Finding an Architect

Part Two. The Making of Vil Uyana

Rehabilitation of paddy fields during construction © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
Rehabilitation of paddy fields during construction © Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
17 APR 2017
by

In the second part of a four-part article series, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne continues the story of how the London Wetland Centre became the inspiration for a small luxury hotel in tropical Asia. One of the first challenges was to find an architect who understood the concept.

First on the case was Vinod Jayasinghe, who continues to deliver outstanding architectural designs to Jetwing. I explained the concept with arms waving about in the air like a Kandayn dancer showing how we would harvest water and duct it to lakes where we controlled the water levels. He looked puzzled and I got him some water management manuals from the RSPB, Europe's leading wildlife conservation NGO.

In the dry season, the lakes evaporate to be reunited with the heavens, buffalos go gaunt with exposed ribs and the pulse of life ebbs as a suffocating seasonal drought fastens its grip. The largest recurring concentration of elephants; the Elephant Gathering takes place on the beds of the Minneriya and Kaudulla lakes as the water is wrenched dry from the baking soil. Will there be enough water at Vil Uyana? Karen Conniff who was working on a dragonfly project with the Jetwing Research Initiative asked her husband David Molden who was working at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) to help us. He invited us for a meeting where we met Chris Panabokke. Chris was a geologist who had published a number of papers on the ancient cascade systems of reservoirs. He was quickly engaged as a consultant. He made field visits and employed a hydrologist to take monthly measurements to understand the water table. The diagnosis was good; Jetwing could not have found a better site to implement the idea. Vinod who was a very good architect and wanted the best for his client suggested to me that he was not the best man for the job. He was not quite sure of what we were trying to do and thought it would be best to find someone else. The snag was there was no one else who could understand what we were trying to do. I would perform another Kandyan dance and send him more technical papers on nature reserve management and hope he would have an Archimedean moment in the bath tub.

One day an architect called me saying she had attended an illustrated talk I had delivered on rainforests at the Barefoot Cafe. She was helping the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) with a project in the national parks and she came in to seek my ideas. It turned out she had in her youth led wildlife tours for the Wildlife Trust and had a rustic cottage bordering the Dunuvila Lake near the Wasgomuwa National Park. She had great conviction in her opinions (a default setting for Sri Lankan architects), seemed to walk the talk on environmental issues and had a pugnacious air that suggested it would not be prudent to cross swords with her without good reason.

After she left I called Hiran and downloaded a quick verbal executive summary on the meeting. We both thought she might be the person we are after.

A large Hemidactylus Gecko stared balefully and Indian Nightjars creased the stillness of a star lit night sky over a mud and thatch cottage site where the northern slopes of the Knuckles slipped off their moist cover and slid into the seasonally parched Wasgomuwa drylands. A team from Jetwing was spending the night at Dunuvila Cottage, Sunela Jayawardene's country retreat. This was not a break from the pace of the hectic Colombo; it was part of the assessment of whether Sunela had the green DNA be the 'new architect' to lead the Vil Uyana project. After a few meals of home grown garden vegetables and local red rice cooked by her former poachers turned hospitality staff and the pleasing effects of the chill of Wasgomuwa's night breeze untrammelled by walls and doors to where we slept, it was decision time. Sunela fitted the part. Jude Kasturiarachchi, then the Head of Engineering, soon fell into a love-hate relationship with Sunela. The dynamic was simple. Sunela loved her ideas and Jude hated them. In the fashion of My Fair Lady, Jude was left to ponder why a woman can't be more like a man. Well I exaggerate because Jude in time embraced Sunela's ideas.

Sunela readily understood the concept paper I had written on embracing the London Wetland as a role model to create a wetland reserve and the construction of a hotel on it as a second phase. Her first big breakthrough was to understand that the skill set for this lay outside the traditional areas of construction and tourism. She sought and found people who work with the overlapping ministries responsible for maintaining the 2,000 year old heritage of 'tanks' or irrigation reservoirs. A vast network of people maintain and manage these ancient jewels which gave rise to an ancient hydraulic civilisation. They not only maintain the legacy but they also construct new lakes and irrigation systems fed by the monsoons that thunder across the Indian Ocean sweeping alternatively and diagonally across the island. As with many good ideas from sliced bread to the iPhone, with hindsight it seems blindingly obvious what we should have done. This insight has now made it easy for others to emulate what was done at Vil Uyana.

Read also Part One. Part Three continues on the 2nd of May.