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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Thalpe, Sri Lanka

Since 1990, the south west coast of Sri Lanka has witnessed such an immense boom in up-market property construction that it is now dubbed the Serendip Riviera. One of the most popular “villas-to-rent” in the area is Victoria, a sprawling coastal bungalow designed by the Australian architect Bruce Fell-Smith and completed in 1995. The property lies on the coral beach of Thalpe, five miles south of Galle.

Victoria is a home designed to surprise. One walks through a wooden gateway leading off the main Galle-Colombo road into a small gravelled forecourt of ferns, bamboos and coconut trees. A second inner doorway parts to reveal a fertile water garden, its white walls partially camouflaged beneath aromatic branches of frangipani. The effect is dramatically heightened by an enormous terracotta wall facing the doorway, supported by seven white rectangular columns. Wooden lattice frames have been fitted to the upper parts of the columns. To access the house, one traverses seven inter-spaced granite slabs over a fishpond and then veers either left or right of the giant wall.

From the moment one rounds the terracotta wall, it feels like stumbling on stage. A massive crescent-shaped sofa occupies the foreground, submerged in cream white pillows. The principal living room is entirely uncluttered, a cut stone floor flanked by colonnaded verandahs of coconut. Along the verandah, open wooden doors and shutters reveal further rooms and vistas. Beyond lies the green of fresh grass, the grey slants of wind-blown trees and the first glimpses of ocean through columns of coconut palm running down to the beach.

Fell-Smith designed Victoria as a contemporary interpretation of a traditional Sri Lankan courtyard house. The architectural style involves a combination of the many different eras of Sri Lankan history - traditional Kandyan courtyards and open sided rooms merged with subsequent Portuguese, Dutch and British innovations. "Within the context of Sri Lanka history, the Dutch and English left a strong architectural influence and heritage in the Galle area”, explains Fell-Smith.

Victoria also adopts elements of this history with the use of antique carved panel doors and windows, fretwork panels, giant urns, old granite stone flooring, terracotta roof tiles and timber columns, the latter purchased from a Buddhist Temple auction. All furniture is polished three times a year, first with kerosene and then with a white wax polish. Other elements of tropical architecture, such as high ceilings, open planned spaces and water gardens, have influenced the design.

Victoria is a home filled with symmetry - the diagonal thrusts of the floors, the framed views leading to the sea. A twelve metre pool is centrally located to the front of the villa. At the far end of a lawn peppered with windswept coconut trees, a small tiled ambalama shelters three sofas in an intimate U shape, facing directly out to the western seas. To the west may be seen the silhouettes of stilt fishermen. In certain winds, dolphins skim upon the surf. Beyond that, the interminable ends of the ocean stretch for the sky.

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