The Warehouse Project has opened a large space in Maradana to serve people from Colombo 7 to the slums. The Warehouse Project – initially funded by local business people – is, as the name might suggest, a large warehouse that hosts various events and projects. Ongoing functions include EAT, a program to feed thirty local people a day, BORDERLESS, a program to connect children from different backgrounds and an upcoming Theatre Championships in September and October. The broader theme of all these projects is reclaiming the inner city of Colombo, long abandoned by developers due to security restrictions and war.
The Warehouse is situated on Tripoli Road, near the Elphinstone Theatre. This location is at a junction that most Sri Lankans know, it is the roundabout that spins cars around to Kotahena, Maradana, Pettah and near a railway line. On the map above you can see the general location marked by a pointer. Most people simply pass through this area but thousands of people live near the overpass and it was at one point a downtown area prime for development.
Today the small Tripoli Road snakes past non-bustling warehouses and a sleep SLT office. Once you pass through, however, the expansive glass property sticks out as a place of enormous potential. Colombo’s public spaces have largely declined since the closing of the famous Arts Centre Club at the Lionel Wendt. That bar and club was once the meeting place for artists and intellectuals like Richard De Soyza, Mangala Samaraweera and many more. The former was killed and the latter became a Minister and the Club eventually shut down.
The Warehouse Project is not, however, a bar like the Arts Centre was. It has an aim beyond being a place to hang out, it aims to bridge the gap between the affluent and the less so at a time of development that sees the rich getting richer and lives of the poor largely remaining the same.
Redrawing the cultural map
One upcoming project that aims to bridge this gap by enlisting children from different backgrounds to redraw the cultural map of Colombo. Before the war, as pictured in the map above, the city of Colombo was centered around the Port with people living and working in those areas. Following decades of urban terrorism, however, life retreated from the inner city into the suburbs, essentially off the old map.
Unlike other urban centers which have seen people priced out of the city center, Sri Lankan urbanites were bombed and terrorized out, then kept out by military personnel for their own good. Formerly industrial urban warehouses have been converted into high end residences and shops in cities like New York and Montreal, but in Colombo they remain largely unoccupied.
Within a generation, however, this perception of the city should change. Children will grow up without the security restrictions and they will consider the city center to be their rightful domain. The Warehouse Project is harnessing the generative knowledge of children by taking a diverse group of 10-18 year olds on a cultural tour of the city and then creating art based on how they perceive the city.
In an established city like Mumbai or Bangkok this would be a merely interesting venture, but it has more significance in Colombo because this children will be creating a perception which does not currently exist. Rather than perceiving the city as it is they will also be reinventing it as it will be.
Reviving the arts
The Warehouse Project is also hosting monthly theatre workshops and a theatre competition in September and October. The workshop is open to children and young adults from all backgrounds and the first will be held this August 28th.
Theatre in Colombo has somewhat fractured. The Wendt was a cultural center but it lost some of its creative energy and became more of a space. Then a new one-way system was introduced making parking difficult and making it more expensive for small troupes to stage plays. While the Sinhala language theatre diversified and occupied different spaces, English theatre became more about slickly marketed productions which – while they packed the seats – saw many people walking out halfway in boredom and disgust.
As one project to bring new blood into theatre, the Mind Adventures Theatre Company is using the Warehouse space to host a theatre competion. Teams of four from anywhere can sign up and compete over six weeks in a series of improvisational theatre nights.
At the same time, the Wendt and other venues are reviving their productions as the parking, travel and general freedom situations improve. Hopefully soon the ‘liberation’ of the whole country will prompt a new generation to free their minds.
What all these endeavors have in common is space, specifically, common space. Sri Lanka’s commons have been greatly restricted by war and activity has often been restricted to those who have money to control private property. The Warehouse Project is different because it is opening up private property for public use in a conscientious way that bridges social strata. At the moment it remains, like the city, largely empty, but it and the city look poised for creative change.