Academics / Architects / The Sunday Times

Chitra Weddikkara: Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

Prof. Chitra Weddikkara met her husband-to-be and discovered her future profession roughly around the same time. It was 1968 and she was a young student of the biosciences. Her parents, who couldn’t bear the thought of sending her to far away Peradeniya were more willing to consent to a course in architecture at Moratuwa. Taken to seek guidance from the architect who had worked closely with her family, she was told he had a nephew named Susil who would also be pursuing the same course. By the time she graduated with her BSc in Built Environment – the only girl in her class to do so – she had acquired a fiancée and already knew the next step. It was Australia and the higher studies she’d need to qualify as a chartered architect where, once again, women would be in short supply in the examination hall.

                               Prof. Weddikkara on being elected as SLIA president

The first woman to be elected the President of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (SLIA) in 56 years of its existence, Prof. Chitra doesn’t seem to have so much as broken through the glass ceiling as failed to have noticed its very existence. The former Head of the Department of Building Economics at the University of Moratuwa and currently a senior lecturer at the same, she is also thePresident of the Commonwealth Association of Surveyors and Land Economy as well as the immediate past-President of the Institute of Quantity Surveyors. She is the Chairperson of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Sri-Lanka (RICS), Secretary/Overseas Representative of the International Chapter of the Australian Institute Quantity Surveyors and a Director at the Chamber of Construction Industry Sri-Lanka (CCI). In a career that spans over 30 years, which includes her work as a principal partner in a private practice, these are only some of her honours.

When she walks onto a building site, Prof. Chitra is as likely to be the chief architect as she is to be a consultant. The latter is thanks to her having chosen to become a qualified quantity surveyor during the 1970s (and was reportedly the first woman in Perth, Australia, to become so) at the urging of her mother-in-law. A math whizz, the latter served Prof. Chitra’s father-in-law as his unofficial quantity surveyor on most of his architectural projects. Prof. Chitra says her interest may have begun as a way to please someone so important to her husband, but it was soon where her own interest lay as well.

Though they had initially intended to return home to Sri Lanka, the couple chose to linger abroad when a Labour government extended an invitation to young professionals such as themselves to stay on. The two took on many projects but Prof. Chitra remembers the round houses she designed in the aboriginal style with particular fondness. The 11 years they lived there were punctuated by regular trips home and by momentous happenings in the family – the passing of Prof. Chitra’s mother but also the birth of her daughter.

In the years they lived and practised architecture in Australia, Prof. Chitra learned how to negotiate an overwhelmingly male dominated environment. Though diminutive, she says now that the trick lay in carrying herself with absolute assurance. “I would go straight to the supervisor,” she says, adding that she was always dressed with just the right degree of formality. A largely sheltered upbringing meant she had to accustom herself to the rough ways in which the Australian contract teams did business. Still, despite the scarcity of women on the worksite she seldom felt disrespected. In fact, she used her gender to her advantage, deploying charm and straight talk by turns to get a project moving along. “Things actually were easier in Sri Lanka,” she says, explaining that local crews proved more respectful, though they came with their own set of problems.

The work she continues to do with her husband and the support she receives from him and her two children have made a successful career possible, she says, explaining how willing they’ve been to back her every step of the way. The family would spend time in the U.S before returning to Sri Lanka but there was never any doubt they would. “To me, Sri Lanka was always such a special place,” she says.Right away she took up a post lecturing at the Department of Architecture in Moratuwa, but when the Building Economics department was left rudderless after its Head of Department resigned, she was asked to take over. Today, having returned to teaching at the University after a break, her classes have as many girls in them as boys. She’s seen the two year plans and five year plans she laid so long ago bear fruit.

She says it was her conviction that young Sri Lankans needed more avenues through which to pursue careers in architecture and related fields that led to the founding of the Colombo School of Construction Technology (CSCT), where she is currently Dean. They don’t offer architectural courses at the College, leaving those to the capable minds at the SLIA and Moratuwa University. Instead students can earn BSc in Quantity Surveying and a Higher National Diploma (HND) in Quantity Surveying, Construction Management, Services Engineering and Engineering.

Her work in encouraging more young people to become qualified in these fields is also tied in with her ambitions for her two-year stint as the President of the SLIA.Here she says she wants to take “architecture to the villages”, thereby breaking Colombo’s seeming monopoly. This will entail programmes hosted in partnership with provincial councils where villagers will be offered free consultations on their own construction projects and school campaigns to help inculcate an appreciation of architecture in children. The most ambitious so far though is their desire to work on an entire village. Having appealed to Minister Basil Rajapaksa, they hope to be assigned a community whose homes and public spaces they can design with not just aesthetics but ease of use and sustainability in mind.

Prof. Chitra feels this is the direction Sri Lankan architects should take. In fact, she’s serious about seeing hers and her fellow professionals’ contributions to the development of the country as an almost sacred duty. “After 30 years of war we should be focusing on the development of the country,” she says “but especially we have to look at creating sustainable architecture.”

 Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 11 August, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy SLIA.

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