By C. Anjalendran
Professor Dr. Ronald Lewcock, who died on Saturday August 13, just three months after his wife, the famous designer Barbara Sansoni, was an illustrious scholar who contributed greatly to the understanding of Sri Lankan architecture and art. I am lucky to have known him, as a student, friend and colleague.
Although Ronald was an authority in his chosen fields, he never forgot the poetics of a tropical sunset over the island sea; poya moonrise and fall colors.
He could literally “walk with kings, nor lose common touch” to quote Kipling. Ronald not only transformed the lives of generations of students, but also touched the lives of countless everyday people he met. In a developing country like Sri Lanka, this is perhaps the most precious gift of all.
Born in Australia on September 27, 1929, Ronald went to Columbia University in New York on a research fellowship in 1963. His subject of study, which he continued to explore throughout his career, was European colonial architecture in Africa and Asia.
In 1968-69, a sabbatical for fieldwork brought Ronald to Sri Lanka, where he met Barbara Sansoni, whose designs he had seen in “Collecting Old Buildings” in the February 1966 Architectural Review.
Ronald returned to Sri Lanka for three months every year during the 1970s and early 80s for his research, expanding it to include the local vernacular. He was aided in his work by Barbara and Laki Senanayake, who became his close friends.
Between 1976 and 1978 he wrote most of the accompanying text, as well as the layout design, for Barbara’s book Vihares and Verandas intended to raise awareness among Sri Lankans of their rapidly disappearing built heritage.
In 1979 he was commissioned by Habitat to undertake the listing and preservation of historic buildings and areas – in the urban area of Colombo which was completed the following year.
In 1980 Ronald married Barbara with whom he shared many common interests.
Between 1981 and 1984 Ronald worked on The Architecture of an Island which he co-wrote with Barbara and Laki, greatly extending the archive of measured drawings that had been initiated by Ulrik Plesner in the early 1960s. He showed the architecture, both domestic and religious, of the various indigenous ethnic groups of Sri Lanka. Published in December 1998 after 30 years of research, it was illustrated with his numerous photographs. In 1986 Ronald reviewed ‘The Architecture of Geoffrey Bawa’ for the RIBA Journal, as an introduction to Bawa’s first exhibition at the RIBA premises. In 1987, Ronald reassembled this exhibition on the MIT campus in Cambridge, USA, accompanied by a public lecture by Bawa himself, who had been invited by Ronald as a visiting professor. This RIBA article was extended and published in a profile of Geoffrey Bawa by Arredamento Dekorasyon, in 1992 in Istanbul.
In 1991 Ronald wrote a chapter on “Dutch Architecture in Sri Lanka” for RK De Silva and WGM Beumer’s Illustrations and Views on Dutch Ceylon 1602-1796, published in Leiden.
The exhibition of Ronald’s work Nomad and the City held at the Museum of Mankind – a section of the British Museum, as part of the World of Islam Festival in 1976 became the British Museum’s highest-attended exhibition up to that time. era. Its original three-month schedule was extended to nine months. Recreating the bazaars of San’a City with sounds and even smells, and many multi-storey halls, it also brought to life the tents and lifestyles of nomads in the desert.
Ronald edited the San’a an Arabian Islamic City encyclopedia with Prof. R. B. Serjeant, published in 1983 and reprinted in 2013.
In 1976 he wrote a chapter on ‘Architects, Craftsmen and Builders: Materials and Techniques’ as well as descriptions of key monuments in Arabia (with Geoffrey King) and East Africa in the comprehensive work of George Mitchell: Architecture of the Islamic World, which went through many editions.
In 1984 Ronald became the first Aga Khan Professor of Architecture at MIT and also served intermittently as Chairman of the Aga Khan Program at Harvard and MIT.
Beginning in 1991, Ronald returned to teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology as a professor in the Doctor of Architecture program. The same year, he was appointed honorary professor at the University of Queensland, where he directed a post-graduate course on architectures in Asia. Ronald advised on the conservation of the Great Mosque of San’a, one of the oldest mosques in the Islamic world, originally built during the lifetime of the Prophet.
In July 2014, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Geoffrey Bawa Trust for his contribution to Sri Lankan architecture and art,
Ronald also wrote the text for the Geoffrey Bawa Trust’s book Laki published in June 2014, as well as the introduction to A Passion for Faces by Barbara Sansoni. An exhibition of his stunning black and white photographs accompanied the joint exhibition with Barbara at Barefoot in April-May 2018.
One could summarize that Ronald had three segments in his illustrious career. First, his research and writings on the architecture of Sri Lanka, Africa as well as the Islamic and colonial world. Second, his contribution to the construction of several educational institutions. Third, and perhaps most importantly, empowering younger generations of architects in their understanding and appreciation of architecture and art, appropriate to their home countries.
(Architect C. Anjalendran is a close friend of the Sansoni family)
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