Drawing and modelling Sri Lanka's tryst with democracy

Channa's Note

Representing the most important constitutional changes and initiatives made by the Sri Lankan state in spatial and objective form is a means by which these actions are critiqued in some physically observable manner. The objective has not been to create a beautiful building but to understand the nature of the key relationships that exist between the three arms of governance and represent them as spatial relations and how the changes through the years to these relationships can affect the structure that accommodates these in its stability and aesthetic.

The premise has been that architecture is essentially about creating relationships between various spaces occupied by people and thus making the potential for interaction between them. The resultant object made from materials available in the environmental context and to suit the structural needs demanded by the spatial relations and the environmental and climatic needs for it's occupation, also gets modified by cultural concerns of the maker. In this case the observations of the architect of the socio-cultural context in which each constitutional change has taken place may colour this outward appearance.

In this context, while the structure represents the constitution, the ground on which it is built is seen as the people who the structure should make into a polity. The assumption is that, while the structure was being conceived as one that will provide the nation with a unitary ideal as contained in the initial move towards republicanism with its ideals of regaining the lost primacy of the majority, within the ground itself lies a serious flaw which in the initial construction goes unheeded. The subsequent changes to the structure is seen as ways of dealing with this flaw or not, as the case may be, in addition to other issues of the degrees of power and control desired by successive leaderships.

1972: The Establishment of the Republic

The structure here is seen as a series of simple relationships between the three instruments or branches of government, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The supreme power of the people is represented in the open sided structure that is the legislature, the executive power too lies in it, though a ceremonial presidency is placed atop this to represent the leadership o f the executive and approached through and from it and derives its power and is supported by the lower level structure, the legislature. The judiciary also deriving its power from the legislature is however seen to be separate and distinct and is approached from the legislature through a clearly structured access as it is from the presidency. A separate independent access is provided for the people to the judiciary which allows for redress of injustices that may arise from the abuse of state power.

In outward appearance the building represents a singular view of a majoritarian government and projects a homogenous style except in the Judiciary which is clearly manifest as different. The architectural style adopted here is the one most commonly associated with the royal and monastic buildings of the past.

1978: The Introduction of Presidentialism

The fundamental and therefore most visible change to the structure that occurs with the new relationships brought about with the introduction of Presidentialism is the access the upper level has directly from outside. The presidency which was hitherto a small institution represented in the structure on a modest scale is enlarged to reach the very edges of the lower building and in fact overwhelming it with roof structure that come out to shelter the access stairs to the upper level from outside. The process of expansion also compromises the judiciary, the roof of which requires some changes. The access to the judiciary from the presidency is also made grander with a new staircase which partly hinders the direct access provided to the people.

With the executive power being changed to be headed by the presidency, stronger links between the spaces housing executive power on the lower level are made through corner staircases and outer corridors, accessing these without going through the main legislative chamber. This new access way reduces the transparency of the legislature and thus governance itself. The added weight is made without recourse to any structural changes to the existing building.

The outer appearance of the building continues with the style and form of the previous structure, simply by expanding the upper level. This makes the whole appear to be one unitary structure dominated by the upper level with its extended roofs and grand staircases. The lower level structure disappears into insignificance in this new scheme of things.

1987: The Introduction of Devolution

Time and the added strain of the enlarged upper level superstructure begins to tell on the foundations of the original structure on which it is all resting, causing the radical flaw in the ground which had hitherto been ignored to become more obviously visible. Cracking and slippage in the ground must be addressed if the whole edifice is not to come tumbling down. To this end small chambers and structures are built out to hold the slippage. These structures are built out from the existing structure and are claw like elements extended out in all directions, with the hope of holding on to the slippage and getting stability. While the people have access to the new structures, since they are held up from above and structural support also from above, uncertainty as to its sustainability is very high. Access to the centres of power are also through the upper levels and thus controlled by the presidency.

The structures needed to hold these new elements in place especially from above are to be both highly over designed for the purpose and also lends a clumsy appearance to the whole whatever the efforts to make them appear a natural extension of the main structure. Other spatial changes include a more complex set of relationships between the various arms of government and the renovations made to the existing spaces to accommodate these make the structures of space increasingly indecipherable.

2010: The Expansion of Hyper-Presidentialism

The expansion of the presidency is simply just that and also manifests itself in a manner that makes it more obvious than any other arm of governance sees in the structure. A massive expansion and extension in height of the structure is made to accommodate the all powerful presidency and its attendant arms of executive power and control. From the outside the whole structure is visually impenetrable, but appears as a centrifugally unifying circular structure. It's appearance certainly goes beyond the traditionally understood cultural elements of the architecture of palaces and monasteries and borders on being an ultimate symbolic object representing the highest of the high in an abstracted form.

Internally the spatial relations isolate the space of the presidency and the executive offices surrounding the presidency controls access to the space occupied by the presidency. Also while the presidency has visual, control over its executive offices, spatial and physical control is limited, though access to all these areas being through a strong single space at the base of the presidency that controls this access. The legislature and the judiciary are overwhelmed by the new structures and new supports independent of the legislature have had to be erected directly from the available firm ground to support parts of it. The access to the supreme space of the judiciary is made easy from the executive where the renovations needed to the judiciary made inevitable by the damage caused by the expansion of the executive leads to the addition of a new series of stairs to access the main space. In the process the judicial structure is now a roof terrace accessed from the executive offices. Extreme strain is placed on the legislature with it the additional weight and is now completely unrecognisable even as the formative base and supporting structure on which the executive stands.

2015: The Reform of Presidentialism

The removal of some of the spatial relations related to the hyper presidential situation can only be seen as a reduction of the stresses placed on the original foundations and flaws. While this will certainly prolong the life of the structure to a degree, the fundamental flaws existing in the ground continue to exist and are now more that ever visible for all to see. While the grand structure of Presidentialism managed to hide some of the flaws by distraction, what now happens is that the flaws are much more obvious and the dismantling of some of the structures could prove to be difficult and in some situations perhaps impossible. The drawings begin to suggest what the new scenario could look like, but because the fundamental flaws still remain the suggestion may be to strip the structure down to basics and start again by addressing the ground conditions, but even here, instead of the expensive underpinning of the existing structures, it may be more viable to demolish and build anew a structure that addresses all the issues including those of the site.

Channa Daswatta
5 September 2015