Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sri Lankan journey: Order behind the chaos in Colombo's Wellawatta neighborhood

Ever since I started thinking about the phenomenon of "composure" here in Colombo I've been looking ever more closely at how we can interpret the built environment of "chaotic" cities of South Asia. The other day I wrote about how people in this urban environment are composed. They stay cool, calm, and collected in spite of the heat, noise, and dirt. 

Then I noticed that you can find composure behind the mess of the busiest, grimiest, noisiest streets. In spite of garish, gaudy signage, you see well organized storefronts, places that are carefully arranged for a high volume of activity in small spaces. So, I decided to check out my theory. We had the day off from language lessons and I asked Janet to join me in a walk around Wellawatta, a bustling neighborhood just south of Colombo. 

My goal was to find organization behind the seeming disorganization or, as the title of this post suggests,  order behind the chaos.

We got off the bus at a fairly random stop on Galle Road and just started to saunter. We found ourselves in some kinds of unlikely spaces. For example, a quiet market space of two three-storey structures connected by an overhead ceiling. The relative darkness and gentle breeze moving through the building provided a cool and comfortable respite from the hassles of Galle Road. Even though this space housed lots of shops Janet thought about how well this style of building might lend itself to residential structures in a crowded neighborhood like Wellawatta. 

We encountered narrow lanes with large apartment buildings. Among them were scattered old bungalows with lacy woodwork and shady, picturesque gardens, a vernacular architecture that suggested a quieter, more leisurely past. But the taller apartment houses (one with a large generator in the parking area to keep the elevators running in case of a power failure) also reflected a kind of vernacular style. The proportions of these buildings, their coloration, and the style of their balconies indicated a building style "unencumbered" by architectural conventions. These apartments, like the bungalows among them, were built by their designers and designed by their builders. Not a touch of professional architecture that I could find.

Elsewhere architects have designed much smaller buildings, nicely proportioned and a but pretentious, buildings which they may have conceived as carrying on a "conversation" with the streetscape. Their contrived facades and simple lines are, in their own way more out of place than larger buildings that stand disproportionately on the narrow lanes.

We found ourselves at a narrow bridge crossing a canal, just wide enough for a scooter. A walk halfway across the unromantic bridge was enough. The former village, now an urban enclave on the other side, beckoned. But there was too much to see in the larger city streets. Maybe another time. 

Janet recalled being driven with our friend Dillon, who was in Colombo during Black July in 1983. He explained that it was these streets where pogroms against Tamil residents and shopkeepers were among the highest. Our walks through Paris a few years ago reminded us of the atrocities French citizens committed against their Jewish neighbors--actions taken with barely a finger lifted by the Nazi German occupiers. Important to recall and remember what happened here in Colombo, this seemingly peaceful and now burgeoning city. How was it that people turned against each other with violence and hatred? It seems so uncharacteristic of the people we've encountered here. 

As we made our way through the streets enjoying the sights and scents of stores with Indian products, incense, calendars with Hindu gods, saris and shalwars, we noted fruit stands, fish stands, and lottery sellers. All with their special place along the street or along the side. 

We struggled to read a few signs in Singhala, and in spite of my pervasive despair over slow learning, we realized we had accomplished much in this week of effort and sweat equity. We could recognize some of the letters and sound out words!

I mentioned to Janet my desire to find order behind the chaos and she said, "oh no I let you down. Wrong walk!" "No" I decided. If Galle Road is chaotic these side streets hold another sort of order. Something more bite-size that we can seize upon and begin to interpret. 

Then I stopped dead still and so did Janet. We were next to a shady wall just above a muddy puddle, across the street from what appeared to be an ordinary store--actually a small series of them. Let's just stand here quietly and observe, taking apart the scene and dividing it into smaller parts. 

Several large advertising signs dominated the main store. The next thing we noticed was cases of soda, with empties on top. Pieces of paper with handwritten, "no gas today" were hung among the empties. To their left, blocking the entrance to the store, were two large blue propane canisters. 

We noted the mud and puddles just in front of the store. There had been heavy rain the night before. We also noticed a good deep drainage ditch in front of this store and the stores next to it. The ditch was crossed by well-constructed paths into each store, and clean stairs raised the level of each store well above the road. We counted one piece of litter among three stores. The scene was one of deliberate organization and maintenance of the surroundings. Middle class ladies in saris, young and not so young, walked down the street to the main road with their shopping bags. 

A tuktuk came up to the store with the canisters on its stoop. We watched as the driver swung the empty canisters onto his back seat and rode away. As suspected, a well-run operation, tidy, active, and in tune with its surroundings. 

Wellawatta with its great mix of buildings and street landscapes would make an excellent study area for our students at Moratuwa University. I'm afraid they've seen too little of their own city--its vernacular architecture, its close-knit urban fabric. They need to see Colombo closely I think, before they launch off to other cities in Asia. Let them get perspectives on this fascinating city, its curves, its aromas, its colors, before they start imposing big ideas and clean lines to a built environment they don't fully know. 

I often question the utility of "planning" as we teach it to our students. That goes for design too. We need to observe more closely and respond with meaning. We need to step back from our "good ideas" and question whether we are imposing them on our hapless neighborhoods as though the places were blank spaces waiting for our great plans. 

Order definitely exists within what appears to be chaos. And chaos and disorder my lurk close below the surface of our cleanest line. 

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