Display of Ideology through the Architecture: The Case of the US Embassy in Sri Lanka
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 27 Apr , 2023

 The role of architecture and the built environment -more generally for political – is evidenced from the most ancient times throughout history. When British ruled India, their concern in constructing edifices were rooted in the imperial ambition of colonial power projection, which intended to last for good. In general, architecture can legitimate authority and, by interpreting ideals through physical form may serve an inspiration. The geopolitical rivalry that existed between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War period contained several dimensions, in which their quest to embody their ideological impetus were ideally symbolized by the different approaches to construct their embassy buildings around the world.

The newly opened the US embassy complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka is an apt illustration of displaying greater American influence over a nation engulfed in debt, inflation and many other governance issues. The modernist architecture blended with the Sri Lankan traditions in the US embassy building Colombo is a kaleidoscopic marvel denoting American democratic ideals to the island nation. The opening ceremony held in 2022 October was graced by Ranil Wickrmasinghe, the President of Sri Lanka and in her address the US ambassador to Sri Lanka did not forget to mention the intrinsic designs deployed by the constructors to depict the history and culture of the island. Indeed, this is a stark contrast to the other important embassy buildings located in Colombo as many of them reflect the rigidness and pomp of their states.

The example of the embassy building of People’s Republic of China in Colombo creates no alluring sight to the public with its extreme fortification bolstered by long walls, which may lead to affirm the negative perception among Sri Lankan to view China as an occupier beyond a conjecture. The Russian embassy compound in Colombo is akin to the same shabbiness displayed by the Chinese embassy building and Russia’s militant outlook towards its global affairs reflect from the coarse structure of the embassy building, which stands as a military complex surrounded by a hostile neighbourhood.

The former location of the Russian embassy in Colombo had more congenial atmosphere as it was located in a house belonged to a Sri Lankan philanthropist named Sir Earnest de Silva in one of the city’s affluent residential area, but the construction of the present building of Russian Federation’s embassy was a process developed after Sri Lanka strengthened its ties with Russia during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration. One can argue that both China and Russia devoid of using more sophisticated strategies like using architecture to attract the public as both states have an anathema towards American styled public diplomacy.

This was fairly visible in the embassy building process of the post-colonial world in the 50’s and 60’s, where the US was ahead of the curve by choosing much modernist approaches in designing its embassy buildings in the Global South. For instance, the US embassy building constructed in New Delhi in 1954 was a ‘Tropical Modern Parthenon’ to compete with the outrageous Stalinist kitsch of the Russian embassy building.

The question arising by viewing the architectural aggrandizement of the US embassy building is that what exactly Americans expect in the island nation. China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean Region and in particular, Chinese presence in Sri Lanka have been continuously monitored by both the US and India. It should be noted that both states show an alacrity in uplifting their public diplomacy in Sri Lanka by various means to confront the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. Given China’s rejuvenated interest in Buddhism, India seems to have shown a special interest in securing its historical links with Sri Lanka through Buddhist roots. The paintings displayed on the walls of Indian High Commission in Colombo shows pacifying images of Buddha as a powerful diplomatic message to the island nation.

In discussing about the influences emanating from the embassy architecture, we need to understand the overall thematic purpose of architecture consists of two major aspects: utility (function, content) and aesthetics (beauty, style, form), most generally defined. If function is constant, as is the case for one type of buildings, variation in form must necessarily reflect values. As ND Guneova argues that embassy architecture in the post-cold war scenario is deeply imbued with highlighting the political and socio-cultural values that the home countries strive to admire and which is the exact reflection of the newly built American embassy compound in Colombo.

While facing the large rising structures of China’s controversial Port City in Colombo, the newly built US embassy gives more sanguine feeling for its visitors as sanctuary containing American modernity twisted with Sri Lanka’s art and culture. From a vantage point, the elegant structure of the US embassy in Colombo conveys the grandeur owned by the United States as the super power regardless of its gradual decay in the post 9/11 world. But more than the grandeur displayed in the embassy building, the deeper political message stems from it shows America’s interest to show her pluralistic values in a place where such values are at stake. 

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Punsara Amarasinghe

is a post-doctoral researcher affliated to the Institute of Law, Politics and Development at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa.

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