One World Foundation: A Social Sculpture | Sunday Observer
“Travel broadens the mind in two ways”

One World Foundation: A Social Sculpture

4 December, 2022

In the town of Ahungalla, a two-hour rail journey to the South of Colombo, in a beautiful plot of land facing the Southern golden beach, there is One World Foundation (OWF), a school dedicated to free education supported by Bogenvillya, a guesthouse and a centre for modern art and literature.

The brainchild of this amazing concept of One World Foundation is Kathrin Messner’s and her husband Joseph Ortner’s who died quite unexpectedly in 2009. In the winter of 1983, Kathrin, Joseph and their daughter Xiane came to Sri Lanka for the first time, searching for a second home which could offer them new experiences to add to their lives in Vienna and their work in the field of international contemporary art.

Although they had originally wanted to head for California and had arrived here in Sri Lanka more or less by chance, they felt a spontaneous sense of connection with the island and its people. “Although it was the first time we travelled in Sri Lanka, we immediately fell in love with the country as we felt it’s a greenery heaven at the very first sight,” speaking to the Sunday Observer Kathrin recalled her very first experience with Sri Lanka. They decided to invest a moderate sum in a small piece of land and made a building that they conceived as a place for meeting artists from among their circle of friends.

Free Education Unit

Kathrin Messner

As they then travelled around and met young people who could hardly speak English, they developed the idea of establishing a school which could offer some of this generation an opportunity of learning the language of the former colonial power as a means of enabling them to make a free and liberated contribution to the cultural and economic development of their country.

Kathrin bought a detached house on the site next to today’s Bogenvillya and converted the living space into two classrooms. On August 27, 1995, they opened a school with two teachers and around 100 pupils. From the beginning, the campus has been open to everyone who had the enthusiasm to learn English and free for the pupils, most of whom come from the immediate neighbourhood although some are prepared to travel long distances to be able to learn at the OWF.

“After gaining independence from the British rule, Sri Lanka’s post-colonial generations tried to suppress as much as possible all memories of foreign rule with the effect that even the English language, once spoken by a significant proportion of the population was removed from the curriculum. As a result, the island largely lost its capability to communicate abroad and become increasingly isolated. That was one of the key reasons as the founders of OWF we were keen to teach English as a foreign language at an early age,” Kathrin said.

From the start, One World Foundation was guided more by Katherin’s and Joseph’s intuition than by any strategic concept. As Europeans they wanted to express their notion that they all live in the same world and they decided to establish a simple closed loop which would establish a clear relationship between their two spheres: the rental income from a guesthouse should finance the running of a free school.

Using the motto “travel broadens the mind in two ways” they sought out people in their circle who enjoyed travel and wanted to relax and they were lucky to have a positive response. Despite the various challenges posed by the cultural, climatic and political environment in Sri Lanka, they constantly improved their offering and used the growing income to expand the school.

Even if the commitment to contemporary art represented by their Vienna-based arts association ‘museum in progress’ remains quite separate from the Sri Lankan social project in terms of both content and organisation, both initiatives were, and remain, inspired by the same position: Their desire to make things happen and their trust in the partners with whom they work. This prerequisite for all their activity informs both their cooperation with local forces and their relationship with those friends and organisations that inspire this project with their ideas and enhance it with their hard work.

In the 25 years since it was started, the free education unit of OWF has experienced continuous annual growth of around 14 percent in the number of students and pupils, which represents an increase from an initial 100 to almost 1,500 in the number of young people. The free education unit is consisted with education and training up to level 4 of the National Vocational Qualification (NVQ). OWF’s next aim is to obtain certification for Level 5 – Diploma level for future supervisors.

Unique architecture

The unique architecture in One World Foundation provides the framework for its activities and encounters. The first building was designed by late Joseph Ortner, the co-founder of One World Foundation, who set out to originally combine a modern European aesthetic with the surrounding nature and the possibilities offered by local craftspeople.

In this regard, he found a partner in the architect Carl Pruscha who designed the lagoon bungalows, the palm grove bungalows and the school campus in Ahungalla – who was as congenial as he was combative. Work on the most recent building, the Araliya bungalow, was completed in the same spirit in partnership with a representative of the contemporary Sri Lankan architecture scene, Varuna de Silva.

The interlocking of various spheres in Asia and Sri Lanka is expressed in two initiatives which add something very special to One World Foundation. Ever since they established an artists’ in-residence program together with the gallery owner Ursula Krinzinger and a writers’ in-residence program in cooperation with author Robert Menasse, artists and writers have been coming regularly to Bogenvillya to work. This artistic-intellectual exchange builds on their original intentions in the best possible way and is of incalculable value for all those involved.

The true value of the network that OWF and its guests had developed over the years became overwhelmingly clear in the wake of the tsunami of December 26, 2004, which destroyed virtually everything that they had created with a single wave.

“In the very midst of the chaos, we sensed a positive energy that gave us the courage to tackle the rebuilding. First of all, we decided to find an appropriate piece of land at a safe distance to the coast. The choice fell upon a wasteland just outside Ahungalla and opposite the railway station of the Colombo-Galle line which made it accessible both on foot from the village as well as by public transport from further away.

One World Foundation free education unit

Support from the municipality of Vienna enabled us to acquire this safe site and create a new school building designed by Carl Pruscha, a renowned architect from Vienna and very good friend of us,” Kathrin said.

In addition, countless donations from organisations and persons and the proceeds from an auction organised by artist Eva Schlegel supported the rebuilding of both the school in the form that it is today and of the guesthouse as a means of generating the income to continue financing the school.

“Even if much has changed in Sri Lanka during the course of the past 25 years and a middle class is gradually emerging to occupy the gap between the very rich and very poor segments of the population, most rural people continue to be highly influenced by religion and very close to nature.”

“Everyone here loves to see things grow and hence we experience the growing skills of our employees and their tireless commitment to this project with the same satisfaction as the sparkling eagerness to learn and the contagious joie de vivre (cheerful enjoyment of life) of our pupils.” Kathrin added.

Art and writer residencies

The One World Foundation promotes cultural exchange and mutual understanding across borders. As a meeting place and space for creative exchange, artists and writers are offered an inspiring place to stay and a suitable studio for their work. Here, in the Art and Residencies program, surrounded by palm forests, these creative people are given the opportunity to be inspired by encounters with both guests and locals.

Since 2009, Galerie Krinzinger has been running an Artist in Residence Program in cooperation with the One World Foundation. A studio was built in 2009 on the former school ground, where the school facilities of the One World Foundation had existed until the tsunami in 2004. The program was initiated in January 2010 and is now available as a workplace for the artists invited by the gallery.

Writer in Residence Program at OWF is sponsored by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture. The Curator is Robert Menasse. Authors who work on transnational and trans-cultural projects, or who are interested in telling about the one world we all share – but do not necessarily know – are invited to three-month stays to write and develop projects.

Shining OWF

Today, OWF employs around 40 teachers who educate over a thousand children and adults on its campus in Ahungalla. The guesthouse Bogenvillya accommodates 14 rooms spread among the six different buildings set in an extensive garden setting which is looked after by a staff of 30 and which also includes an Ayurveda unit which employs five trained healers.

One world Foundation is a framework that have created in which some things become possible and much more can happen. Many of written testimonies express their gratitude for all the efforts Kathrin Messner and following the death of Joseph Ortner are prepared to make for the children in Sri Lanka.

One World Foundation is a social sculpture which filled with life and substance by the contributions, the ideas, commitment and material support of all participants. But it is also shaped by opposition and by other factors which can neither foresee nor influence. “This is an adventure that we face everyday with enormous pleasure,” Kathrin said.