Palinda Kannangara designs a layered artists’ retreat near Colombo

Palinda Kannangara designs a layered artists’ retreat near Colombo

Palinda Kannangara architects has designed a retreat for Sri Lankan artist JC Ratnayake and his wife, Thanuja, a printmaker. The dwelling, gallery and studio is comprised of a series of layered courtyards embedded into a sloping plot on the edge of the paddy fields of Pittugala, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The architecture is reflective of the artists’ lifestyle; a space where they can work, store and exhibit their work, entertain as members of the community and relax with friends or alone, together with family. Ratnayake’s painting can be seen hanging in the open plan living space, that also becomes a gallery space for exhibitions.

Ratnayake grew up in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa amidst architectural ruins of the historical site, and here on the edge of the paddy fields, the wildness of nature encroaches in a reminiscent way. Alternating indoor and outdoor courtyards are landscaped with creeping paddy fringe species, such as the Alocasia, and other locally sourced plants, which landscape architect Varna Shashidhar sourced from Diyatha Uyana, a market in Colombo selling plants grown in the rural communities.

The rooftop garden, connected to the master bedroom by a bridge, has a pond filled with water lilies and freshwater fish. Photography: Sebastian Posingis

The studio space is positioned at the lowest level of the building, with views into the gardens and paddy fields beyond. Its high ceilings leave plenty of space for Ratnayake’s large scale paintings, as well as ample storage. Air flows freely through the whole retreat through voids in the exterior brickwork and the ground floor has no doors at all, shaded and sheltered by the courtyard gardens and the inclining terrain of the land. The whole design evokes a wabi sabi aesthetic, reflecting the values of the artists, with low maintenance surfaces of raw, exposed materials, that are tactile and pure – polished cut cement floors, unplastered brick walls, steps made of local rubble, and recycled timber of varying species.

While the ground floor is an open plan and social space for dialogues with other artists and members of the community, the upper floors, where there are three bedrooms, is an oasis of calm planned around a lily pond filled with freshwater fish. Upstairs the interiors are softer; there are sliding glass windows and the brickwork is plastered with an ochre-hued earth pigment, a reference to the colour of the Sri Lankan landscape and ancient Buddhist temples.

Architect and client collaborated closely across the design and construction processes; the artists managed the project themselves and worked with a local ‘Bass’ workman, commissioning handcrafted parts and saving on budget. Every element of the retreat seems to have its own story; the old bakers table was modified and adapted by the architects to become and expansive work top or dining table, while a cupboard made from reclaimed materials was painted by the 8-year-old daughter of the artists – making Ratnayake’s retreat a truly collaborative effort.

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