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Today is National Archaeological Day

“A city without old buildings is like a person without a memory.” “We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.” “Old buildings reflect the history, character, evolution, culture and heritage of a place.” “Like my grandmother’s lined face, old buildings have a patina that cannot be replicated.”

These quotes from conservationists and architects are very relevant to modern Colombo where it seems like every day another huge glass and concrete structure springs up like a poisonous mushroom, blocking the light and air and obliterating the sky. No more are sunsets or moonrises visible from the earth beneath our feet.

“We are doing land speculation not urban planning. These huge apartment complexes are scattered all over the city, devoid of proper infrastructure, instead of being concentrated in one area. We are wilfully destroying all that is beautiful and of a human scale about Colombo,” architect Ashley de Vos lamented.

These monstrous carbuncles on the face of Colombo, to paraphrase Prince Charles, are constructed at great historical, social and economic cost. Poor residents are summarily evicted from their homes and shoved into cramped apartment blocks devoid of any community interaction. Often they lose their means of livelihood. Whole neighbourhoods of diverse communities and their cultural heritages have been wiped out as others fight for their survival. In place of these elegant and beautiful buildings come luxurious multi million dollar apartments and sprawling shopping malls accessible only to the super rich. The concept of human scale is obliterated by these towering monuments to unchecked greed and cold hearted capitalism.

“This is what development without justice looks like,” said Iromi Perera, a researcher on urban development, speaking during a webinar on urbanisation and land rights. She pointed out that the urban poor are evicted without any consultations on their wants and needs. Their homes are labelled as shanties, illegal slums and derelict to suit the government’s narrative so that they can be thrown out of the communities they have lived in for generations. But these overambitious development plans, estimated to dispossess half a million people, are not sustainable because they do not take into account the needs of the complex and diverse population that calls Colombo home.

“Definitely there needs to be new buildings in any progressive city to cater to the demand but when working in a city which has a rich heritage, it should be approached with sustainable heritage management, development and liveability being taken into consideration. In this regard, the emphasis given to heritage and conservation is not satisfactory,” said architect Varuna de Silva.

Architects and conservationists are fighting a losing battle with the authorities, some of whom who are actually entrusted with the task of protecting and preserving the city’s heritage. Writing in the Sunday Times in 2017, Namini Wijedasa said that the Archaeology Department had made no attempt to gazette the 141 year old Castle Hotel in Slave Island and instead gave written permission for its demolition; one minute the gracious building was there and the next it was razed to the ground so that the Tata Housing Development Company, which has invested in the Slave Island Redevelopment project, could do what it wanted with the land. An ugly replica came up in its place.

“The absolutely disgraceful and sad imitation of what was a well-proportioned and well-detailed elegant Castle Hotel building was built after the huge public outcry,” Mr. de Silva charged.

The same fate awaits the crumbling de Soysa building, left to rack and ruin until it falls down on its own accord. The UDA is determined to the ensure its destruction despite the howls of protest from conservationists and the public. Mr. de Silva cited another example of wanton destruction – the Lalchands building on Chatham Street. Built around 1815, it was the oldest building on the street, if not in the whole Fort. In Ronald Lewcock’s report in 1980 on Listing and Preservation of Historic Buildings and Zones in the Colombo Urban Area, it is mentioned as a “Fine example of a Dutch type shop in excellent condition. Could be made to look even better with conservation”. It is a pile of rubble now.

Devious plans are afoot to raze the Dutch Hospital complex, restored after decades of hard work and many battles, so a high rise can take the place of the one storey building that has a long and interesting history. Iconic landmark buildings such as the old General Post Office and the Grand Oriental Hotel will fall victims to the hideous and unconstitutional Colombo Port City that is devouring everything in its path while causing untold environmental damage. The project is being carried out by the China Harbour Engineering Company whose parent company, China Communications Construction Company, was blacklisted by the World Bank in 2009 for its corrupt practices.

“We are powerless against the government because its intentions in taking over certain buildings is not clear. There are sites that can be developed around Colombo so why take over buildings that are 200 to 300 years old?” asked architect Ismeth Raheem. “They are determined to go ahead and do so in a great hurry.”

In a bid to save the city’s heritage, Kapila Renuka Perera, an engineer and Secretary of the Professionals Nation Front, last week filed a fundamental rights petition against Selendiva Investments Limited to prevent it from selling, leasing or alienation state properties. Selendiva Investments is wholly owned by the Secretary to the Treasury. Its objective is to restructure state owned entities for greater profit.

Mr. Perera feared that the company was trying to sell some heritage buildings causing “irreparable harm to the country’s cultural heritage.” It would cause “citizens to lose access to important historical, archaeological and architecturally valuable sites…”

The Antiquities Ordinance of 1940 and its amendment of 1998 administered by the Department of Archaeology has provisions to protect buildings which were built before March 1815 or buildings older than 100 years, provided that they are worthy of retaining and conservation. However, in order to be protected and preserved, they have to be gazetted.

“We have not been able to gazette any building for several years because it is not only the building but also the surrounding land that has to be included. Many land owners did not want to give up their land. Now I have said to gazette only the buildings so now we can go ahead and do that,” Director General of Archaeology Professor Anura Manatunga said.

Mr. Raheem explained the simple tactic – let old buildings fall into rack and ruin so they collapse on their own and can be deemed unrestorable. Then they can be demolished without opposition.

A good example of this is what has happened to the de Soysa building in Slave Island, which was built in the 1870s by the country’s foremost businessman and philanthropist, Charles Henry de Soysa. In 2018, a detailed report by conservation specialist and architect Dr. Nilan Cooray explained the historical and architectural significance of the building, concluding that the structure was sound (it was checked by Professor Munidasa Ranaweera of Peradeniya University) so it could be repaired and used for its original purpose as shophouses – shops downstairs and homes upstairs.

“The living nature of the heritage building having a continuous commercial function could easily be amalgamated into the current urban development/revitalization scheme of the locality so that conservation could complement development,” Dr. Cooray’s report concluded.

However, the report stressed the urgent need to repair the facade of the building, which had been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that there was a tree growing out of the bricks. The state of the front of the building gave the false impression that it was unsound. Tenants were told not to undertake repairs. Due to neglect and poor maintenance, part of the iconic building collapsed last month, leaving it open for demolition to make way for yet another expensive and most likely unsightly structure.

Director General of the Urban Development Authority, Prasad Ranaweera, was quoted in The Morning newspaper as saying, “Right now, the building is marked for demolition. The building has not been gazetted as an archaeological site either.” He said the land was acquired and given to the Tata Housing Development Company in 2018.

So what can ordinary citizens do to stop the rot? “There should be a strong, well organized and informed heritage protection lobby, comprising of all strata of society, which can check why old buildings are being earmarked for demolition. If the reasons are unjustified, citizens should express their disapproval and prevent them from being demolished,” said Mr. de Silva. He added that legal action should be taken if necessary. In the case of privately owned buildings, if they are being earmarked for demolition due to economic reasons, investors should be found to save them.

Mr. de Vos suggested writing to the newspapers and taking to social media to raise awareness. “Get a proper listing done of the buildings worthy of protection and encourage the departments to get them re-gazetted,” he said.

In Singapore, shop houses like the ones that make up the de Soysa building, have been renovated and are being used for their original purpose. In India, conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah uses her architectural practice to restore temples, mosques, palaces, forts and other sites including the Ajantha caves and Bodh Gaya. Several cities around the world from London to Calcutta conduct heritage walks to educate people on history and culture so they can appreciate and preserve what they have.

A concerted movement of concerned citizens is what is needed if we are to avoid being the architects of our own destruction.

Photos courtesy of Varuna de Silva, Culture Trip, travel2unlimited, Timeout and BT Options.

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