Inspired by the original occupation of the site by shipping containers, this sentitive project delicately occupies its surrounding suburban wilderness
Sri Lankan architecture has always taken advantage of the island’s benign climate. Most traditional buildings are simple pavilions in bucolic landscapes tended for cultivation of rice and other crops.Historically, a typical house took the form of an enclosed room, in which to store precious belongings and provide gender segregation while sleeping, surrounded by a verandah.
The colonial interlude of 500 years and subsequent 20th-century urbanisation, with all its attendant social and economic change, precipitated the evolution of an architecture that clearly defined inside and outside, public and private, enclosed and open. The mid 20th century saw architects such as Minnette De Silva and Geoffrey Bawa erasing this artificial divide. Their approach is now celebrated for its environmental sensitivity, long before ‘green’ architecture became fashionable. Amila de Mel’s house is set in this context.
Covered with tropical wilderness and scrub, the site is typical of the plots that make up Colombo’s diffuse suburbs, fanning out to the east of the city centre. The occupation of the land began by placing two shipping containers as a temporary store for furniture, art and artefacts when the architect was asked to move them out of her parental home across the road. A few years later, with the objects still there, the empty shipping containers inspired the informal occupation of the site as a dwelling. The two containers were rearranged so that one would serve as a bedroom. The other was connected to it and divided in two. One half was used as a kitchen, with the original container doors thrown open when in use, and the other half as a bathroom open to a sky courtyard.
While these formed a series of closed private spaces, a large recycled metal shed around 6m high was installed over and around them to create a sheltered space in the garden. This protected passage between the containers during the monsoon rains, and also doubled as the space to gather friends and family. Over the years the wilderness of the garden matured around and into these spaces, connecting the dwelling more explicitly with nature. But it was the form arising from this initial, somewhat accidental occupation that evolved into the more permanent, current residence.
The original inhabitation defined the principles of the project. Enclosed weatherproof rooms provide security and protection, surrounded by an ephemeral sheltered part of the garden. Small, function-specific spaces are tightly planned to maximise the efficient use of space and materials. The area around these can expand and contract according to changing needs and climate.
This approach embodies a number of considerations in the making of architecture. There is a conscious response to the environment and value is put on material, including artefacts from the past, as a resource to be used with care. There is also a conscious effort to have few proscribed functions, allowing for multiple readings of the structure and the space that it defines. All this generates an aesthetic defined not by fashion or style but by an economy of means.
Today the house has evolved to accommodate the present needs and life of the architect as well as the changing suburban landscape. Sensitive insertions within the original structure maintain the space as originally envisaged, creating a memorable series of spaces that appear to have been there forever, like a ruin in the jungle. Arriving at the house, you are acutely aware of the luxuriant vegetation of the now mature wilderness garden. Traces of habitation are marked by rough granite paving blocks underfoot and a glazed timber screen emerging from the vegetation above. The discovery of a vast sheltering space with a tightly structured object underneath it indicates arrival, yet in more prosaic terms this arrangement is merely defined as a ‘storage space’.
The containers have long gone, and in their place, occupying the same footprint, is a structure of recycled brick and timber, topped by a large timber deck that constitutes its roof. A brick wall divides the space below, defining a bedroom in front and slipping back to enclose an open kitchen. The bedroom occupies the breadth of the deck above and connects to a dressing room and an open-to-sky bathroom behind the kitchen. A door from the dressing room leads to the main garden that extends through the house to the rear.
The timber deck is accessed by a simple concrete staircase. This creates an intimate living enclave overlooking the gardens and the main space below which is separated from the wilderness surrounding it by the steel framework of the original shed, its upper half now augmented by recycled timber and glass panels. The panels appear to hold back the vegetation while screening the living area from the houses now appearing above the garden walls as the suburb expands. This flexible armature changes on a day-to-day basis, easily transforming from a garage to a store, from intimate dining room to capacious party space. The tropical wilderness extends back into the rear of the site, where a simple lean-to structure of recycled brick runs along the side garden wall housing a generous guest suite next to a swimming pool.
Amila de Mel’s house explores concepts embodied in the idea of the traditional Sri Lankan home, specifically the large open-sided shelter connected to enclosed rooms for private habitation. Here it is carved out of a suburban wilderness, where you are acutely conscious of living within that wilderness, ‘waking up to the birds and enjoying fireflies in the living room while having dinner’, as de Mel describes it. How it came about follows a mythic first needs story that develops into an inhabited artefact of the utmost simplicity, with refreshingly little conceit or reference to fashion.
Architects: ADM Architects
Photographs: Dominic Sansoni