Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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The Dome

Colombo, Sri Lanka

The Galle Face Court in Colombo was built in 1923 by Sir Muhammad Macan-Markar, a prominent Muslim politician and gem merchant who once owned the largest star sapphire in the world. The 182-carat gem, discovered in Sri Lanka in 1907, was subsequently bequeathed to the Smithsonian Institute by Mary Pickford and is now, misleadingly, called the “Star of Bombay”. The Galle Face Court, built upon old British army horse stables, was part of his dream. Fireworks exploded across the seafront when the six storey apartment block opened.

After Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the Galle Face Court went into predictable decline. The original tenants, commercial employees and civil servants, moved out. Chaotic jungles of electrical wire began creeping down the high ceilings. Hairline cracks erupted along the wide, sweeping corridors. Sir Mohammed’s grandson, Hamza Macan Markar, was eager to halt the rot. During the 1990s, a new wave of foreign businessmen began to settle in Colombo. The American jewellery designer Dick Dumas moved into one of the apartments. Francis Leighton, one of Sri Lanka’s great “Social Butterfly’s took on another.

In 2001, Mr. Markar was approached by Giles Scott, co-founder of the Ulpotha (qv) eco-retreat north of Kandy. Scott expressed a desire to take on the uppermost floor of the building. Mr. Markar was mildly confused. The top floor consisted of a single dome-roofed room, used as a storage depot for half a century’s worth of discarded relics. There were, however, some elders who remembered watching the sun set on the Ocean back when the floor below was used as a badminton court.

Scott has since converted the floor into one of the most remarkable apartments in Colombo. It was a relatively straightforward project. The room was emptied of all junk. The walls were repainted, first an off-white and lately with special luminous paint that comes to life when ultra-violet lights come on. White cement was carefully poured upon the floor and polished to a smooth, clear finish. Useful alcoves were carved into the thick pillars separating the windows. A roof terrace submerged in electrical wires, television aerials and telephone cables was converted into the master bedroom with its own balcony facing over the Galle Face Hotel towards the Indian Ocean.

The Dome’s role as an “observatory” seems to be confirmed by the eighteen windows that now form one of the principal features of the apartment. These elegant wooden-framed windows are set into the curved wall in groups of three. Each window beholds an alternative view of the Colombo skyline; kites flying on Galle Face Green, the wind-ruffled waters of Beira Lake, the promenade stretching towards the Indian Ocean. Scott generally has a couple of these windows open. “At this height, the air is much fresher than at street level” explains Scott. “Mastering the ventilation system was a process of elimination. As the seasons change, I’ve learned that if you open two or three different windows then the air channels change. So if you get it right, there’s no need for fans or air-cons, no matter how humid it is outside”.

The domed ceiling is also an immense feature. Scott sagely treats it as a vast canvas on which he can continually experiment with innovative designs. Assisted by artists from Sri Lanka and abroad, its past incarnations have included an earthy green globe, an Arabian howdah and a minimalist blue backdrop supporting an illuminated polystyrene ball. The brilliant underwater scene pictured here, painted by the prolific Spanish artist Nuria Lamsdorff, works superbly with Scott’s nocturnal lighting options. With a small twist of a switch one can be plunged to the wallowy depths of the ocean or alternatively feel as though the sun-drenched surface is literally just above.

The sleek, minimalist, 21st century ambience of the Dome provides Scott with the perfect contrast to his other life in the jungles of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. And the former observatory has once again become a gathering point for those seeking a birds’ eye view of the world beneath.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.