Spent a great weekend at Kandalama Hotel. It was an amazing experience JRJ would have liked. Kandalama is so special to me because this was built amidst the protests of the anti-development gangs who used it for their political propaganda, but none of the things they have predicted ever happened. (Today, Dambulla temple is more comercialised than Kandalama hotel)
Also visited Pidurangala and a near by rock called `Ali Gala` (Elephant rock) in the middle of the jungle where they have some ruins of a Mahayana temple. More photo essays to follow...
About Kandalama Hotel...
The crushing of the JVP
in 1989 brought a lull to Sri Lanka`s spiralling violence, encouraging a resurgence of tourism. Package tour operators started to offer a week at the beach on Sri Lanka`s south-west coast combined with a week visiting the ancient cities in the `Cultural Triangle` of the Dry Zone, and hotel developers found that they needed to have a `foot in both camps`. Aitken Spence decided in 1991 to build a hotel in the Dry Zone to complement their popular Triton Hotel at Ahungalla and asked Bawa to be their architect. The company had an option on a site at Sigiriya not far from the foot of the ancient rock where King Kasyapa had made his fortress in the fifth century, and early in 1991 a party of directors travelled with Bawa to inspect it. Bawa rejected the site out of hand but suggested that the directors should look at `a beautiful tank a short way away to the south-west` that would serve them better. The party set off in a convoy of cars along a country track that led them for about 10 kilometres through a landscape of huge rocky outcrops to the bund of the ancient Kandalama Tank. Bawa pointed dramatically with his stick towards his proposed site for the new hotel. Was this a spontaneous suggestion based on a vague memory of some long-forgotten trip in the Rolls, or was it a premeditated piece of theatre based on `inside knowledge` gleaned from the old British `One-Inch` maps or from his friend Laki Senanayake, who had a farm a few kilometres away to the south? For Bawa the original site lacked any sense of surprise or drama - the Sigiriya Rock was simply there,`in your face`. What he wanted was a site that would offer mystery and suspense: visitors would be forced to make a long trek through the jungle to arrive at the edge of a tank, across which they would finally see Sigiriya in the distance. He persuaded the clients to go along with his suggestion and a few days later the group flew over the site by helicopter, viewing an island at the centre of the tank and, behind it, a long ridge terminating near the edge in a rocky outcrop. Ridge or island? For a few days Bawa sketched ideas for both possibilities. Meanwhile Milroy Perera managed to reach the ridge by jeep and came back with stories of a long cliff face with an old cave hermitage, of thick jungle rich in wildlife, of superb views across the tank toward Sigiriya. Bawa was carried up to the ridge in a makeshift palanquin. The whole story of the hotel now formed itself in his mind: visitors would arrive through the jungle from Dambulla, a few kilometres to the west, and would encounter a huge and seemingly impenetrable ridge the hotel entrance would be formed like a cave mouth near the top of the ridge, reached by a huge ramp a cave-like corridor would lead from the entrance through the ridge to reveal the hotel`s main terraces and a view across the tank towards Sigiriya four floors of rooms situated below the main reception level would then snake away around the face of the cliff towards the east.
Aitken Spence, to their credit, seem to have taken all of this in their stride.The government released the land and the project received the public backing of President Premadasa
. Bawa worked on the scheme from 33rd Lane with his small in-house team, while Milroy Perera and his engineer partner Deepal Wickramasinghe were appointed by the client as executive architects. The building contract was awarded to a local firm called Link Engineering. In the first designs the residential wing was given pitched roofs and kept close to the cliff face but in later developments flat roofs were adopted and the rooms were moved away from the cliff face to create a wider angle of vision. The design was developed during 1991 and work started on site in 1992. Only then did the project encounter any real opposition - the monks of the Dambulla Temple objected to the bedroom wing`s encroachment onto an old monastic precinct and environmentalists protested that the buildings would threaten the catchment area of the tank. Both of these concerns were groundless but a barrage of publicity forced Bawa to change the design and half the rooms were relocated in a new wing to the west of the ridge above the approach road. Bawa was stung by the public protests and saddened by the changes, which threatened to dilute the impact of his original vision. Much of that concept has survived, however. The new `Dambulla` wing is screened by vegetation and the ramped ascent to the cave-like entrance and through the rock to the first lounge is still full of drama.
The use of flat roofs and a starkly expressed concrete frame mark a radical departure from Bawa`s earlier work, and yet both are ideally suited to the site and to the Dry Zone climate. The snaking form makes it possible for the two residential wings to echo the shape of the ridge, so that the journey to the rooms runs alongside the overhanging cliff face, the structure burrowing into the ridge in some places, in others standing proud and allowing the rocky landscape to run beneath. The concrete frame carries an outer skin of timber sun-breakers, which in turn support a screen of vegetation, while the flat roof has been turned into a garden. As a result the hotel under its cloak of foliage melts into the jungle to such a degree that from the opposite shore of the tank it is almost invisible. Its environmental impact on its surroundings has also been minimized: water is drawn from wells, sewage is carefully treated and all waste is removed from the site.
The architecture is stark and understated, emphasizing the idea that this is not a building to look at, but a building to look from, like a giant belvedere. If they really try, guests can escape onto terra firma, though neither the architect nor the management ever intended that they should do so. They are marooned in a huge ocean liner with decks above and cabins below that has come to rest like Noah`s Ark on some faraway mountain side. The only obvious contact with the ground is at entrance level, where the lounge opens towards the main swimming pool, which seems to hang like a shelf on the edge of the cliff. The materials used in the public spaces are cool and hard and work with the large expanses of naked rock to convey an appropriate feeling of austerity that contrasts with the lushness of the encroaching vegetation: one might be inside an evocation of King Kasyapa`s Palace. The ample rooms, dwarfed by the generous corridors, function as cells that look out across the tank towards the horizon even the bathrooms share the view. The Kandalama Hotel offers a unique experience to its guests and stands as the remarkable achievement of a seventy-five-year old architect and his team of youthful assistants.
Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames and Hudson