The British High Commission in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Richard Murphy Architects, Edinburgh
Milroy Perera Associates, Colombo
The decision to build a new High Commission in Colombo was taken by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2000. The old High Commission building was a dilapidated six-storey slab block which stood, aloof, by the Indian Ocean, with its main facades stoically facing east and west to take the full brunt of the tropical sun and both monsoons. The new building was to be located some two kilometres inland in the diplomatic quarter of Cinnamon Gardens, halfway between the old city centre and the new Parliament, which had been built in the early 1980s by Sri Lankan master architect Geoffrey Bawa.
After a limited competition, Edinburgh-based Richard Murphy was awarded the commission in 2002 in association with local architect Milroy Perera, a former colleague of Geoffrey Bawa’s. Murphy’s design is influenced by Bawa and incorporates a range of local materials. It was developed from three premises: that the structure should be built on a single level, that it should incorporate a series of courtyards, and that its section should encourage stack ventilation and introduce natural top lighting. After some delay the project was completed in early 2008.
In its final form, the building is completely surrounded by a carapace of solid walls, its interiors cocooned within protective layers of building and courtyard. It might be visualized as a fish lying within a box: the backbone serves as a central office mall connecting the head – the reception and associated conference room – and the tail – the consular section – while lateral fins contain various specialized departments. A staff garden with a pool and tennis courts runs along the western boundary, while the main pedestrian and vehicular entrances penetrate the east wall.
Courtyards dominate: there are nine adjacent to the spine and a further seven around the periphery. Murphy had already experimented with courtyards in designs for Jesus College, Cambridge, but numerous precedents can also be found in Sri Lanka, such as the Sigiriya, a fifth-century rock citadel; medieval Sinhalese manor houses; Dutch buildings such as the old hospital in Colombo Fort; and many of Bawa’s designs.
Visitors enter along a bright red blast wall, set back from the high black kalugal perimeter, and proceed through a security control into a large, hard-paved entrance court. From here, a ramp beside a large carp pond leads up under a porte cochère to the main entrance and reception. This connects to the central north-south mall that serves both as open office space and a main thoroughfare. The side wings down the mall alternate with a series of open courtyards.
A typical building section comprises a central corridor under a raised clerestory with cellular offices to either side. Each office opens on to a courtyard garden, but is also lit indirectly, via a curving concrete half-vault, from the clerestory. This also acts as a solar chimney, encouraging stack ventilation. The roofs are clad with a double layer of half-round clay tiles and terminate in projecting eaves, which are clad in copper and lined with coconut wood.
Murphy has pulled off a diplomatic coup. The building is modest in scale and fits well into its surroundings, though its towering clerestories offer a reminder that this is a workplace and not a suburban villa. The heavy black stone walls provide a suitable sense of gravitas, while the occasional flashes of colour add an accent of playfulness. The building references the work of such luminaries as Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn and Glenn Murcutt and makes welcome gestures towards the traditions of the host country. Most importantly, it serves as an ambassador for contemporary British architecture and turns its back on the pomposities of the public buildings of the colonial period.
David Robson is an architect who pides his time between Sri Lanka and the UK. He is the author of Geoffrey Bawa – The Complete Works (Thames and Hudson, 2002) and Bawa – The Sri Lanka Gardens (Thames and Hudson, 2008).