Structures that help build futures

June 21 / 2018

Often, and especially in today’s market-driven, price-sensitive atmosphere, architecture is forced to essay the role of a ‘facilitator of profit’ first, and then progress. This kind of progress too is deeply influenced and shaped by the economic aspects of it all, and as a result, sometimes, caters only to a certain section of the society. The rest, as always, are ignored, often shrouded into oblivion owing to the lack of a voice. And yet, as a silver lining to this dark cloud, there are some out there who care enough to make a difference – and not just the economic kind.The Lanka Learning Centre is one such project by a group of such change-makers.And the idea of making a differencehere is one of vision, foresight and empowerment by means of education and skill development.
The Lanka Learning Centre comes with a distinctive context – almost an emotional baggage of sorts. The site – Parangiyamadu – is a small fishing village to the south of Kalkudah in the Batticaloa district of Sri Lanka. The region has been unfortunate enough to bear the brunt of natural and manmade calamities, namely the civil war as well as the tsunami of 2004. In order to affect change in the region, and empower the community on a long-term basis, educated presented itself as the ideal foundation to structure the project around. Thus, by creating a platform for disadvantaged children of different, and often at-war, ethnicities and religions, the project aimed at reconciliation and creation of affiliations through communal education, and bonding activities such as sports. Thus, in building this project the architects were also building a future for these kids through cultural exchange, and a chance to get to know ‘the other’ better in order to avoid future friction.
In order to give the project a sense of belonging, and its users a sense of ownership, the project – a school and training centre – was designed with ample local participation during the design process, as well as the building and execution. Employing local traditions and principles to the design, as they were best suited for the cultural characteristics and climatic conditions of the region, a contemporary building was envisioned that would be complemented by the existing natural landscape and architectural fabric. Moreover, the building was constructed with local entrepreneurs, craftsmen, and workers so as to create a sense of pride, and perhaps means of employment. Local, natural materials are used not only to relate the projects to its site, but also perhaps as a cost-effective measure.
The design keeps in mind the greenery in the area, and takes maximum advantage of the tress on site. In order to create a covered open space, the design consists of five pavilions to house an administrative office, a classroom for girls and one for boys, a kitchen and canteen space, and a workshop for training and skill development. Thus, the buildings are arranged in a circle, with an open space in between. Much like the planets and the sun, the central open space is perhaps designed to be the hub of all activityand intermingling, fulfilling the basic premise of the school – to provide a platform for inter-ethnic and inter-religious exchange and understanding. The multipurpose space is thus the ‘mitochondria’that powers the future the project sets out to create for the children and perhaps the adults as well, of this community.
What stands out in the project, apart from the architectural design, is the attempt to give the project roots. The materials are local, the building techniques are local, the workers are local, and thus the local inhabitants can relate to the building as something that is natural to them and their environment. The school building thus becomes a part of their life and surrounding as naturally as the landscape. And thus, eliminates any hesitation, or mistrust of an otherwise ‘alien’ non-contextual building. The building is open, almost designed as an extension of the environment it is located in, creating strong visual links to the outside and the sky. It also welcomes the natural light and ventilation, blurring the distinction between indoors and outdoors, bringing in not just natural elements into the design, but also taking into account the most important aspect – human-emotional wellbeing that comes out of a sense of security and the assurance of a promising future.
The project may also remind some of the Friendship Centre by KashefMahboobChowdhury of URBANA in Gaibandha, Bangladesh. As such, both projects were also built around the same time, signifying perhaps a shift in the architectural approach to non-architectural, social problems. Both projects are rather unassuming in their distinctive milieus – lush greens in Bangladesh, as against the arid landscape speckled with greenery in Sri Lanka –and yet, they make, or at least intend to make, a deeper impact and much-needed contribution to their respective users. There is a similar yet unique underlying intention of giving back to the community, helping people, and architecture taking on a greater social responsibility that, in an ideal world, it ought to.