Gihan Karunaratne is a Sri Lankan born British architect. He studied Architecture at Royal College of Arts, London. Karunaratne has exhibited architecture and art work at numerous international galleries and biennales.

After twenty-eight years abroad, Karunaratne returned to Colombo in 2012 to 2015 to research slum communities, its architecture and to study the diminishing traditional craft skills in Sri Lanka. Subsequently, in 2016, he directed the Colombo Art Biennale Architecture programme bringing together international architects, artists and academics to collaborate with the local slum community to create art. Currently, he lectures Urban Design and Architecture for numerous UK universities and is a director of an architecture practice.

What is your interest in architecture and the sequence of events that led to traveling to Sri Lanka?

I was born in Sri Lanka. My family and I immigrated to London when I was eleven. From an early age, I was interested in art, design and architecture, especially ad hoc self-built architecture, built by non-architects and also how communities occupy space.

I’m absorbed by the urban conditions within cities which are undergoing constant physical, economic or social changes in patterns of urban living. In many of my projects I have researched and explored the underbelly of the city in great detail, specifically the peripheries and incidences where people hide from social normality.

This can be with reference to the hidden urban conditions; the underbelly which exists in the non-fringes of society, self-made communities, homeless, newly arrived immigrants and contemporary urban tribes as these are areas of our urban cities which on many occasions are overlooked by most architects.

After completing my architecture education, I worked at numerous commercial practices in London and Chicago. I was involved with high profile large commercial developments from master planning the central district of Liverpool to commercial office developments in London.

I found the experience in the corporate sector rather sterile and somewhat lacking in realism. The Architecture seems more or less formulaic, prosaic and most often divorced from the real communities. In 2012, I decided to try out something different and travel to Sri Lanka. I quickly realised that I still had my own childhoods’ view point of Sri Lanka, and I soon felt somewhat of a foreigner in my own culture. I began to understand and re-learn the social idiosyncrasies and characteristics of my culture.

What are your architectural and research interests in Sri Lanka?

While I was in Sri Lanka, I was given an opportunity to teach architecture and urban design at University of Moratuwa. This allowed me to collaborate with number of international universities and institutions to research about slum communities and their architecture.

I specifically researched about the low cost housing/slum communities of Colombo. As Sri Lanka is currently going through rapid economic transformation having recently come out of a 30 year civil war, the impoverished areas and slum communities within the capital city of Colombo is an ideal focal point for these studies. These areas have rich and diverse communities and the 'self-build' or 'ad-hoc' architecture is mostly designed and built by the residents.

One of the ethnically, culturally and architecturally diverse areas of Colombo is Slave Island. It is composed of a series narrow streets and corridors, a meandering labyrinth habited by small businesses and schools, dotted with religious buildings; a mixture of dwellings from ad-hoc incremental shanty-type construction to three to four storey middle class housing. These public and private spaces are designed and built by non-architects, where form truly follows function – an example of utilitarian architecture.

One of the interesting architectural aspects of these communities is the creative ways they have formed private and public spaces. The complexity and ambiguity of these spaces also question their boundaries. Change in levels, materials, colours, textures and community surveillance begins to define spatial boundaries and personal territory. In many houses, washing lines are hung outside to create a physiological barrier or separation between public and private space. Given such cramped spatial conditions, individual and personal space is far less compared to conventional contemporary urban places.

Another focus of my research was the architectural layout of a typical family dwelling in this community and how it responds to the social and cultural life of the family unit. A typical house plan area is approximately 45sqm in size. Two parents, two children and living grandparents will live in a typical dwelling, and in extreme cases up to three generations of one family occupy the dwelling. It is fascinating to observe how each family member occupies space in the public and private areas.

There is an order and unwritten rule that when the females of the house need to change their clothes or chat privately, all of the men leave the house and wait outside; it is momentarily transformed into a feminine space. During the day, many residents sit outside their homes on plastic chairs due to the lack of natural light, inadequate ventilation and the uncomfortable internal temperature. As most dwellings have private sanitations, few still share the low quality public sanitary faculties. But some parts of the settlements are deprived of basic amenities such as clean public washing, bathing facilities and adequate infrastructure for sanitation. As in other similar housing typologies in Colombo, the residents refer to the settlement as ‘our community’ and take offence when outsiders refer to them as slums or shanties.

The future of such communities is uncertain. Today, the local authority and the Urban Development Authority plan to reclaim this land for prime commercial development, pushing the inhabitants out to newly built high-rise council apartments. The local and central government policies are able to justify this because some of the occupants have no legal ownership to the property. Most of the residents worry about their survival after such changes. It can be argued that we should preserve such rich diverse communities and their architectural character. Their organic spatial configuration and self-built architecture possess parallels similar to many medieval European cities and layouts. For architects, students, urban planners as well as social anthologists, Slave Island is a deeply historical example of incremental prototypical urban morphology.

While you were residing in Sri Lanka, you collaborated with artisans and craftsmen skilled in timber construction and have documented and archived such disappearing skill sets of traditional crafts of Sri Lanka. What is the outcome?

I was lecturing at University of Moratuwa, which is in a district of Moratuwa located approximately 15km from Colombo. District of Moratwa is known for Sri Lankan crafts epically carpentry and woodwork where generations of skilled craftsmen reside and have their work shops.

Sri Lanka has a rich cultural heritage of arts and crafts, predominately mastery of wood carving and the art of furniture making. From ancient Buddhist temple decorative furniture to Dutch, Portuguese and British Colonial inspired designs celebrate the artistic pedigree of Sri Lanka.

Currently, traditional crafts and their makers are slowly diminishing. Generations of artistic lineages are being broken and the art of bespoke furniture making is disappearing altogether.

Access to new technologies and economic growth in the service sector with relatively cheaper imports from China to introduction of 3D printing and laser cutting has encouraged the young to abandon this form of craft altogether.

The concept for the project was inspired by UNESCO’s lists of tangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to ensure the better protection of important intangible cultural heritage and the awareness of their significance. This can be applied to the traditional arts and crafts practices of Sri Lanka, from wood carving and to art of furniture making.

I collaborated with skilled Sri Lankan wood craftsmen to design and to construct art/furniture piece called Pirith, which celebrates the artistic skills, knowledge and its cultural legacy of Sri Lanka. Through learning from each other’s craft, a design will be produced which acknowledges and celebrates the art of making. It is a pseudo contemporary furniture/art piece, which will was developed through research and archiving traditional Sri Lankan patterns, architectural detailing, organic and bio allegorical narrative motives and patterning to Sri Lankan nature inspired iconography.

The design is a flat pack system, held together by its own weight and gravity of the top element of the piece, similar to the system adopted by Sri Lankan colonial Dutch designs. Sri Lankan red mahogany was used to construct the design and was chosen for its malleability when carving and the appearance of the timber. It is one of the most sustainable timbers available in Sri Lanka.

This art/furniture piece aims to accentuate the knowledge of the craft, its heritage and traditions in Sri Lanka; it is a repository for memory – preserving the culture, artistry, techniques and skills of the craftsmen who built it.

How the Colombo Art Biennale 2016 developed and what were the highlights for you?

In 2016, I was given the opportunity to direct the architecture program for Colombo Art Biennale 2016.The Colombo art biennale is still in its infancy and is currently the largest contemporary art exhibition in Sri Lanka.

Given my research background in slums, I decided to locate it in Slave Island, Colombo. It was chosen because of its complex ethnic history and layered sense of culture and community.

I briefed the invited international architects and artist not to bring any materials from abroad, but rather come to Sri Lanka to utilize the local skilled labour and materials and collaborate with the local community to create art.

Centred on the location of Slave Island, I looked to create a platform for the discussion of the urban environment on a site-specific level, with the aim to bring positive benefits to the community. I have always been interested in how people in Sri Lanka use spaces with such limited resources. Most of the art and architecture exhibitions and education platforms in Sri Lanka are only available to a certain type of demographic. We wanted to make something that is accessible to anyone and everyone.

The concept for the exhibition and event is looked to create a platform for the discussion of the urban environment on a site-specific level, with the aim to bring positive benefits to the community.

Architecture studios Studio Assemble, Will Alsop, Balmond and Ciriacidiehnerer Architekten, participated in the Architects Programme of the fourth Colombo Art Biennale in Sri Lanka, exploring the theme ‘Conceiving Space’. They collaborated with a wider group of architects, artists, professionals and academics, including Sri Lankan architect Hirante Welandawe and Prof Juhani Pallasmaa (Finland) among others. Studio Assemble and Dutch artist Madelon Vrisendorp devised a series of workshops for the making of objects from street decorations to costumes, all inspired by the material culture and craft of Sri Lanka, while looking for ways to enhance the lived experience of the individual in the community of Slave Island, Hirante Welandawe of H W Architects created sky gardens on scaffolded islands above the streets, opening up green space within the urban environment.

It was a nine-day programme where the architects worked with a local community with the support of both international and local university students and artists. The highlight of the programme in the end of was the collaboration in and around the local community area, culminating in a ‘Great Feast’ on the last day which brought together 500 members of the local community joined by artists, architects and visitors. Food and cricket are two of the most democratic activities in Sri Lanka and most of the social activities revolve around cooking and eating. In the corporate sector, a person who is serving the CEO a rice packet for lunch would eat the same.

For this event selected residents cooked and presented a dish of their cultural and family heritage for the street party-‘Great Feast”. Having already exchanged ideas, experiences and skills with the locals, the final feast brought the experience of the Biennale even closer to the local people and community. Overall, The Colombo Art Biennale 2016 architecture element had a successful outcome and I’m planning to collaborate with the Slave Island community again in the near future.