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Colombo, Sri Lanka – CAA Conference

Architects from the Commonwealth debate notions of sustainability that go beyond box-ticking

These days, no convocation on sustainability is complete without Ken Yeang, who popped up to deliver the keynote address at the recent Commonwealth Association of Architects triennial conference in Sri Lanka. Despite having a carbon footprint the size of Kazakhstan, Ken always makes a rousing curtain raiser to such proceedings, breezing through his theories on biointegration and comparing the built environment to a prosthesis grafted on to an organic host (nature). All fascinating stuff, but he couldn’t stay for lunch because he was off to Japan.

The conference theme was ‘Architecture: Rethinking Sustainability’ (predictable enough), but the venue, in Colombo, gave more pause for thought. In Sri Lanka and surrounding Asia, notions of sustainability are not just box-ticking exercises, but crucial to human survival.

Rafiq Azam of Dhaka-based architecture firm Shatotto (featured in the 2007 AR Emerging Architecture Awards) brought things down to earth with a thoughtful discourse on the challenges of building in Bangladesh, ‘a land of six seasons’ steeped in ‘the poetry of the tropics’. Azam’s work sensitively mines climate, culture and context, but he is also aware of architecture’s responsibilities - ‘the power to transform communities and society,’ as he described it.

The ghost of Geoffrey Bawa still hovers benignly over the canon of Sri Lankan modernism, and it was momentarily channelled by a Milroy Perera, who used to work with the great man. His account of the building of the Kandalama Hotel (AR December 1995), on a sensitive site near the famous Dambulla cave temple, showed that making great buildings takes immense reserves of patience and persistence. Bawa had to rebuff opposition from politicians and religious leaders (‘the only man who succeeded in uniting Hindus, Buddhists and Christians,’ said Perera), but his vision won out in the end. Today the Kandalama is covered in lush greenery, as its architect intended, merging to become part of the landscape.

From Australia, Kerry Clare spoke of architecture that ‘locates people in a place rather than sealing them from it’. Her work showed a clear responsiveness to climate, especially the tropical zone of Queensland, through the reinterpretation of vernacular principles. ‘The affirmation of local identity and character by understanding textures, rhythms and tectonics relevant to a culture is increasingly important,’ she said.

South African architect Llewellyn van Wyk had a different perspective - basically we’re all doomed.

Periodic mass extinctions and extreme climate events are an inevitable part of the planet’s long existence and if these don’t get us, the dying sun eventually will.

‘We have to recontextualise our thinking,’ said van Wyk. ‘We’ve lost the capacity to foresee and forestall.’ He proposed seven ‘canons of sustainability’ to enable green buildings to satisfy broader concepts of sustainability, and align them ‘more directly with the transformative notion underpinning sustainable development’.

Though the CAA only assembles every three years, it draws together many architects from the developing world, from Africa and Asia, whose voices are not often heard. But on the evidence of this conference, they should be.

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