Interrogating the Constitution Through Architecture

Sri Lanka’s Encounters with Democracy
corridors of power sri lanka

What is a constitution? And what place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

In February 2018 Sri Lanka will celebrate 70 years of independence. Seven decades is a long time, for many, perhaps a life time. A life time should be sufficient to learn from past mistakes and realize that the way forward is to instill political pluralism, democratic governance and constitutionalism.  Unfortunately, this is still not the reality.  Even with all the technological tools and platforms in use by so many today, constitutional reform and related debates remain alien to and removed from society in Sri Lanka.

Our task was to make constitutional reform more “people centric, public spirited and humane”. A tall order indeed. Our partner, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) came up with a unique concept; The Corridors of Power (CoP), an attempt to kick-start this discussion and locates constitutional reform in the public imagination. It is an interrogation of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture. Architecture makes small spaces seem larger than they are, harnesses the chiaroscuro within a building to influence the mood of inhabitants, enables access to spaces, bars access to others, creates secret pathways, chambers and shortcuts purposefully or inadvertently, giving the illusion of openness, when in fact inhabitants could be boxed in, or conversely, frees up a claustrophobic space with just slivers of open sky.

The CoP exhibition demonstrates Sri Lanka’s constitutional development since 1972 and all the amendments since then. “It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, the centre cannot hold” says the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s (FNF) Country Representative Sagarica Delgoda. Through errors thrown up by the architectural program significant flaws of Sri Lanka’s present constitution are clearly flagged, she notes.  The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of the constitutional vision. ‘Corridors of power’ is an invitation to reflect on what Sri Lanka has been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future, Mrs Delgoda concludes.

In a spate of two years, the CoP has travelled to the four corners and the central hills of Sri Lanka, scores of people from all walks of life have flocked in, stared, gasped in awe, questioned and argued, in short the idea turned our really well.   Few days ago, at the final outing of the CoP in Kurunegala the curator faced the youthful onslaught of 300 youngsters.   

World Changing Ideas

“It was an amazing day, and the best response to the exhibition to date. The students grasped the separation of powers and grasped the importance of active citizenship”said Sanjana Hattotuwa, CoP’s curator highlighting the overall objective of the exercise.

Corridors of Power is not only conquering its motherland, it is also receiving international recognition.  The pproject was a finalist in the Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2017 Awards.   More recently, the CoP has been invited to participate in the 2018 International Art Exhibition in Dhaka, Bangladesh and one of the co-authors of CoP, Dr. Asanga Welikala is exploring the possibilities of taking the exhibition to Edinburgh, Scotland.