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Karunaratne House

Kandy, Sri Lanka
1 of 11
Karunaratne House, Kandy, 1951

Karunaratne house was Minnette de Silva's first project as well the first home ever designed by a woman in Sri Lanka. It was named after its owners and De Silva friends, who were ready to bet on the stubborn and talented young architect. Clinging to a hill, the home underlines a clear understanding of the logistical and climatic elements. Floors follow the slope of the terrain, while the north side, exposed to the sun, searches for shade with covered balconies and gardens. As a whole, spacious and interconnected interiors flow from one space to the next, allowing light and air to pass throughout the property.

Tropical Modernism

A house on the hillside above the Kandy Lake looked quite ordinary, resembling what was known at the time as an American Bungalow. However, its significance lay in the way that it is configured in relation to the sloping site and in its complex internal spatial organization. The bedrooms were placed on the first floor beside the entrance and the main living spaces were relegated to the lower floor and opened to the garden. The staircase acted as the hub and linked a sequence of rooms at different levels.

Each floor is a sequence of interconnected spaces, joined via a long curved sweep of stair. That connects the entrance hall on the upper floor to the dining room below. Its clean, rectilinear forms sat within a lush garden; the house, with its expanse of window, terraces and deep, shaded verandas, aimed to bring building and landscape together: a commingling of outside and inside that De Silva intuitively understood to reflect the way people live in the tropical Sri Lankan climate. The midula or courtyard room was a form she returned to time and again in her buildings. She also stressed the importance of working with traditional craftsmen, enriching the stark formalism of her volumes with latticework, decorative cast tiles, lacquer-work and woven screens. "The craftsman isolated from modern trends in life, has to be brought into the present, or else become a museum piece and extinct" she stressed. She understood modernism's roots in global vernaculars Corbusier's white walls as inherited from archaic island architecture; moveable panels as re-imagined Japanese screens.

Her aim was to build a contemporary functional home, but she also wanted to create the sort of interlocking spaces, which would accommodate large family gatherings and traditional Buddhist ceremonies. She used modern construction from concrete columns, trussed rafters, glass blocks, but she also employed rough and ready local materials like rubble, brick, timber, incorporating local handicrafts, lacquer work, Dumbara weaving, terracotta tiles and the work of local artists like her friend George Keyt who supplied a large mural above the staircase.


During construction Minnette had to contend with the scepticism of her clients and the jibes of fellow Kandyans, but when it was complete a local journalist described it as 'ultra modern but not bereft of local flavour'. This landmark house is now a ruin and is scheduled to be demolished.

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bostjan, September 11th, 2019
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