Distinctive Dutch architecture is revived in the Dutch Hospital, which is now a shopping precinct
Amidst the hustle and bustle of Fort, the business district of Colombo, lies an unassuming building nestled among the high rising towers in the vicinity. It seems out of place, but in a peculiar way more at home than the rest of the concrete structures around it. With its characteristic architecture, yellow walls and large timber doors and windows, the 17th Century Dutch Hospital has stood the test of time and has now been converted to a shopping precinct encompassing all that is truly Sri Lankan.
Words Udeshi Amarasinghe | Photography Menaka Aravinda and Prabath Chathuranga
Sri Lanka was once colonised by the Portuguese (1505-1656), Dutch (1656-1796) and finally, the British (1796-1948). The area that we call Fort today was actually the fortifications built by the Dutch after they captured Colombo from the Portuguese. Though the actual elements of the Fort have receded into the past, a few remnants are yet visible and the Dutch Hospital is one such element. Bordered by Bank Avenue from one end and Hospital Street on the other, walking into the Hospital surely takes you back through time. Looking at the drawings of the front and rear view of the Dutch Hospital done in 1771, by a Dutch artist thought to be Johannes Rach, the layout and structure of the building has remained the same. During the recent renovations of the Dutch Hospital, the Ministry of Defence and the Urban Development Authority, under the guidance of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have maintained its original structure and design. However, due to its current placing among the World Trade Centre and Bank of Ceylon, the entrance of the refurbished Hospital is actually the rear of the original structure, whereas the facade of the building, which faces Hospital Street is now the rear of the building. Confusion aside, the basic layout has remained the same, which is, the Hospital consists of five wings, with four connecting to form a square, with a large courtyard in the centre. And the fifth wing, which housed the chief surgeon's residence, pharmacy and apothecary's residence connects to the other four wings with a second smaller courtyard. The fifth wing of this simple layout is the only section that has a small first floor.
It is thought that the Dutch Hospital was built soon after the capture of Colombo by the Dutch, however, an exact date is not known but a description by Christopher Schweitzer, a German who was in Sri Lanka under the service of the Dutch from 1676-1682 suggests that the Hospital was already in place in 1681. Having stood at this very same location for more than three centuries, the Dutch Hospital has weathered the many storms that has come its way and has stood witness to the changes taking place around it.
Today, the Dutch Hospital has shed its original function and houses a shopping precinct. Wards that were once occupied by the sick and wounded are now colourful shops and restaurants. Characteristic of Dutch architecture are thick, massive walls and large teak beams and wooden doors and windows. These elements have been preserved even today and each restaurant and shop has acknowledged the core Dutch architectural and design influences in their simple but elegant interior decor. The Dutch Hospital currently offers 12 retail spaces to Sri Lankan made/based businesses.
Upon entering from the Bank Avenue side, one is first met by WIP (Work in Progress), an alfresco style restaurant managed by Hilton Colombo, and Semondu, run by SriLankan Catering. The large open central courtyard is furnished with minimalist concrete tables and cube stools that blend seamlessly with granite cobbled floors. Ministry of Crab, offering fresh and succulent seafood, Harpo's Colombo Fort Café with its contemporary fusion interior, Colombo Jewellery Stores, Heladiv Tea Club, Shilpa - national crafts and Odel Luv SL - colourful clothes and jewellery; face this central courtyard. Visitors not only dine and shop but they also relax with a good book and a cup of coffee or tea in the courtyard. Walking along the verandahs and corridors, with the traffic just a faint hum in the distance, you cannot help but forget that you are in Colombo and not on the streets of Amsterdam or Europe for that matter!
As lights are lit for the evening the Dutch Hospital exudes an aura of simplistic beauty.
Crossing the second smaller courtyard, brings you to the former facade of the Dutch Hospital, which now houses Barefoot - offering Sri Lankan handlooms, ornaments and much more. Also, The Brewery by O, the soothing aromas and therapies of Spa Ceylon - Grand Spa, and Nature's Secrets are located within this space. A few steps farther and you fall on to Hospital Street, which is a little narrow street that has not changed much with the passing years.
As lights are lit for the evening the Dutch Hospital exudes an aura of simplistic beauty. Regal and proud amidst its surroundings, the Dutch Hospital shopping precinct, provides a unique space for relaxation. Little did the Dutch know that the hospital they built in Colombo, would stand for three centuries and become a shopping zone with a difference.