By Emil van der Poorten –
Ever since I’ve had the misfortune to observe the wholesale political and ethnic “cleansing,” in the name of “aesthetic re-arrangement,” of Sri Lanka’s capital city, I have had no desire to get closer than I absolutely had to such monstrous work. And I really mean the word “monstrous.”
It was a while back that Time or Newsweek ran a cover story on Rumania and the “success” it allegedly was in contrast to the rest of the Eastern Bloc of the time. It talked in glowing terms of the beautiful, clean lines of the new city of Bucharest among other “facts” that pointed to the country of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, as a beacon of freedom and democratic practice, where its citizens enjoyed a quality of life without equal in the countries behind the Iron Curtain of that day.
It was not long before the horror of Ceausescu’s “reforms” emerged and they hardly bear repetition here. With some exceptions.
Yes, he had razed old Bucharest to the ground and replaced it with a brand, spanking-new city. To people who knew what the classic old city looked like, the new Stalinist monstrosity, “block concrete architecture” personified, was an unbelievable horror. In addition, those who were “re-located” from their residences were put in state-owned apartments with no provision for their pets. In a city where virtually everyone had pets, particularly dogs, one can well imagine what a huge problem tens of thousands of dogs suddenly cut loose with nowhere to live presented! The orphans caged, literally, like animals and other horrors that the overthrow, street trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena brought to light are now history, but history with a lesson: take “evaluations” by “interested parties” of regimes responsible for such as “city cleansing” “under advisement”, as that old expression had it!
In a similar context, one cannot but wonder what happened to the pets of those who were so unceremoniously “re-located” from Slave Island not so long ago. Perhaps there were White Vans to cater to their canine friends as well!
The last straw that drove this camel to his computer keyboard, however, was the pictures that I’ve seen in more than one issue of a newspaper published by the Times group which have the old Racecourse Grandstand (artistically lit), with the ubiquitous “Golden Arches” of the outfit sometimes called Rotten Ronnie’s – the house of Ronald McDonald, McDonalds – prominently displayed on its façade.
I don’t think that even in Ceausescu’s Rumania would a historic building have been defaced with the trademark of all that epitomizes unhealthy eating! It is beyond belief and I am further bemused by the fact that the commercial entity responsible for this bit of planning is headed by supposedly respectable professional architects with a reputation for good taste if nothing else! Oh, well, everyone has his or her price, I suppose and when everything, inclusive of “good taste” is at the disposal of a ruling coterie who wouldn’t even know the meaning of the word “aesthetics” if it bit it in that most tender part of its anatomy, who is one to complain?
To me what this epitomizes, though, is the arrogance of a ruling clique to whom nothing is sacred and to whom nothing matters except self-aggrandizement and the exercise of brute power and authority. It also speaks volumes for those who have the training and education to “know better” than to go along, it speaks volumes (again!) about the debasement of Sri Lanka’s allegedly professional and educated class!
When streets were straightened out in areas of Colombo where exceptions had previously been made by by-law in order to preserve trees of historical and cultural value, no protest was made by the architectural community except, to my recollection, by one man whose opinion would, I am sure, have been discarded because of his last name which had a “Burgher sound” to it! The rest of the architectural elite even if it didn’t sing the praises of the new Czar of urban planning certainly did not so much as make passing reference to what was happening, not even in one of the elitist Forums that I am sure they would have attended, fuelled by the cocktails of upper-class existence. No, they were too busy lining up for crumbs from the urban planning table!
And now, a return to the rural Sri Lanka that has always been home to me in this country, the relevance of which to this narrative I hope you will appreciate.
For those familiar with the Kandy-Kurunegala road I would strongly recommend an edifice, close to Mawathagama for appropriate scrutiny any time you pass that way.
The faux-classic architecture of the edifice, located immediately adjacent to the road, proclaims it to be a hotel, replete with a quite extensive and expensive outdoor children’s playground to one side of it. What makes this a place of interest in the context of buildings in poor taste, is the fact that it is festooned with statues of various kinds on its quite extensive roof that faces the A10 Highway. Predominant among the figures are horses, eagles and classic Roman (?) figures (see picture). While it has been my intention to deal with my curiosity by driving in for, perhaps, a cup of tea and a biscuit, on every occasion on which we’ve driven by, the gates have been chained shut.
Another interesting fact, in the matter of landscaping, is the large vehicle sales lot which preceded the hotel’s construction and which still continues, between the highway and the hotel and the entry to it. This can either be considered bizarre or, in a more charitable vein, surrealistic!
Gossip around these parts is that this unique combination of a hotel with extravagant architecture and a used-vehicle lot has connections to those responsible for the “beautification” of Colombo.
As a footnote, I must admit that I have become the butt of many jokes since it was discovered that I had donated an adult “Biling” tree (Averrhoa bilimbi) to this location, being told that the tree was going to the grounds of some charitable institution and that the Triple Gem would bless me etc., etc. for my act of charity!
Given my known distaste for this new Philistinism and those visiting it upon Sri Lanka, I cannot but share my friends’ amusement at what I’d done, no matter how unwittingly! Oh, well, as they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and now that this regime has made its contribution to 21st Century Colombo’s architectural aesthetics by sticking a McDonalds sign on an imposing building of significant historic interest, I don’t feel too bad about being taken in by some con-men working for a political czar who had me believing their patron’s hotel was some charitable institution. After all it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to classify all of that group’s businesses as charitable because the funds for their existence and continuing prosperity are “donated,” no matter how unknowingly, by the Sri Lankan public!
Confirmation of where our landscape is headed is the most recent emblazoning of the Burger King logo on one of the most recently “beautified” historic buildings, re-launched as a consumers’ paradise for the anointed in Colombo! Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pizza Hut, both owned by the Yum Brands fast-food giant must really feel ill done by in these advertising stakes, though I would urge them not to lose faith because, perhaps, the powers-that-be can be persuaded to re-name Parakrama Samudra “The Lake of Pepsi” or something like that!