When it comes to his choice of writing implements, architect Channa Daswatte is undeniably a romantic. Flowing from the nib of his fountain pen might come a single element of design or the key structures that will eventually make up an entire hotel; alternately, it might be a note to himself or simply a quick sketch of some beautiful thing, glimpsed in passing. These images, transferred by hand from mind to paper, are the props Channa uses in his conversations with the world. “Architects have ideas all the time and my only real way of expressing mine is to draw and write,” he says.
Channa has used the same brand of fountain pen for near on two decades – you’ll find his newest one nestled in the front pocket of his shirt. Unlike its red and blue predecessors, this one is a sleek silver cylinder. It could be accused of being staid if it were not brimming with bright turquoise blue ink. (“As I’ve shed the outward brightness, I suppose I’ve had the brightness put into the ink,” he says.) Against his preferred canary yellow stationery, the ink makes for an eye popping contrast, but for everyone who lives and works around him, the combination is immediately identifiable as vintage Channa.
“I’m usually seen with a pen, and if I don’t have it, I’m grabbing for it,” he says, explaining that he has been faithful to this single brand since he first began using it as a young student of architecture at the University College of London. “It became terribly fashionable for all the students to carry one of these pens,” he remembers, “I went with the trend and thought I would buy this pen at a relatively huge expense to myself.” At that time, the fountain pen came in a classic matte black and Channa kept that first one for a long time, until he returned to live and work in Sri Lanka. He would eventually lose it in the Kandalama Hotel in the company of his mentor Geoffrey Bawa.
Quite impressively, he has only had to replace his pen five times in 20 years (among the missing, two could be found by the truly determined in the foundations of buildings Channa has designed). Each time he has replaced the missing pen with another of the same make and model. “It’s a wonderfully timeless design,” he says of the Lamy Safari design that dates back to the early 1980s but is still widely available. He prizes it for the “smooth, flowing” action it allows and how it makes it possible to turn out a quick sketch. “I always use ink. It gives character to a sketch because it doesn’t always have a continuous flow,” he says explaining that the variations in thickness, for instance, impart a subtle beauty and perspective to his images.
For Channa, however it remains underused in terms of its primary purpose. “There was a time when everyone would write letters and there was considered thought going into each one,” he says. He can prove this statement true with his own stack of carefully preserved epistles. “Recently, I came across this wonderful pile of letters that my friends abroad had written to me. People were still writing about what they were doing and what their hopes were and so on and then very quickly, the internet took over and there was almost a date, I think in 1994, when all these letters stop. Everything became electronic after that…but I still miss the considered elegance of writing.”
Aside from the letters, somewhere in a cupboard in his library, Channa also keeps a stack of notebooks filled with sketches from a long career devoted to design. Along with his pen, he always carries a small notebook. “You can take notes on iphones and the like but somehow for me there’s nothing like taking a little note and putting a little sketch next to it,” he confesses. He often creates these on the go – “because otherwise you might lose it…you might not follow the same sequence of thinking of it and so you grab hold of it and quickly put it down in some form that you can remember,” he says, “really, I find for me, the easiest way is to have pen and paper handy.”
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on October 2, 2011 as part of our Prized Possession series. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara