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Personality of the week - Daily News Sat May 10 2003

Tanya Wickremesinghe

by Ilika Karunaratne

From Russia to Sri Lanka, with a heart full of love, came Tanya Wickremesinghe, in 1972. For, it was at Architectural school there, that she met Suren Wickremesinghe, whom she was to marry, and come here with. Suren is the son of the late Dr. S. A. Wickremesinghe, the then Leader of the Ceylon Communist Party, who although breathing fire and fury on political platforms; was a most refined gentle giant of a man. He was a friend of my father. Those were the good old days when political differences made no difference to friendship. Suren's mother Doreen, who was a British, was the first foreign woman to be elected to any Asian parliament, when she won a seat here in 1952.

Suren and Tanya are partners, not only in marriage, but in architecture too. "Soon after we came here, we started an architectural firm, with five other young architects, and I was the only woman in the group. Our firm was called Design Group Five. It was a wonderful starting point for us; as we were all from different backgrounds of architecture; England, Denmark and Russia and it was great fun, sharing our views and ideas and putting them into action. We all learned from each other and there were tremendous benefits from working together. Later on, Suren and I established our own firm, Tanya and Suren."

I wondered how it felt to be a wife and a husband's partner in business too, which means being together all the time. "I think being partners at work too, leads to a deeper bonding. We don't divide our work into compartments of this is yours and this is mine.

Everything is a team effort. Our ideas are put together after discussion; when we are pleased with what we have come up with; we develop it with our staff. We sometimes disagree. But this leads to better understanding in the long run; ours is a most challenging profession."

Both Tanya and Suren are blessed with sharp humour and clarity of thought, which I'm sure, can cut through the most persuasive argument. One of the challenges of architecture, is I suppose, the thrill of the chase; of a commission which culminates in a successfully clinched deal.

Did Tanya always want to be an architect? "I think I decided on it when I was about 15; my grandmother, who was a teacher of Russian language and literature, was a great influence in my life. When I was a child, I thought I would like to be a teacher like her. I did well in school and graduated with silver medals in all subjects and had a wide range of interests. Russia, as you know, is very rich in culture; I enjoyed, art, painting and the theatre and was always fascinated with mathematics. I made the decision to study architecture, after visiting the Russian Institute of Architecture, which I fell in love with instantly. It was so intrinsically beautiful."

How did it feel to adapt to life here; so different in climate and in the way of life? Although it is so completely different inclimate, language and culture, I never felt a stranger here. Suren's family, friends and relatives all welcomed me so warmly and I felt at home. I didn't speak English, as French was my second language at home, which meant that I had to learn both English and Sinhalese after coming here.

I had to speak Sinhalese when visiting the sites as the baas' didn't speak English. At first, it felt a little strange to hear the early morning sounds through my window which were not Russian, but Sinhalese or English. I had to get used to that, but I was able to do so, quite soon."

I suppose most of us never forget the first memories of childhood. They remain a kaleidoscope of hazy but evocative sensations of smell and sound with other more vivid flashes of recollection.

I wondered if the house Tanya and Suren live in was of their own design? "It was four flats which we converted into a house so we renovated it from the existing situation". Which aspect of architecture does Tanya enjoy most? "I love designing homes for so many factors contribute to a design for a home.

The clients preference, tradition, environment, climate. There are endless possibilities. I did enjoy doing the Hantane Housing Scheme with Suren. We did 800 homes and had to spend part of every week there. The children were small; we would bundle them into the car and take them with us. Seeing to every aspect of architecture is almost like conducting an orchestra, especially in a large scheme like this. We had to work with a team of people'; engineers for soil, road, structure; water supply and drainage. Lab tests for soil had to be done. Electricity cables had to be underground to withstand weather conditions and we were determined not to disturb nature or the environment at all. The houses were built on columns and not a single crack has appeared in 20 years."

Suren and Tanya have three children; Maya, who is an architect and works with them, Sonia, a pianist who lives in England and the youngest, Sasha, soon to go to university to do architecture. They have two grandchildren too. The family enjoys holidays at Suren's ancestral home in Matara, where they go for relaxation. Talking of her homeland, Tanya says, "Leningrad is a very beautiful city; full of canals lined in granite with cast iron railing of intricate design.

I used to go back once a year, but my family has been visiting me regularly for long visits so I haven't been back for a couple of years. But I plan to go this autumn which is a very beautiful time in Russia. We have lovely churches too which have been well preserved through the years. It is not that people were forbidden to go to church during the socialist regime but were afraid that they would offend the regime if they did so. Russians love music and singing, so I am very glad that my daughter Sonia is a concert pianist.

Going back to architecture, we enjoyed doing The Premier Pacific apartment block which was a totally different concept to Hantane. The challenge for us was to make each flat different in size and design and ensure a panoramic view from the bedrooms and living rooms. I am glad to see several apartment blocks coming up particularly in Wellawatte which clearly shows confidence in the peace process. Peace is undoubtedly a pre-requisite for Security. Productivity will increase with housing development which is a good sign."

Tanya, together with her architecture and love of music, is a fantastic cook too. And produces most delicious and unusual Russia food. I wondered if their were a few typical Russian dishes she could talk to me about.

"Siberian Pelmeny is something different. Patties with raw minced meat, kept in the fridge and then thrown into boiling stock; another is 'Golubcchi' which are cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice and minced meat baked in tomato and cream" Tanya is happy in her work and in her life here. She is an attractive person in every sense of the word, has irrepressible warmth and good humour. The inventive sould is a singleminded and determined taskmaster. Thus, for Tanya, dreams, hopes and aspirations are the things that make eavh day worth waking up for.