Being Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo is known for its many shopping malls. From the ocean front One Galle Face to the classic Liberty Plaza, Colombo’s malls are not just big concrete hunks with shops and showrooms; they make up a very essential part of the city’s culture.
Growing up in Kandy, I remember trips to Majestic City visiting our cousins in Colombo. Kandy didn’t have much of consumerism in the early 2000s, and it was a treat going to the MC to play in the basement arcade. That all changed when Kandy started to transform into a mini-Colombo since the 2010s.
But ask anybody from the right generation who lived outside Colombo and they will fondly remember the day when they first stepped foot in Crescat, MC or Liberty.
However, the country’s first shopping mall is not the Liberty Plaza as many would recall. Although the Liberty continues to enjoy footfall thanks to its central location, Sri Lanka’s first ever mall is the elusive Bang Bang Building in Bankshall Street in Pettah.
The eleven-storey Bang Bang stretches opposite the razor wire crested, foreboding wall of the Colombo Port. Sadly, the shopping mall’s brutalist architecture is lost in Pettah’s concrete jungle.
The Bang Bang building, officially known as Capricorn Towers, was the first modern shopping mall in Sri Lanka. It was built in 1979 as an Urban Development Authority (UDA) – approved project and became fully operational by early 1983.
Before the property was taken up for development, the lot housed a Fire Brigade station. Designed as a shopping-cum-office complex, it boasted a raft foundation that could support 12 storeys, with the structure designed to accommodate a revolving restaurant on the top floor.
The building featured a basement, car park, four floors with 15,000 square feet each, and provisions for additional floors. It had central airconditioning and originally planned to be 11 floors with a capacity of around 100 shops.
The project was conceived by Nazir Hussein Ghany, inspired by his business trips to Asia and grand buildings he saw there. It garnered support from Government officials and was considered a phenomenal undertaking for the era.
In the early 1980s, Bang Bang’s advertisements on television were associated with the soundtrack of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ referencing the musical and its iconic flying car.
For those who visited the mall, it was like stepping into another world. The sleek black and yellow escalator, a novelty at the time, stood out in the central floor area. Bang Bang provided a unique shopping experience under one roof, offering air-conditioned comfort, unlike traditional marketplaces in Pettah and elsewhere. It featured numerous shops, including toy stores, bookshops, an ice cream parlour, and a game arcade.
However, the building’s fortunes took a downturn due to mismanagement and the adverse business climate following the July 1983 riots and subsequent thirty-year war.
Tenants began to move out, and over the course of a couple of decades, the once-grand building deteriorated, losing its former glory both in terms of exterior appearance and interior atmosphere.
This writer didn’t have to look far for details about Bang Bang’s heyday. Sunday Observer journalist and Leon Berenger said it was only the Bang Bang mall and Hameedias that had the best imported clothes in Sri Lanka in the early 80s. “The place was packed during Christmas times,” he recalls.
What remains now are the few showrooms in Bang Bang’s ground floor and mostly intact parking lot. There is just one solitary security guard posted by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) in the foyer. The huge double doors that welcomed hundreds of Christmas shoppers three decades ago are now blanketed with a thick layer of dust and grime. The stairs leading to the entrance are littered with trash and is a regular haunt for the homeless.
The converted foyer, with its security post, leads to a decrepit stairwell lit by a flickering tube light. We climbed a jagged stairwell, decorated with exposed electric wires and peeling plaster walls trickling with rainwater.
On the second floor, you are greeted with a spray painted arrow showing you where to go. The abandoned shopping centre is dark except for little beams of sunlight shining through exposed vents and uncovered windows. Everything is caked with dust and there are dozens of trash piles everywhere. Then you notice the broken escalator riddled with trash and all around you there are unoccupied shops bolted with huge pad locks. Almost all the shops have been served with CMC notices. “Sealed due to non-payment of rent owed to Colombo Municipal Council; this premises shouldn’t be opened without permission – signed Municipal Commissioner” one signed read.
We took two more flights of stairs upstairs but the security advised us not to take photographs of the Port side due to security reasons. The rooftop was overgrown with moss, shrubs and short trees. What remains of the original structure are exposed brick walls and a tangle forest of rusted rebar rising up from chipped concrete columns. A slowly decaying cooling tower perched on the building’s south side. The concrete slab is cratered with huge puddles of sludge.
A local hang around who wanted to remain anonymous gave a little tour around the block and provided this writer with gossip associated with the Bang Bang building. He said that drug fiends frequent the building to scavenge for rebar, wire, pipes and basically whatever they can get their hands on to fix their addiction.
“Certain sections of this building are used like storehouses by local businesses”. He points to the South side of the building and says that the section had been made into lodging for migrant workers. “I don’t know how anybody can live there. The building is falling apart,” he said. “Do you have any ghost sightings here?” we ask to which he laughs and shakes his head “No.”
There is some construction work going on adjacent to the building, near the entrance to the Port. “The boring machine is making things worse,” a parking attendant told this writer, claiming that the heavy construction equipment is literally shaking the building loose.
Most of the shopkeepers were reluctant to share their opinions, claiming that their businesses are new and knew less of the building’s history. However, one business owner said that the tenants and shopkeepers pay their dues to the CMC and there’s not much trouble as they fully cooperate with the Municipal authorities. “Sure the rooftop is overgrown and there are structural damages, but we inform the CMC about these things and they sends a cleanup crew from time to time,” he says adding that the only problem with Bang Bang right now are tenants who don’t pay their rent on time and those who dump their garbage on the upper floors.
Colombo Municipal Council Treasurer Shiroma Nandani said that the land was given on a long term lease to Bang Bang’s original owner, but was repossessed by the CMC . “I recall the property was repossessed somewhere in 2012 or 2013. The tenants then continued paying their rents to the Municipality”. She said.
We asked her on the structural integrity of the building. “I’m not an expert on engineering, but I think the columns supporting the building are strong enough by the look of it. Any doubts about the building’s condition should be cleared by a NBRO (National Building Research Organisation) report,” Nandani said, but conceded that the building needs renovating.
“Most of the lodgers and tenants pay on time,” she said.
We contacted the NBRO and they said that they had sent a team with a CMC engineer on a previous occasion, but further assessment required the building’s blue prints which the Municipality is yet to provide.
A matter of concern
The Bang Bang building, Sri Lanka’s first shopping mall, stands today as a fading relic of its glorious past. Its history, from its grand opening in the early 1980s to its gradual decline over the decades, reflects the changing fortunes of Colombo and the challenges faced by businesses and tenants within.
The Bang Bang Building’s structural integrity remains a matter of concern, and while opinions on its current state differ, it is clear that it is in need of renovation and restoration. The building’s original purpose as a thriving shopping destination, offering a unique shopping experience under one roof, has been lost to time and neglect.
However, amid the decay and disrepair, there are still tenants and businesses struggling to survive within its walls. They pay their dues and cooperate with authorities as best they can. These businesses are not just economic entities; they are part of the city’s history and culture.
To protect these businesses and restore the Bang Bang building to its former glory, concerted efforts are required. The authorities, including the CMC and the NBRO, must work together to assess the building’s structural integrity, provide necessary blueprints, and develop a plan for renovation. Preserving the Bang Bang building isn’t just about safeguarding a piece of architectural history; it’s about supporting the businesses that call it home and revitalising a part of Colombo’s heritage.
The building’s potential, once fully restored, could once again offer a unique shopping experience that pays homage to its past while embracing the needs and aspirations of the present.
In a city known for its vibrant culture and history, the Bang Bang building should not be allowed to fade into obscurity. It’s time to rekindle the spirit of this iconic shopping mall and ensure that it continues to be an essential part of Colombo’s landscape for generations to come.