To Be an Architect in Sri Lanka

Danish-born Ulrik Plesner says construction in Israel can benefit from Eastern building practices.

Keshet Rosenblum
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Keshet Rosenblum

At the center of the plot of land stood a large dome, 40 meters in diameter, covered in gold leaf. It floated over the ground in a marvelous way, like a ball of fire, allowing the visitors access from all directions. A system of interwoven beams that flowed to the center of the temple with its large statue of Buddha strengthened this illusion.

Ulrik Plesner’s proposed monument in New Delhi to mark 2,500 years since the Indian prince Gautama attained Nirvana was never built. A local architect won that competition, but Plesner’s unique structure, which he planned upon completing his studies, got a great deal of attention in Asia.

A series of coincidences – as he sees it after the fact – led Plesner, now 83, to a career in Sri Lanka that lasted on and off for 16 years. It is still continuing. He published his memoirs of that period, most of which took place during the 1960s, in a thick hardcover book now being published in English and in Danish, entitled "In Situ."

“It’s not a book about architecture. It’s a book about the work of an architect,” he says. “I have no big theories about anything. I’m not a great philosopher.”

Accordingly, "In Situ," which took roughly a decade to write, is an unusual item for an architecture library. It is an architectural diary, written in a personal tone, of over 400 pages and contains more text than images. It is written in a fluent, flowing and wonderfully accessible style.

“It’s gone now, but it was a most wonderful world,” Plesner says.

After receiving two prestigious awards – the Academy Fellowship in 1956 and the Fengers Scholarship in 1958 – he went to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) where he met the renowned architect Minnette de Silva, who took him under her wing. The introduction was arranged by one of Plesner’s lecturers from his studies in Copenhagen, and at the age of 27 he packed his bags and went to Colombo, the large industrial city on the island’s west coast.

Plesner’s work with de Silva, who was a strong, colorful figure, did not last long. Six months after he began his employment, de Silva was unable to pay his salary because, among other reasons, she regularly got into conflicts with her clients. “She wasn’t exactly a businesswoman,” Plesner says delicately.

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Ulrik PlesnerCredit: Michele barristro Uziel
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Credit: Living Architecture
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Daniel Rowing Centre.Credit: Amit Geron

He continues: “When I first got there I thought I was going to show them how to do things as they were done in Europe, just like the other architects who had come to Asia. Just like Le Corbusier, who made a mistake in Chandigarh, and like the other big stars who built in China and made mistakes there, too, they destroyed whole villages, parks and cities to build those ‘icons.’ I was also nave when I first got there.”

Not long afterward, he met architect Geoffrey Bawa, a native of Sri Lanka, and they worked together for nine fruitful years until Plesner left for England in 1967 and later came to Israel.

"We traveled together, Bawa and I, to Chandigarh," he said, referring to the first planned city in post-independence India. "It was total chaos there; [the architecture] didn't take into account the climate, the locals' way of life, nothing. We said 'if this is the future, then we have to look to the past. People can only be happy in an environment that's familiar to them.'"

He had arrived at this conclusion not just based on what he saw in India, but from his own early architectural mistakes.

"The first house that I built was a private home for a village doctor who wanted something modern. He'd been a village doctor all his life; he had trained in England, came back to Sri Lanka and was stuck in his village for 30 or 40 years. I built him a modern home, and he moved into it with his family," he recalls.

Although the doctor saw himself as a man of the world, his wife was a village woman and was determined to remain one: She needed her friends, and brought along her chickens, chili peppers and anything else she felt she needed to maintain the way of life to which she was accustomed. The styled sliding doors were pulled off and replaced with screens that allowed for better air flow.

"That's when I understood that I had perceived everything incorrectly," Plesner recalls. "I think that then I understood that Sri Lanka has a wonderful and functional architectural tradition that goes back to the 14th century, with good construction and intelligent planning based on ventilation and shade, on the technology of the time. That became the most fundamental factor in my belief and my work – and it's still that way."

His Danish education left him with more than just Western arrogance, however. In the Copenhagen academy where he had studied, about half the architecture students were art-loving high-school graduates like himself, but the other half were professional builders – carpenters and certified bricklayers – who wanted to be architects.

"This combination was very productive," Plesner says. "Later on, when I taught architecture, I took the approach that architecture is an art, first and foremost; but that you have to learn how to build a door, window and roof. After that, if you're good at it, it's an art. In third place architecture can be a philosophy or a theory, but that's usually when the first two aspects fail."

Humor and mischief

The Plesner-Bawa team designed more than 100 projects in Sri Lanka during the 1960s, including private homes, offices, factories, churches and schools. His favorite project, and the most prominent among his wide repertoire, is Polontolawa House, which was built in 1963-64. The home, a residence and offices for the manager of a coconut grove, is an exceptional creation of a shady and airy building tucked between huge boulders, open to the view.

"That was the one I enjoyed the most," he says. "It was done without blueprints, without the authorities, without permits, without a budget – it was the purest possible conception of openness and nature."

Most of his projects came from private developers, nonprofits or organizations, and were not funded by the government. He planned a church for orphan girls and battered women that a Catholic order of nuns gathered in from the streets. In Colombo, they designed a Montessori school with a touch of humor and mischief – the two-story building was adapted especially for children, including particularly low toilets and classroom doorways, such that teachers had to bend their heads when they entered the classrooms and go to the bathroom elsewhere.

The local designs, as the title of the book implies, were always influenced by the site's topography, climate and population. But the Sri Lankans themselves, whose country had been under colonial rule for 500 years, didn't see what they had to offer as anything to be proud of.

"Colonialism had so screwed up their heads that they thought that everything they did was second-rate, while anything that came from Europe or from England had to be better," Plesner says.

"One day I was traveling through several villages to one of my jobs, and en route we saw a lovely temple. We went back there with my partner and my neighbor's wife, who was very interested in such things, and found the temple again and started to sketch it.

"The clergyman who ran the place and saw what we were doing asked us if we could help him raise money so that he could demolish the existing building and build a more modern temple," he recalls. "It's scary to think of it – a new temple, with vinyl flooring."

Realizing that an increasing number of historic monuments and structures hundreds of years old were being destroyed, erasing ancient traditions, Plesner began a documentation and surveying project that eventually evolved into Sri Lanka's official preservation program. He wrote a column that appeared every Saturday on the back page of a local paper that included a short description of a historic building and its ancient traditions, accompanied by captivating illustrations by Barbara Sansoni.

That's how the group surveyors who came together learned the stories of the religious buildings, bridges and other structures from the period of Dutch colonialism. Similarly, the group also discovered numerous traditional open cabins with broad roofs that were erected along the ancient trails that crossed the jungles. These cabins, situated about half a day's walk from one another, served as rest stops for people traveling along the adjacent trails, "a type of public service," says Plesner.

The unique construction of these cabins, complex structures using several layers of wood, also led them to reveal the Chinese influence on the island's building style, which until then was thought to have been primarily influenced by India. Sri Lanka's first architecture school, which Plesner helped found, based its instruction solely on the principles of local architecture and sought to instill these principles in its students.

Plesner, who married an Israeli woman, Tamar Liebes, left Sri Lanka in 1967 for England and came to Israel in 1972.

In 1983, a bloody civil war broke out in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamil Tigers. That war, which lasted until May 2009, killed tens of thousands of people and wounded hundreds of thousands, and periodic violence continues to claim victims.

During the war years Plesner was working on an ongoing project in Sri Lanka that involved rehabilitation and urban planning for the Mawali district. During this period he was one of the few Israelis who maintained ties with the Sri Lankan authorities, and was sometimes called upon to intercede in various matters. Israel and Sri Lanka have cordial relations but Israel does not have an embassy there.

In Israel, after spending two years as the Jerusalem municipality's city architect, he opened his own architecture firm, which he now runs with his two daughters, Daniela and Maya, who are responsible for the firm's contemporary projects.

"I've seen how drastically the country has changed since the 1970s," he says. "Israel has always been open to and influenced by the Western world; it always looked to London, Paris and New York. The East never interested Israelis. Thirty years ago there wasn't such an awareness of the importance of shade and the direction of the breeze, and the differences between building in a place like Jerusalem and a place like Tel Aviv, with their different climates."

Several of the projects the firm has designed in recent years are markedly influenced by his experience in Sri Lanka. One example is a private house built in 2007 in Tel Aviv with pillars from coconut wood, a wide pergola that provides shade during all hours of the day and large outdoor spaces.

Recently the firm has been working on yet another project in Sri Lanka – a university, funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, which will offer courses to local farmers in animal husbandry, agriculture, hygiene, reading and writing, as well as other skills that will help them cope with the modern world such as taking loans, legal issues and dealing with bureaucracies.

"My approach, which I certainly got from Sri Lanka, is to accept the facts of life and the place, instead of trying to create icons," says Plesner. "Icons always come at the expense of something else; they're always political."

Anti-colonialist architecture: "I understood that Sri Lanka has a wonderful and functional architectural tradition that goes back to the 14th century," says Plesner.Credit: Living Architecture

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