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In conversation with Channa Daswatte: From navigating his own practice to exploring multifaceted aspects of architecture and design

DEC 5, 2023 | By Tanvee Abhyankar
The open colonnade of the reception pavilion at the Water Garden Hotel is placed at the centre of the axis of the garden. The space is defined by its polished concrete floor, columns and a plinth made of locally sourced brick; Photography courtesy Water Garden Sigiriya
The main living and entertainment spaces of Hiran and Krishni’s house work as a verandah-like space overlooking a courtyard garden at the rear. When required, in humid or wet weather, the sliding folding glass shutters close in to provide a more substantial and controlled environment; Photograph courtesy MICDA
Channa Daswatte's residence utilises natural materials in their core element as the play of light and shadow brisks past the indoor-outdoor spaces; Photography by Banuka Vithanage
There are principles on which livable architecture can often be hinged on. One sees a clear inclination to the rich history of colonial furniture and artefacts of South Asia. The house is finished in red oxide wall and polished cement ceilings; Photography by Sumedha Kelegama
The Water Garden Hotel in Sigiriya has gardens which are an important part of Sri-Lankan life and have a long tradition that dates back to the 3rd century BC Royal Goldfish Park in Anuradhapura. These gardens at the Water Garden Hotel are inspired by the 5th and 20th century gardens of Lunuganga, creating a sight to behold; Photograph courtesy Water Garden Sigiriya

The only negatives approved of in life are the ones created with sciography, and there is nothing that the man does not want to see the beauty in—such is the life of Channa Daswatte, the architect born on the island country of Sri Lanka. Architecture was never a solidified dream for him, it primarily was about design. “Obviously there was an inclination but not really to say that I want to be an architect,” recollects Channa as he ponders over his initial years.

The architect remembers going on trips with his parents to the mediaeval capital of Polonnaruwa on the Thiwanka Pilimage in particular, where he’d sit in the mid-day sun, sketching a particular sight or vista. For him, the concern and interest started off with spatial sequences, light and shadow and how one then builds it with whatever materials there are at hand. Picking up on this aptitude and the little inclinations towards architecture, Channa decided to study in an architecture school, “That’s how I ended up being an architect. I went off to the university, and I enjoyed every moment.

Photography by Banuka Vithanage

While talking about his academic life at the University of Moratuwa, he fondly remembers his time with his mentor and architect, C. Anjalendran, who was a lecturer at the time. Channa was offered a job at Anjalendran’s practice on the very first day of college. During Channa’s time at the practice, he improved on his knowledge of proportions and sketches by drawing out various vernacular buildings which were later to be published in the mentor’s book — The Architectural Heritage of Sri Lanka (Talisman 2016). Anjalendran took Channa along on a one-month trip to India, where the country was familiarised to the young architect in a new light. He was also introduced to M.S. Subbalakshmi’s singing and L. Subramanium’s violin—something Channa holds close to his heart.

Channa Daswatte
Traditionally, courtyards are in effect extensions of livable space onto the outside, which also has privacy. The Premdasa’s courtyard has been adapted as a central garden. Terracotta tiles, recycled colonial period timber columns and a timber framed roof add to the material palette of this home; Photography by Ranukshi Seneviratne


Channa Daswatte
Peter and Kanchana’s house in Colombo uses a simple palette of materials, mud painted plastered brick walls, a timber framed roof covered in half round terracotta tiles and fenestration of recycled doors and windows, which provide with ample cross ventilation to the house; Photography by Sumedha Kelegama

After graduation, Channa went for higher studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, and right after that was offered the opportunity of working with architect Geoffrey Bawa. He has many amusing anecdotes to share about Mr. Bawa, elaborating on how his mentor never really sketched things himself but made everyone else draw what was desired, which baffled a lot of people, including Channa himself. “Understanding what you do to actually get it right, that was the purpose of the drawings. The drawing was not an end in itself, it was an early lesson that helped you think about architecture,” clarifies Channa. Although the architect is eternally grateful for having worked with both his mentors, in due course of time he had to break through the cocoon of being Geoffrey Bawa’s protege to metamorphose into his own identity and calling.

Of the many things the architect’s motherland taught him, was recognising natural materials and managing with the resources without compromising on design. “You can create beautiful architecture out of the most glamorous marble and steel, but you can still make uplifting work with thatch, brick, and mud.” He explains, “If I was working in a location that has stone, I would love to use stone. If you think about the Museum I did in Porbandar, it uses Gujarat limestone.”

Although nature has been his biggest teacher, it never diverted him from gaining as much formal education as he can. On Anjalendran’s suggestion, Channa got himself enrolled in a special course called Advanced Architectural Studies, where the topic of interest for him was understanding why and how architecture is made, through the means of reading literature which challenged the everyday academic and philosophical positions in the subject. “While the practice of architecture was one thing, to think about architecture and not just about what you were doing but about the phenomena of architecture as it goes on, and thats something that I suddenly got interested in,” he ruminates.

Channa Daswatte
The residence utilises natural materials in their core element as the play of light and shadow brisks past the indoor-outdoor spaces; Photography by Banuka Vithanage


Nestled amidst abundant sunlight and bounty of flora, Channa Daswatte’s residence in Madiwela fixes a place for humans and birds alike; Photography by Banuka Vithanage

After returning to Sri Lanka, he received an offer from Colombo School of Architecture to teach a topic that focused on society and architecture. He went on to teach what he believed in, that architectural creations are for humans, and ironically humans get left out in the process of building something—one of the many things about the billboarding of architecture that concerns Channa. He doesn’t advocate the architecture that does not satisfy functionality and genuinity; for him, architecture should lift the spirit first, and anything that fails to do that, clearly does not serve a purpose.

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