Preserving European architecture and South Asian traditions : A struggle to maintain status | Sunday Observer

Preserving European architecture and South Asian traditions : A struggle to maintain status

Two of the five oldest piers built by the Britishers now with unauthorized additions
Two of the five oldest piers built by the Britishers now with unauthorized additions

The old town of Galle, within the Galle Fort is experiencing a state of uproar,as a result of Government plans to vacate several Government offices from the Galle Fort, by December 31, 2017.

According to a letter issued by the Ministry of Law and Order and Southern Development, Secretary, Jagath P Wijeweera, to the District Secretary of Galle, these agencies have been requested to vacate their buildings since Galle Fort is undergoing a development process, with the guidance of UNESCO, to protect its living heritage status.

The letter further says the decision is taken in light of this initiative and in accordance with Cabinet Paper No. 17/1759/702/002-XIX dated August 8,2017.

Accordingly, Magistrate’ s Court, Magistrate’s House, All Saints’ College, Police In service Training Institute, Police Residence, Galle Fort Police Office, Bank of Ceylon Office, E. Court’s Building, Southern Provincial Road Passenger Transport Authority, SIPNARA Building, Tea Small Holdings, Maritime Archaeological Unit, Port Authority Official Bungalow, Sri Lanka Telecom and Harbour Master’s Office will be vacated.

UNESCO world heritage site

Galle Post Office then, now known as the Galle Post Office

In 1988, UNESCO declared Galle Fort a world heritage site under criterion IV. “This world heritage status is given to the old town of Galle and its fortifications, including the living component,” said Secretary General Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO, Dhammika Wijayasinghe.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), in its advisory body evaluation, has recommended Galle Fort under criterion IV. It says, “Galle provides an outstanding example of an urban ensemble, which illustrates the interaction of European architecture and South Asian traditions from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Among the characteristics that make this an urban group of exceptional value, is the original sewer system from the 17th century, flushed with sea water, controlled by a pumping station formerly activated by a windmill on the Triton bastion.”

It adds that the most salient feature is the use of European models adapted by local manpower to the geological, climatic, historic and cultural conditions of Sri Lanka. “In the structure of the ramparts, coral is frequently used along with granite. In the ground layout all the measures of length, width and height conform to the regional metrology. The wide streets, planted with grass and shaded by suriyas, are lined with houses, each with its own garden and an open verandah supported by columns -another sign of the acculturation of an architecture which is European only in its basic design.”

Vacating the offices

Chartered Architect and member of Galle Heritage Foundation (GHF), Varuna de Silva said, since 1999, UNESCO has been calling for identification of dilapidated buildings, as well as conservation principles, and to formulate a proposal to conserve these buildings. “For the Galle Fort to be a living Fort City, both private and public buildings have to be used without harming the original character of the building. Heritage buildings have to be an asset to the economy, and also the public should have access to these heritage buildings . There has to be inhabitants within the Fort as well,” he said.

He explained that facilities catering to the living segment of the Fort have to be present within the Fort. These include, the schools, banks, library, museums and so on.

Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development, Sagala Ratnayaka said, there was a risk of losing the world heritage status of Galle Fort and that current alterations are carried out to ensure that this does not happen. “We will develop Galle Fort in such a way to safeguard this status. This is done by the Galle Heritage Foundation. They have professionals, from architects and engineers, to professionals in the water sector and urban planning sector,” he said.

The Minister added that the relevant Government organizations have not looked after these buildings, and as a result they are falling apart. “There will be no Government funds involved in renovating these buildings. These will be leased to the private sector, e.g. hotels. Some will be developed by the Government as museums, art galleries, etc,” he said.

Minister Ratnayaka added that there is so much potential in the project which would create 5,000 jobs in the Galle Fort alone, if done correctly. “When the marina and other things come up, it would mean a good 10,000 to 15,000 jobs around approximately a 10 square kilometer area around Galle,” he said. Speaking of the project, Chairman of GHF, Channa Daswatte said, the decision to propose a change to the status quo of the occupation of these buildings have been taken via a thorough examination of several factors, including the state of these invaluable properties in the Galle Fort, in terms of age and history. “All of these are in a state of disrepair or misuse in terms of architectural authenticity and require serious conservation efforts that would require the occupants to move out anyway,” he said.

Restoration plans

In these restoration plans, the colonial character of the buildings will be preserved to their original status as a living heritage to include both, administrative and living segments, said de Silva.

A gun powder mill, now the Magistrate’s Quarters and District Secretary’s office

He said, most of these Government buildings, which are requested to be vacated, are not in the original usage. “ For example, the Magistrate’s Courts are housed in a building which was originally used as a barrack for Malay soldiers. There are additions made to the building, such as washrooms, which are needed for a court complex, which has damaged the original status,” de Silva said.

He explained that High Courts will not be vacated from the premises since it is housed in the original building, built by the British in 1928.

E. Court’s Building was originally the storage facility of Edward Court, storage being one aspect of a Port City, said de Silva. “Currently, the building holds the primary section of the All Saints’ College, Housing Development Authority, Motor Traffic Administration Office, and so on. There are unauthorized additions made to these buildings, including toilets, walls and other structural changes needed for air conditioning, which has disrupted the original heritage characteristics,” he said.

Daswatte added to this saying that with regard to All Saint’s College, the idea is to move the primary section of the school now in the E.Courts building, to a site closer to the main school and to consolidate them. He said, this would facilitate better discipline and management and also create a school zone for both, the safety of the students and controlling school traffic.

The Post Office Building, which was one of the very first post offices in the country, is currently run down. The roof has partly fallen off and creepers and vegetation thrive on its walls. “During the British period, this building was formed by the amalgamation of two Dutch buildings and was used as the main food stores of the harbour. After 1915, it housed the Galle Post Office which was later removed to the outer City. Now, the building is being used by the Galle Fort Post Office, de Silva said. He added that only 10 per cent of the building is in usage at present. He explained that after the restoration process, this building will house the Galle Fort Post Office, a Postal Museum and other tourist related projects.

Speaking of the building accommodating the current Magistrate’s Quarters, de Silva said, this is a landmark structure in Sri Lanka, which has a vaulted roof. It was originally a gun powder mill operated by African slaves brought by the Dutch. The Building currently shelters the Magistrate’s Quarters and District Secretary’s Office. “The vaulted roof is now altered using asbestos sheets. Also, the public has no access to see these buildings,” said de Silva.

Of the five piers constructed during British period, two have unauthorized buildings erected. These buildings house the Ports Authority and the Central Cultural Fund. “These piers are parts of the original, maritime landscape of the Fort. Therefore, these constructions will be removed to preserve the original landscape,” he said.


Speaking of vacating the Police Barracks, Minister Ratnayake said, the Police Barracks will be preserved but not as police barracks. “One part of the roof of the Barracks has completely fallen down due to negligence. Therefore, this has to be restored. I have already bought the police 100 apartments and we are trying to buy another 200 apartments for them to move into,” he said.

There were several reports of the project being carried out without the knowledge of several authorities, including, the Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO, Department of Archeology and the Ministry of Education. Also, there were speculations that these buildings will be sold to boutique hotels.

Daswatte pronounced these speculations to be false. “The recent reports about making all the old buildings in the Galle Fort into boutique hotels and museums does not paint a correct picture.

The buildings which have been selected to be vacated and renovated are those with functions that are not wholly appropriate in the conservation process of the building. While museums and boutique hotels are in the cards, there are other functions needed by residents of the Fort. Also, activities aimed at incentivizing visitors to the Fort to stay for a longer period, socially and economically beneficial to the people of the Fort and its visitors are needed,” he said.

Adding to this, de Silva said, community based tourism will be developed alongside the project, with a relevant traffic plan to reduce congestion.

Bank of Ceylon

Daswatte further said GHF, whose management committee comprises all the stakeholders directly involved in the life of the Fort and its preservation, such as, the Department of Archeology, the Urban Development Authority etc. have taken this as a collective decision and is a well informed body, with the relevant expertise to make such a call.

Daswatte added that GHF has also in its report been clear that activities which are appropriate and useful to the life of the Fort will remain, including the museums, the High Court, and several other institutions. GHF will work with these institutions to work out conservation plans for all the buildings these organizations occupy, as well.

“ For example, it is the Bank of Ceylon Regional Office, which has no interaction with the public, that is being vacated. The Galle branch of the Bank stays within the Fort, said de Silva.

Dammika Wijayasinghe said, this project is a recommendation of the Cabinet Council of Economic Management.

“ We were developing the management plan and tourism plan together. It would have been better if a representative of our organization had been present at these meetings,” she said.

She said that UNESCO has not requested these offices to be removed, they have requested the buildings to be renovated.

“ ICOMOS recommendations include formulating a management plan for the Galle Fort, Capacity development of the GHF and tourism development,” she said. She added that some of the Government offices will have to be removed to reduce the number of people within the Fort.

Speaking of the schools within the Fort, she said, the challenge lies in the fact that these schools cannot increase the number of students or carry out additions to the school.

Director General of Archaeology, Prof. P.B Mandawala clarified his position, saying that what he earlier told the media was that since he is new to the position, he was unaware of the discussions on the subject with his predecessor. “What I wanted was to consult the relevant officers on the matter,” he said.

Illegal construction

Prof. Mandawala said, after perusing the matter, he has come to understand that these Government offices need to be relocated due to two main reasons, namely, traffic congestion on the streets within the Fort and the restrictions faced by these offices in expanding the buildings, due to archeological regulations. “ If they want to expand, they have to move out,” he said. Prof. Mandawala said, upon inscription as a world heritage site, ICOMOS has not recommended the presence of Government Offices within the Fort.

“Relocation of these Government offices has been in discussion since the inscription in 1988. At the same time, all the buildings cannot be converted to tourism related activities. There is the need to strike a balance between tourism and existing livelihood and living status of the Fort,” he said.

A resident of the Galle Fort, who wished to remain anonymous said that GHF and the Department of Archeology do a lot to preserve the original status of the Fort. “But people still find loopholes and there is lot of illegal construction happening. One reason is the high rates charged to draft the plan of the building which costs Rs 300,000 minimum. Some of us can’t afford this,” he said.

He added that most residents favour the Magistrate’s Courts remaining within the Fort. There is convenience and also security around the Courts,” he said.

Minister Ratnayaka said, when speaking of the project, it is important to look at the Galle Fort and the people’s concept of development. “The Joint Opposition always points a finger at us saying we are selling the country. We have to decide whether we are interacting with 20 million people or with the whole world,” he said.

Pix: Shan Rambukwella