Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Building Typology at Gurutalawa – A tribute to Architect Shirley D’ Alwis

Iconic image of Gurutalawa

The origination of S Thomas College in Gurutalawa; has been discussed in most of my notes about    college. However, this note on the buildings of Gurutalawa is in an Architectural Engineering [AE] aspect which is something that I did not comprehend as a student but today as a professional.

Gurutalawa finally gets the green light to go ahead as the boarding school of S Thomas’ and a permanent building programme is approved by the Board of Governors in 1944. Warden R S de Saram announced this decision at the prize giving in 1944. The school has functioned with two boarding schools at Peradeniya and Gurutalawa and with the numbers at Gurutalawa coming down to 41 it was prudent to have one boarding school only at Gurutalawa. Thereby the new building programme in Gurutalawa will be designed to house 150 boarders.

The designing of the buildings at Gurutalawa was entrusted to Architect Mr Shirley D’ Alwis who was also the Lead Architect involved in the designing of the Peradeniya University. “Gurutalawa is therefore fortunate to be guided and advised of by a so gifted a person” was Warden De Saram’s appreciation in the appointment of Mr Shirley D’ Alwis.

He went on further, “The buildings at Gurutalawa will be built of material available on the land and they will be simple, convenient, and airy buildings blending harmoniously with the surrounding natural beauty and will serve this generation and many generations to come.”

The Iconic Building at Gurutalawa

Mr Shirley D‘ Alwis developed a unique building typology with the stone that was available on site …. a Metamorphic type of rock of Gneisses and Quartzite of medium size lacking the common form of Granite.

The plaster bare stone texture blending with the surrounding landscape did bring out the harmony that Warden de Saram etched in the minds of those present at the Prize Day in 1944, and it did come out as the icon of Gurutalawa… the “Chapel of St Francis of Assise.”

The Main building block at Gurutalawa was predominantly for accommodating 150 boarders and therefore it was a set of dormitories located around a quadrangle which was a common design concept of that era providing ventilation space. Around this quadrangle, there are three extensions. On one end it is the Chapel and on the opposite end is the then Senior library that provides an entranceway to the school. The two opposite corners have one extended corner where the then Junior Library was located.


The corridors around the quadrangle were open walkways connecting the dormitories three at a lower level and one at an upper level in line with the Chapel.

The Main entrance to the school complex where one passes through a large Gothic archway with finely laid stone steps arranged in a very pleasing manner brings you to the plaque honouring the well-wishers’ who did not want their names mentioned, Mr & Mrs Lesley De Sarams.

The Gothic arch is about the only place where one could come across granite being used in the construction where the key locks of the archway are formed. The corridor floors are of rough cement rendering while inside the dormitories the floors are cement-floated smooth. The plastered inner walls are finished off with a simple lime wash.

The other exceptional design of Mr Shirley D’ Alwis was of the roof structure, where he uses round timber 4 - 9 inches in diameter forming trusses spaced evenly to transfer the roof load. This truss work is uniquely displayed on the chapel roof where there isn’t a ceiling but the truss timbers are painted in the principal colours giving the chapel a special feature. Initially, the dormitories were bare of a ceiling but later added for comfort.

Chaple Ceiling
Main entrance archway

However, the planned programme to complete the main building on time was not possible due to the inclement weather Gurutalawa experienced that year. Makeshift improvisations had to be made for the boys coming in from Peradeniya. Some of the classrooms were used as dormitories while the building programme went on. As an alternative, the roofs were thatched with mana grass and the dormitories were made habitable.

Thatched with Mana Grass

Later, the roofs were covered with asbestos and the main building programme was completed. Little is known of Mr Shirley D’ Alwis’s involvement in the design of the iconic chapel and the surrounding stone buildings at Gurutalawa.

His input at the Peradeniya University blending Kandyan Architecture with colonial steel construction practices has been recognized and amply recorded.

However, Shirley D’ Alwis was not able to see much of Peradeniya in his later years as he passed away quite early in September 1952. Sir Ivor Jennings the first Vice Chancellor of Peradeniya who had a very close relationship with him tributed him on his obituary thus,

“ He will have his monument which will last to the end of time. We often spoke of what would happen in a hundred years, not as an exercise in imagination, but as part of our normal jobs, for he was as conscious as the members of the University of the permanence of university institutions. He died knowing that centuries hence young men and women of his own people would ask themselves ‘who built this University’ and that since universities are proud of their history and do not let it die, somebody would answer,

‘A man named Shirley D’ Alwis”

Today the first roundabout on the Galaha road running through the Peradeniya Campus is constructed in a dignified manner as a monument in honour of Shirley D’ Alwis.

Shirley D’ Alwis was educated at S. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia and later proceeded to the University of Liverpool where he obtained his training as an architect. He then joined the Public Works Department in Ceylon on his return from the United Kingdom.

Despite the fact that his involvement in Gurutalawa is lesser known, his signature is clearly visible there. There is only one component in his design of the stone-walled building complex with Gothic arches and the lovely Chapel of St. Francis of Assisi that does not fit into that Building Typology.

Even though it was so well-known, it went unnoticed due to its lack of significance... But now I know it is his signature, to which I can assume that Warden Canon R S De Saram and Dr. Hayman approved of its placement.

The Punkalasa was Shirley D' Alwis' way of thanking the institution for his involvement and wishing those who enter these holy halls success in their endeavors. It was placed at the top of the entrance flight of steps, facing the plaque honoring the benefactors.

His early demise  is noted by Dr Hayman and Canon R S De Saram in their Prize day orations in 1953.

Paying tribute to him Dr Hayman, "He took endless trouble to produce a design which would be aesthetically satisfying, while at the same time conforming to the restrictions imposed by the need for  economy and by the shortage of building materials which existed at the time. He laboured for hours over plans for each building, and interested himself in the working out of each small detail. You can judge for yourself the extent to which the efforts attained success. "

" He was an architect of exceptional ability whose brilliant gifts were only equaled by his capacity for hard work and by his generous willingness to help others when ever he could. we in particular owe him a great deal for all that he did for us in very difficult times  by designing the school at Gurutalawa.... all this and much more he did for nothing out of his great devotion to the school."  Canon De Saram's tribute to him. 

Punkalasa or Pot of Plenty

The “ Punkalasa “ or the “Pot of Plenty” is considered the sole symbol of fertility, prosperity and wealth according to Buddhist culture. The application of the Punkalasa  in Kandyan Architecture is dominant.

 The Shramadana Era

We now know why this conceptual building typology was not followed in the other buildings that came up in the later years. it was because Mr. Shirley D’ Alwis's services at Gurutalawa was of an honorary nature towards the  Alma Mater and his busy schedule with the Peradeniya designs. 

However, there was the need to build even after, to accommodate the increased number of boys where at one time Dr Hayman says the maximum holding capacity at Gurutalawa is 350 boarders.

It is on record that in Gurutalawa the staff and the boys in the 50-60 era were into shramadana; building their school themselves. I remember a brick-making machine even in the mid-sixties where large size sunbaked clay bricks could be made just lying idle. There are ample photographs of Dr Hayman and the boys involved in clearing and levelling ground to construct buildings and assisting the contractors from the locality.

The senior dormitories and the coop shop building was to have been built with shramadana by the boys and staff and local artisans deployed on labour contracts.

Sunbaked bricks produced by shramadana were used in the walls bonded with a mud and lime mix as a binder. Cement was utilized in the floor and plaster as  construction material was a scarce commodity in the aftermath of a war. Most of these buildings that came up later had tin sheet roofing on round timber poles sourced locally.

Many of these buildings that came up through shramadana have stood the test of time and now needs  replacement or rehabilitation.

Senior dorm blocks
Sick room block

The sick room block was improved with the need to attend to the sick boys in a more comfortable and hygienic environment. It is noted that this is the only two-storey building block on the entire campus at Gurutalawa. The extension was undertaken with lightweight pressed straw bricks with a binder to minimize the load on the structure. It was quite unusual and strange to note the straw exposed in places where the plaster was damaged.

The upper floor was the sick room and the surgery with the lower section on the ground below was the isolation wards.

Headmaster's Bangalow

The most pleasing building unit within the whole premises is no doubt  the head masters bungalow that was built after the main block was completed. By 1952 it is recorded that Dr Hayman has prioritized the building programme where he on the Prize day in 1952 appealed for a building fund highlighting his contribution towards the college and the inability to continue same without the support form the parents and the boys. The need of a New Laboratory, A New Sick Room, New Dormitory Accommodation, A New Assembly Hall, and a Headmasters Bungalow were on the list. Money did come but in small amounts. However, it was then decided that with the small funding available it was best to provide for a decent accommodation for Dr & Mrs Hayman. A house was done in a very modified scale by 1954 and they moved into a house with unfinished ceilings, and no electricity, plumbing and drainage.

The gardens laid by Mrs Hayman's personal touch with an accesses bridge over the ditch to the lawn made the home to fit into a seclusive retreat that most headmasters to follow would have enjoyed their stay.

The Classroom Blocks

The classroom blocks had always been in the location they now stand but today we have a new block which was replaced due to a sabotage act that took place in November 1948. A fire was caused by a saboteur who had set fire to the mana thatch roof in the night which could have destroyed the entire classroom block if the staff, boys and minor staff were not active in dousing the fire.

I remember even in the 60 when we were in college some of the savaged desks and benches were in use with charred remnants.

The present-day classroom block is what was rebuilt in 1949 with funds collected from parents old boys and staff at Gurutalawa and Mt Lavinia.

Keble Dormitory

Keble dormitory and the immediate vicinity
The building typology at Keble dormitory is different from what was built and what existed in the farm that the De Sarams gifted. The Keble dormitory is a dwelling of a bungalow-type building with Calicut tiled roof and rooms laid symmetrically. This is a property that Dr Hayman bought for the school with his personal funding. Today that property he donated to the school is the lower school a separate entity that was added in 1977.

Science Laboratories & the Foster Memorial Hall

The need to house the science laboratories in a decent building was the need from as early as mid-50s before Dr Hayman retired in 1963.

Old laboratory building

However, this was fulfilled only in 1970 and it was declared open by Dr Hayman during his first visit back to school after he left Gurutalawa in 1963. His love for the subject of Physics is seen in the old makeshift shack laboratory where we did our practical sessions from gas manufactured in a very strange plant that had a very tall tapering walled structure.

New Laboratory
Canon Foster Memorial Hall

Colour washing and Painting

Colour washing and painting were also unique in that era that I remember. The name Guru-thalawa itself prompts in the Sinhala dialect of the colour “Guru” to be a colour of a reddish-brown texture.

If one recalls the external colour of the buildings around Gurutalawa, other than for the White Lime washed or the Buttermilk Samara washed houses all the others were of a Pinkish Mauve wash, Most buildings in Gurutalawa too were of this colour.

This was a homemade application of the Reddish Brown soft silty earth with the silvery mica particles mixed with slaked lime which then turned into a Pinkish Mauve colour. This was the common colour wash that most buildings had on the outer walls in Gurutalawa.

Country Tiled Roofs

There was one other building within the Gurutalawa compound that had half round country tiles on the roof. This was the dwelling where the Kularatnes lived. Again, I’m not sure if this was also within the property of the college or not but later the Kularatnes occupied the dwelling of the Amerasinghes after they left in 1968.

It is sad to note that the main building block and its iconic entrance block and the immediate area are no longer considered the entrance to the school as the office and the new administrative block is now shifted to a different location. The access paths leading to the dormitories are of lesser prominence. This is generally considered normal when operational advancements are incorporated and changers are required.  This then make historical usages and applications to turn obsolete or go into disuse.

It should be noted, however, that these imposing structures have value inherent in them that must be respected and preserved.

As the creators intended, the "Pot of Plenty" mentioned above and the monumental plaque honoring the benefactors should be held high with reverence and respect.

Pics Courtesy: J Jayaprakash, Shanthilal Kularatne, the 62group, Peradeniya Alumi and the author 


  1. As always Uditha has documented a well researched description of S Thomas's Gurutalawa architecture standing by his profession. It was revealing to me that Mr Shirley De Alwis was the architect of the school. The punkalasa at School and at Peradeniya being the ame prooves it physically. I love the entrance to the school.
    I do remember the straw based walls of the sick room. Saw the same in old buildings in Oman.
    The brick making machine is in memory too. Remember medlling with it wanting to know how it worked.
    Thanks Udith

    1. Hi Hemasiri... as always we saw things in a different perspective ever since we were friends from 1961... I guessed of everyone reading this it would be you .. the first to see a comparison or the link of Peradeniya architecture in Gurutalawa. Thanks Chum

  2. Thank you @ Uditha Wijesena for your well documented version of STC, though my period was a short one at STC (74 to 77, first ncge batch) those buildings were always an admiration, being an architect myself looking into those stone walled construction gives a period building of the era, very long time I visited my college, would like to know has any one documented, photographed the entire buildings and it's present positions?, the long walk from keble to the class rooms still in memory.

    1. Hi Mano... good to get to know you.. well I don't think anyone has done a architectural study in documentation as such... it is something that should be done immediately and documented proper... actually the reason why I penned this was also through fear that I have of the main entrance being neglected. Recently I saw a photograph of a cement lined pond excavated in the grass area painted blue with Japanese carp fish in it captioned a project by the boys.... something that is totally out of place... we need to educate the management and address the ignorance of importance...

  3. Uditha, Thanks a lot for collating the historical facts and narating them for readers interest. What is important for us to learn the vision of Warden De Saram, Dr Hayman to invent Nature Based Solutions to the socio economic needs. Corner stones for sustainability and how the architect Sherly De Alwis made it to a reality in an iconic manner. Trust your facts unearthed will be a direction for future Thomians to follow
    Jayasri Priyalal
    (Gurumian 1971-1975)

  4. Manmohan ManoharanMarch 18, 2023 at 1:09 PM

    Excellent work Uditha. You have spent valuable time gathering details and producing a well written article.
    Thanks & Kind Regards

  5. Great work Uditha. It is so, so important to consider Nature when we build on mother earth. We have to live in harmony with nature. It is great to know you are a Civil Engineer and a Naturalist at the same time. Great combination of expertise and interest.


  6. I did not expect anything less from an architect par excellence and an erudite scholar. Keep them coming Uditha. You stir up so many fond memories of our early years.

  7. Thank you UDITHA for the original work on the architecture of Guru.

  8. Dhushyantha SenapatiratneMarch 20, 2023 at 8:05 AM

    Dear Uditha.
    You write so well. Thank you for sharing this. Your articles always bring Nostalgic memories.
    Bless you

  9. Fantastic, excellent job Uditha. What I missed at Guru by going to Mount !
    Very well written as always . Thanks

  10. Thank you Uditha Very informative.

  11. Thank you for this fascinating article. Shirley D'Dalwis was my grandfather on my Mothers side and I was totally unaware of the existence of these buildings. Looking forward to seeing them on my next visit from the UK