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Sri Lanka’s indigenous design

by Alanna Gallagher

Irish photographer James Fennell’s latest book captures the secret interiors on the island paradise of Sri Lanka

From the faded colonial grandeur of a house belonging to Hollywood star Gillian Anderson to the tropical modernism of a new build by a Dublin family, photographer James Fennell’s new book, At Home in Sri Lanka, explores all the island has to offer, a decade after he first travelled there.

Fennell’s first book on the island’s diverse decor styles, Living in Sri Lanka (2006), is a notable coffee table book among the island’s decorati and the property developers now visiting this slice of paradise, says Dubliner Lisa Forde, an interior designer whose home, Pittaniya (“playground”), graces the pages of the book.

Forde’s pavilion-style property was inspired by the work of the father of tropical modernism, the late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. She and her partner, Eric Ring, left Ireland in 2011 after spending the previous year travelling through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and India with their son Axel, then six years old, and daughter Elka, then two and a half.

The pair had run a Dublin decor shop, Silk Road Interiors, but fell in love with Sri Lanka. With the recession biting hard, they decided to put down roots.

Their modernist fantasy near Wijaya, a beach popular with ex-pats, features floor-to-ceiling shutters that can be drawn like curtains to shield the sun. The house also features what she calls “jungle bathrooms” – outdoor shower and bathrooms that will never get steamed up and where monkeys survey the scene as you perform your ablutions. The contemporary sittingroom has low-slung seating and concrete-cast, low-set shelving that doubles as a day bed.

Colonial influences

The diversity of its interiors first lured Fennell east. Considered the pearl drop of India, Sri Lanka has Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial influences. But the work of Bawa was what really captivated the photographer.

When he began researching Living in Sri Lanka, he discovered that a book about the island’s indigenous architecture had yet to be written. So he pitched the idea to Thames & Hudson, which had turned down his first Vanishing Ireland book.

Claughton Tengalla, constructed by Bawa in 1984, is one of Fennell’s favourite homes. It has a pavilion-like structure that seamlessly blends the indoors with the outside. The main living area is graduated over several split-levels with a lofty overarching roof of weathered boards tying the spaces together. A huge cast- concrete dining table that can comfortably seat 10 overlooks mezzanine seating. From the Bawa original pool, the ocean stretches in front of you. At Walatta, all you can see through its concrete columns is the sea.

Sunken house

“The garden grows up through the house,” Fennell writes. “In fact, you enter the house from the garden above. The house is sunken into the landscape and you descend 80 steps down into the house. Inside, thanks to the mix of cast concrete, bare brick and walls of natural foliage, it feels like a New York loft in the tropics.”

Throughout the book, Bawa’s influence can be seen in the myriad of ways islanders use cast concrete.

“The labourers can make [the cast concrete] look like anything. In some houses the mass is broken up using decorative beads of metal or wood to create smaller-looking squares. You even see replica stone slabs made from it.”

At 37 Light House Street, a contemporary house looks like it has been here for decades thanks to the use of salvage materials. Fennell, who spent at least three days at each property chasing the right light to capture it at its best, recalls the bathrooms off the main lobby, which had been installed inside a giant Narnia-like cupboard.

A manor house owned by Gillian Anderson features exquisite antiques, lots of local teak and cast-concrete seating and shelving.


For At Home in Sri Lanka, Fennell asked Tom Sykes to write the accompanying words. Sykes ghostwrote Blow by Blow, the story of inspiring fashion stylist Isabella Blow. He lives in Co Carlow with his children and wife, furniture designer Sasha Sykes, whose Farm 21 pieces feature nature preserved in acrylic.

Fennell has brought home ideas aplenty to try at the new gallery he’s building at his familial home, Burtown House in Co Kildare, an early Georgian property. Here he will display some 300 paintings by his grandmother,Wendy Walsh, the accomplished botanical artist whose work graced Sybil Connolly’s designs for Tiffany.

Of his time spent in the tropics Fennell’s only regret is that he didn’t buy when he first visited 10 years ago. “Back then in Gaul Fort you could buy a derelict property for $60,000. The same property would cost $2.5 million now.” At Home in Sri Lanka, with photography by James Fennell and words by Tom Sykes, is published by Thames & Hudson

This post was first published on the Irish Times