Architecture I 07.06.18 I by

How I Live: Sri Lankan architect Palinda Kannangara

We visit his Colombo Studio Dwelling – one of the ‘best new buildings in the world’

Sri Lankan architect Palinda Kannangara has created a concrete idyll beside Colombo’s waterways as his home and studio. The four-storey building – one of 20 winners of the RIBA Awards for International Excellence 2018 – feels a world away from the bustling metropolis, despite being on its urban fringe.

Palinda Kannangara describes it as his ‘lifelong desire’ to buy a piece of land in the area. When a landowner offered him a small plot, he jumped at it. This he has ingeniously filled, taking an approach much like the Tokyo method of tackling plot and land.

Palinda Kannangara at home in Rajagiriya, on the outskirts of Colombo
Palinda Kannangara at home in Rajagiriya, on the outskirts of Colombo. Photography: Corinna Dean

You first encounter Kannangara’s ‘Studio Dwelling’ through the parking lot but this is too mundane a description for a home that is essentially a framing device for the lush indigenous plants and waterways beyond. A wide staircase made of reclaimed cobbles from a mountain tea plantation leads the eye to a shaft of daylight – an ingenious element of Kannangara’s architecture.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Mahesh Mendis

On the first floor is an imposing double-height lounge with four-metre folding glazed doors. From here you reach Kannangara’s design studio, a single-storey space with a channel of water running between the external perforated wall and the internal concrete wall, cooling the warm air as it rises, alleviating the need for any air conditioning.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Mahesh Mendis

Above the studio sits the meeting area, a library and a northern wing with a bedroom opening to a balcony and sky bathroom. Crowning the building is a living and entertainment pavilion that overlooks biological ponds, which cleanse and regulate the storm water. From here you can survey edible gardens and paddy fields.

Completed in 2015, Kannangara’s Studio Dwelling’ is constructed in deliberately rough board-marked concrete with a perforated brick outer layer providing privacy from the street and solar shading.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Sebastian Posingis

From this remarkable space, he has designed a diverse range of buildings, including a Buddhist temple, a power station, private residences and hotels. We paid him a visit to find out more….

The Spaces: What does a home mean to you?
Palinda Kannangara: Ironically, I originally designed the building solely as my studio with meeting spaces and perhaps a room to sleep in if working late. In fact, it was my girlfriend, a landscape architect from India, who encouraged me to move into the building. A home to me is simply a place to be.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Mahesh Mendis

TS: What’s your favourite space in the Studio Dwelling?
PK: Each floor offers a unique experience. I have designed each level to be distinct from the others, clearly separating the functions of public and private. I have an obsession with collecting music – I keep a large amplifier and extensive record collection in my bedroom, while my books are confined to the studio. I have an eclectic collection of ceramics and objects amassed by myself and my girlfriend whilst travelling.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Mahesh Mendis

TS: How would you describe your approach to design?
PK: My design concept is always a feeling. I move from the digital to analogue and vice versa, and I work a lot with models. I draw influences from memories of travelling, all of which seep into my architecture. I can take three years to develop a project but I will always use the same palette. I don’t waste time specifying new taps, downlighters and so on – for each project I prefer to carry on refining and defining my palette.

TS: How have you introduced eco elements into the design of your home?
PK: The external envelope of perforated brick that wraps around the building acts as a cooling blanket, which mitigates the need for air conditioning. In fact, the whole structure has its own micro-climate, and we harvest rainwater from the roof.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Sebastian Posingis

TS: Who has had the biggest impact on your design sensibility?
PK: Geoffrey Bawa, of course, is an influence. His interest in early Hindu temple architecture is something that fascinates me, from building on rugged rocks to the creation of light shafts promising a further space beyond.

TS: If you could inhabit any space in any building across the world besides your own, what would it be?
PK: Although I love to travel, I believe the ecological ethic and ethos of my country Sri Lanka best suits my way of living and practice. It’s difficult to imagine living or practicing elsewhere. My practice is deliberately small, projects are selectively few, and the scale of the projects is also small. I always work with locally available materials, resources, and people, and the pace of my projects is deliberately slow, working mostly on-site.

Palinda Kannangara's Studio Dwelling in Rajagiriya, Colombo
Photography: Mahesh Mendis

Read next: 
How I live: inside the home of Michael Landy, the artist who destroyed all his possessions

Corinna Dean is a curator and writer. She founded Archive for Contemporary Rural Architecture and wrote its first book, Slacklands

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