‘I am not me on my own’ — Amila de Mel on her trek through architecture and other uncharted paths
Written By: Sareena Hussain
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Amila De Mel
Illustration by Eshana Rajaratnam- email@example.com
They say, “what you see is what you get,” and there is no better phrase that describes Amila — her easy-going, slightly eccentric, and outdoorsy persona is infectious to all those who interact with her.
Amila grew up in the suburbs of Colombo and describes her upbringing as being by her family, in a close-knit neighborhood, and with the freedom of growing up in the 60s and 70s — where children spent more time outdoors than in their classrooms. For her, these factors were pivotal to bringing her closer to nature and building a relationship with animals and the environment, “Yesterday, I saw a beautiful gas gemba (tree frog) — those fellows that jump in every direction. Really cute guy. I was thinking, gosh, this should freak me out — but it didn’t, so I think I’m just accustomed to it.” It is this relationship that features strongly in her work.
Amila began her artistic journey at the Melbourne Art School (Cora Abraham Art Classes) at the tender age of 5. Stemming from an interest in ceramics, pottery, and sculpting, she pursued her interests by following a Fine Arts degree. However, she soon discovered a deeper connection with students in the architecture department whom she befriended. Thus, in her second year, she pursued architecture out of an art school, spending more time in the studio sans the formal learning found in more conventional architecture programs.
Following her return to Sri Lanka, Amila secured a placement with Anjalendran (a leading Sri Lankan architect whose work was renowned for capturing the vernacular Sri Lankan aesthetic with a modern twist) at his studio, where she worked for over a year. After that, she joined Geoffrey Bawa (GB or Mr. Bawa as she fondly calls him), dubbed the Father of Tropical Modernism in Sri Lanka. He greatly influenced his students and young architects such as Anjalendran — the latter being Amila’s previous employer. Through her work with Bawa, she received the opportunity to be involved in some of his key projects. These included Kandalama Hotel and Lighthouse Hotel, Galle, both continuing to define the landscape of Sri Lankan architecture. She reflects on this defining time, saying, “Anjalen was quite fixed in his ways, and Mr. Bawa was completely unfixed — they were so opposite the way they worked, which was very interesting… Anjalen taught you how to think, and then when you went to Mr. Bawa, you were asked; why are you doing this?”
Through these experiences, she formed close friendships with her colleagues, who encouraged her to complete her architectural qualification and pursue a professional architecture career. Their eagerness to see her through was equal to her excitement when designing and building spaces she refers to as being ‘fun.’
Amila’s work is a testament to her persona — open spaces connected through simple forms with intricate details. Her work most often revolves around highlighting cultural elements and creating an identity around each building form she generates. Each project is also a learning experience — be it incorporating a water purification system at a handloom dying plant or adopting alternative technologies for a low-cost housing scheme — she is aware of all the intricate details that can enhance each project, improve lives and mitigate environmental damage.
However, these projects also come with frustrations in red tape — the low-cost housing scheme (In association with Habitat for Humanity) in particular, was at first a moment of victory as they received a sizable grant through an INGO to facilitate and build housing for people in the North and East of Sri Lanka. This project involved those who had lost their homes due to the Sri Lankan Civil War. Amila’s office was instrumental in developing the designs for over 3000 houses, which didn’t meet with the same enthusiasm with which it was designed. “If you’re giving aid for a house, who said it should be a two-bedroom house? Who makes these rules?” she asks in frustration. Despite their belief in their original design, the final result had to succumb to the pressure, and the initial drawings were lost in translation.
On the other hand, Amila shares other examples of work that do not strictly follow the architectural norm that has brought her joy. The Ena de Silva (a Sri Lankan artist and designer primarily known for her work in the Batik industry), Aluwihare Heritage Center is one such passion project where Amila is now involved with the task of keeping the local art form alive and showcasing its value in the global sphere. Similarly, she describes her involvement in the reconstruction of Ena de Silva’s house. “I didn’t set out to do it; it’s just that I am not afraid; I will go and undertake it,” she says. Perhaps one of the most outstanding architectural preservation examples in Sri Lanka, this project which was open to the public in 2019, involved a complete uprooting of the entire house from Colombo and a transfer to the Bawa Gardens in Bentota. Here, Amila coordinated the project and ensured that architects, engineers, archaeologists, and contractors stayed true to Bawa’s design and Ena’s spirit.
Amila is a go-getter. She gets her hands dirty and is not afraid to learn and teach. Be it experimenting with brick forms, spending time at home with her dog, or outdoors with friends — her persona and work resonate strongly through her sensitivity to the environment and natural formations. “I don’t want to build. I think the less we make, the better this world will be,” she says — defying all expectations of how one imagines an architect would see the world!
(Sareena is a young Architect from Colombo, Sri Lanka, who dabbles in numerous creative forms including writing, dodge spot hunting and content curation. She is constantly searching for the perfect mix in her travels and day-to-day life experiences with a keen eye for art and architecture. )
(Varsha Sekaram is an architect currently working with a firm based in Sri Lanka. Alongside her work as an architect, Varsha works with Everystory Sri Lanka as a Curator for their work documenting and visually interpreting the stories of girls' resistance and activism in South Asia. Varsha’s avid interest in the great outdoors and all things design related has also fueled a deep relationship with gem and jewellery design which she believes lies at the intersection of design and nature)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Sri Lanka: Ena De Silva’s moving house, Architexturez, https://architexturez.net/pst/az-cf-180188-1474470845
Animate Her: Amila De Mel, British Council Sri Lanka, 10th March 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5nKNZWSL8eQ
After Minette — Stories of Female Sri Lankan Architects, Sri Lanka by ish, https://www.srilankabyish.com/blog/2019/3/3/after-minnette-stories-of-female-sri-lankan-architects
Garden Room in Sri Lanka by ADM Architects, The Architectural Review, 25th June 2014 https://www.architectural-review.com/awards/ar-house/garden-room-in-sri-lanka-by-adm-architects
Notes This article is pending support to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to support us with translations or if you have any questions.