraints as an opportunity to explore industry reorganisation in the times of crisis.

Milinda Pathiraja is a Co-Founder of Robust Architecture Workshop (RAW), based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He is an Honorary Senior Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building & Planning at the University of Melbourne, a Visiting Professor at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland and a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. RAW won the Global LafargeHolcim Awards Silver prize in 2015, the regional Bronze prize for Asia Pacific in 2014, the France-based Terra Award in 2016 and the Australian Institute of Architects’ International Chapter Award for Residential Architecture in 2018. RAW has also been profiled in the international section of the 15th Architecture Biennale in Venice (2016) and shortlisted for Swiss Architectural Award in 2020.

Read more stories from FuturArc 1Q 2024: Health/Wellness!


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