Fate of ‘Nirmala,’ the Jesuit chapel | Sunday Observer

Fate of ‘Nirmala,’ the Jesuit chapel

Shocking News? Not so shocking…

This advertisement that appeared on the real estate section of a popular newspaper recently was yet another reminder of a present-day grim reality in Colombo. This manifests the fate and imminent erasure of an invaluable layer of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial period architecture to which ‘Nirmala’ the Jesuit Chapel on Clifford Road, Colombo 04 belongs.

The above advert is not so surprising after all – judging by the popular fate endured by Colombo’s historic buildings from the by gone eras. It was a matter of time until Jesuit Chapel designed by late eminent architect Valentine Gunasekara too suffered the same fate as most designs by his contemporaries such as Geoffrey Bawa and Minnette de Silva also did. There will surely be many more casualties in the near future…

“How do you capture spirituality?” This was the question which Architect Valentine Gunesekera had explored in his religious buildings. Expressive and value-laden architecture came to be most visible in his buildings for the Christian Church. This particular chapel was built in the heart of a dense urban neighbourhood adjacent to the coastline. Its intimae scale underlined not only its contextual appropriateness, but also its anti-monumentality. The Jesuit Chapel carries strains of Mediterranean temperament. However, according to Gunesekera, the form was derived from nature; the ocean tides and waves reminiscent to rhythm of life. The design is a nontraditional structure, with a high hall-like space with a vaulted ceiling built in reinforced concrete.. The chapel’s integration into a large complex of facilities reconfigures the space into a small urban village; a collage of old and new buildings.

Inside the Jesuit chapel, the glow from the skylights was allowed to be cast on its inner surface, which represents the light that comes from divine revelation cascading down. The windows of the building were placed asymmetrically along the street face, and had translucent blue glass louvers behind the white vertical heavy timber security bars. Through these, light was cast inside the chapel, giving it a playful rhythm which radiated a sense of freedom. The floor of shiny black cement contrasts against the simplicity of the rustic finish of the vault.

Today, the chapel continues to serve as a hub of a variety of apostolates. The lay community continue to support the chapel generously contributing to repairs, maintaining a beautiful chapel garden, organising special events, visiting the sick and helping fifty indigent children of the area (through a very successful sponsorship Programme) etc..

The continuity of all these activities necessitates the presence of a priest, as well as a fair amount of space, which would not be possible if the Chapel was to ‘stand-alone’.

Over the sixty years of its existence, there has always been a wonderful interaction between the Jesuits and the lay community of the vicinity. They are deeply saddened that despite sixty years of close association with the Nirmala Chapel, the Jesuit Community did not think that they were worthy of consultation on such an important decision.

Over the years, hordes of architectural students of the country – especially from the Department of Architecture of the University of Moratuwa and the City School of Architecture of Sri Lanka Institute of Architects – have visited the chapel and felt exposure to Gunasekara’s sensitive brand of architecture.

The surroundings of Jesuit Chapel has changed tremendously over the decades, indeed putting it out of its originally-intended context by its designer. If this building, its garden and residential quarters that is essential for its upkeep is discounted for yet another financially-motived modern monstrosity, are we not setting a bad precedent that encourages similar carnage to old buildings? Especially, a religious institution has a social responsibility, more than any other financially-driven institution in this regard.

According to certain internal sources the Jesuit community, neither the church is in dire need of finances, nor does the community desire to see the chapel go. Henceforth, as an architectural historian, one can only make a plea to the relevant persons in charge, and request to put an end to this madness.