Shortlisted in Gardens / Public voting 2018:

Artists Retreat

Garden / Sri Lanka / Built in 2017 /

Situated on a 3700sqft sloped site, fringing paddy fields and busy southern expressway, in Pittugala a suburb of Colombo (Sri Lanka). This retreat space is the residence, work space and personal gallery space of Sri Lankan artist couple JC Ratnayake and his printmaker wife Tanuja. The clients self-managed the project, that was built with a local Bass (workman) & hand built several items to save on cost, making the process of building the house and gardens a personal and collaborative one.From the road and fortress like exterior, the openness and gardens to be encountered within is imperceptible. The built plan is split level working with the terrain and offering views of different garden spaces. The entire ground floor has a feeling of garden pavilions, roofed but open to the natural environment, that act as the work and gallery space of the artists (without doors/ windows). While the upper floor is the more private and secure spaces of the residence comprising of three bedrooms and 20X 20 feet rooftop lily pond that functions as a meditative space for the couple. Courtyards transect the living, dining/studio pavilions; offer the perception of living and a feeling of working outdoors.

The modest sized site had no trees except for one at the entrance a Thespesia populanea, which was retained. Syzinium trees were transplanted into the internal gardens. The site is located beside paddy fields. The rice paddy landscape is distinctive and beautiful. It is an ordered landscape, edged by wilder mixed cultivation comprising of Banana, Areca trees, and plants like Alocasias. The ephemeral qualities of the paddyscape, the change in colours during the growing and harvesting seasons, the pooling of water into small temporary ponds that often have its own microhabitat, with tiny fish and water plants makes it a rich experiential landscape that design of the gardens of the retreat drew from. Borrowing scenery expands the small garden spaces, the paddy fringe planting has been drawn in to the various gardens and courtyards within the house connecting these spaces visually and extending the notion of the existing landscape. The dramatic Alocasias especially act as visual connectors between the various courtyards and gardens within the house.

The ground floor comprises of the living spaces and working spaces of the artist. The artist’s high volume (for large format work) studio pavilion is located at the lowermost level edged by sloped garden on one side and paddy fields on the other.
The sloped garden has a rich layered plant palette provides the occupants the feeling of being engulfed / enclosed one side (at close quarters) in textures of the large leaved dramatic planting like Alocasias, Heliconias, Etlingera, subtle color tone variations, and fragrances of the Zingiberaceae (Zingiber zerume, Zingiber officinale), while the view from the studio pavilion to the other edge is the experience of an expanse/distant views of the paddy scape through the fringe species, a notion of unending space. Making, it a sensorial experience for the artist couple who spend most of their time working in this space.Sri Lanka has three distinct seasons’ summer, pre-monsoons and monsoons. The vegetation in this garden changes with the wetness and dryness of the seasons, the moss greens and emeralds of the plants and bryophytes that come alive during the two monsoons and the fragrance of the flowering Syzygiums in the premonsoon, and fruiting in June that attracts the birds.The paddy attracts foraging birds like that visit the garden.

The hardscape used is minimal and frugal, locally found inexpensive rubble laid in a random fashion at the entrance and used in the wide steps (reminiscent of the Sri Lankan monastic gardens) that connect the living pavilion to the dining cum studio and dining. These wide paved steps are the heart informal discussions with artist’s friends, the courtyard that have crushed laterite ‘borelu’ (locally available) aggregate as ground cover that makes it pervious, and also a tactile experience. The rubble and borelu form a contrast to the polished cement floors that has been used in the interiors.The planting palette too was kept simple paddy edge planting species; that thrive in this environment, and various other local and / adapted species requiring minimum maintenance were used . The plants were not selected from commercial nurseries. They were obtained from Diyathuwena and paddy fringe species were sourced locally from the neighbourhood. Diyathuwena, is a unique weekend market for plants in Colombo that brings plants from nearby rural communities mostly grown by the women.

The landscape design sought to complement the character of the architecture, by being frugal in material cost / quantity and use but rich in sensorial experiences. Despite its location by one the busiest expressways in the country, the landscape of artist’s retreat is largely about experiencing the magic of a paddy edge landscape.


Entrant office name: Varna Shashidhar
Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect
Other design firms involved in the design of the garden (if any):
Building Architect: Palinda Kannangara Architects;
Client : JC Ratnayake
Project Name: Artists Retreat at Pittugala, Sri Lanka
Project location (State or Country): Athurugiriya, Sri Lanka
Design year: 2015
Year Built: Aug 2017


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