Past Forward Dutch Hospital, Independence Arcade and Race Course | Sunday Observer

Past Forward Dutch Hospital, Independence Arcade and Race Course

4 June, 2017

The Urban Development Authority (UDA) maintains many buildings of historic significance in Colombo and in other parts of Sri Lanka. However, the UDA has faced many challenges in conserving these buildings. The Chairman of the UDA, Dr. Jagath Munasinghe says, “The UDA had to start from the beginning from the foundation onwards. We got assistance from the Forces. Although these are supposed to be listed buildings which need to be conserved they were not attended to for a long time and so were badly run down. Had there been no Antiquity Ordinance, I’m sure people would have demolished them and gone for a new development. It was a challenge to get them back to a good condition. “Adaptive reuse” is the concept and it was not that easy because it is not like the completion of a new building. These were existing buildings which were built for a particular purpose and built at a particular time. How to get it adapted to the present state was the real challenge.”

Deputy Director General (Consultancy) of the UDA, Champika De Silva says: “All the buildings were dilapidated. For example, the Race Course building and the grand stand were in a dilapidated condition, and the door arches in the Independence Arcade were dilapidated. We got all the buildings measured with the assistance of the Forces.

They had to climb up and they didn’t have ladders or staircases and it was a challenge to get the architectural drawing sets done. In certain areas there was only one window and the arch. We got one sample down to a drawing set and then developed the whole thing. We assumed that it might be like this at a particular elevation. We produced those drawings. We took photographs so that we could see the details conceptually. Even though the buildings were badly maintained, the Archaeology Department also assisted us. We have created new arches to get light and shade. They were lobbies earlier and the proportions of the existing arches had to fit the area. We have changed the interior also, but we have managed to keep the original outlook.”

The Dutch Hospital has been constructed with solid walls. Some of the shops are very small because the UDA has not demolished the walls. The UDA also has not changed the interior much. The Dutch hospital and the Independence Arcade were formally also office premises. The UDA has added a prominent large public area, and cleared the path from Bauddhaloka Mawatha (Bullers Road) to Reid Avenue.

Dr. Munasinghe explains, “Conservation has certain principles. One of the principles is that when we want to conserve any premises there are things that the architect or the conservator has to decide such as what particular era you are trying to conserve.

“The UDA has decided what particular period they want to conserve in the Independence Arcade, Dutch Hospital and the Race Course Grand Stand. We had to go back and see what the structure was like at that time, and what was added later on when we started the project. Conservation is not a matter of only the conservation of a particular building. It’s the matter of the site and the area.

“All these three projects required the renovation of a particular area. That is why it includes the whole premises. It is not only the building that matters but the entire premises and also the context. The whole area has to be opened up to reveal the essence of the building at that time. The architects will try to introduce certain elements to make sure that the building is fit for present times, without damaging the building and its context. For example, the skyline now may not have been there at that time. Conservation has to be in line with internationally accepted practices.”

The UDA has many requests from tour operators for facilities especially for international tourists, and they want to establish certain facilities without damaging the character of the place. Tourists like to visit the colonial buildings because of their historic significance. Dr. Munasinghe explains, “every place has an identity of its own. There are some cities which don’t have an identity because of the modern structures being built everywhere. But Colombo has an identity of its own. For example, some time ago it as known as the Garden City of Asia. That was the kind of concept which was introduced at that time, and UDA wanted to make Colombo a garden city. When you say garden city, it is not only the trees and the gardens that matter but also the structures. This concept was introduced during Patrick Edison’s time in the 1920s. These were the kind of structures that were built at that time. So people were referring to the garden city along with these structures, premises and also gardens. When you want to get back that concept into a place, these buildings are very important because it gives an identity to the city. So Colombo will gain its own identity with these kind of elements.

However, the cost of renovating these buildings is very high. Dr. Munasinghe says, “Unlike renovating a new building, when you want to renovate an old building there are enormous problems. It involves a heavy cost. We have a separate crew and a facility manager for each building and an officer in charge. They have to be monitored daily.

The clients are upper middle class in the shopping arcades. We have to look into their issues such as maintenance as well as tourist promotions and business promotions.

In terms of maintenance you have to keep in mind that the maintenance of the building involves a heavy cost because there are a lot of old elements that need to be kept at that level. These buildings are a tourist attraction and a local attraction as well. For that purpose we have to make sure that the place is kept clean and well maintained and looked after.

That means spot level cleaning on which we have to spend a lot of money. So that also requires a cost. And the facilities required by all these shops like the air conditioning which was not there in the original building has to be provided. We manage with the rentals that we get.”

During re-construction, the UDA had a team which included a resident staff, architects and engineers who supervised the construction of these buildings on a daily basis.

The Megapolis project came later on in 2015. Dr. Munasinghe says, “The Megapolis project was started some time back, I believe in 2009. Colombo had a vision at that time and even now, and we want to make Colombo a key Garden City of Asia and bring it back to what it was.

We want to make sure that Colombo is one of the best tourist attractions in South Asia. And accordingly there are certain things which are planned such as facilities that attract foreigners and locals for shopping and recreation.

This is part and parcel of the development plan for Colombo. The Dutch Hospital is very close to the hotels and is a popular place. The UDA is considering reducing the rental and having more promotional activities.”

The UDA is also conducting other projects. For example, the UDA is maintaining the street arcades in Kandy. Dr. Munasinghe says, “we need the co-operation of the shop owners of the building premises.

Initially it seemed that most people didn’t understand the value of conservation. Most of them have the misconception that these buildings are old and have to be demolished because they cannot give the economic return that is acceptable. With these examples we can very well understand that conservation adds value. Once you conserve an old building there is a big demand for that building, because commercial spaces and classy shops and restaurants add value.

That is something we like to inform all these shop owners and building owners. Conserve your building because it adds value, not that it’s going to give you a bad return.”

The UDA has prepared a guide plan for the entire Fort area because there are lots of old buildings in different avenues. The UDA has given the colour and the elevations for one sector, and the buildings have been renovated according to those guidelines.

The Ehelepola Walawwa in Kandy is under renovation project undertaken by the UDA as well as the Kadugannawa railway station and the Ella station which have become popular among locals and tourists alike during recent years.

Pic: Wimal Karunathilake