Words by Avisha De Saram
Geoffrey Bawa is undoubtedly Sri Lanka’s most inspiring and influential 20th century architect. His work is a synergy between flawless architecture and a deep intimacy with nature. Like an author, Bawa concerned himself with context and his innate sensitivity towards the environment is easily perceived in careful attention to the sequencing of space, the creation of vistas, tropical courtyards and the use of materials and how he chose to treat them.
Geoffrey Bawa’s family background neatly reflects the ethnic and cultural diversity of his native Sri Lanka. A Dutch Burgher of mixed European and Sinhalese descent, Bawa set off to England in 1938 with aspirations to follow in the footsteps of his father and practice law. After the Second World War he returned to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, and worked for a time in a Colombo law firm. Ceylon was wriggling free from the shackles of the British Empire and like so many of the ‘people-in-between’, he was confronted with the dilemma of identity. Soon tiring of the legal profession, he disposed of his inheritance and set off on a year of travel, which took him through the Far East, across the United States and eventually to Europe.
At the beginning of 1948 he came to a temporary halt in Italy where, utterly seduced by its Renaissance gardens, he resolved to buy a villa overlooking Lake Garda. His plans were eventually thwarted and Geoffrey instead returned to Ceylon where he bought Lunuganga, a derelict rubber estate lying a few miles inland from the island’s southwestern sea shore. Bawa was determined to turn Lunuganga into a tropical reflection of the Italian gardens that had inspired him. Bawa drew personal parallel with newly independent Ceylon and embarked on a serendipitous journey, which would lead him eventually to become Sri Lanka’s most prolific and influential architect.
Although the Lunuganga garden project fired his imagination, it exposed his lack of technical knowledge and in 1951 he began a trial apprenticeship with H.H. Reid, the sole surviving partner of the famed Colombo architectural firm of Edwards, Reid and Begg. A year later, following Reid’s sudden death, Bawa decided that he would return to Britain once more, but this time, to study architecture.
In 1957 at the age of 38, Bawa returned to Ceylon, to begin a new chapter as a qualified architect. Immersing himself in his work, Bawa came to appreciate that for more than a century; Sri Lankan domestic architecture had been heavily influenced by British taste. The typical British ‘bungalow’ was a pavilion on one or two floors, extrovert in concept and typically located at the center of a large garden plot. However the population of Sri Lanka was growing and Colombo was rapidly evolving from a lush Garden City into an Asian urban metropolis. Bawa deconstructed the colonial bungalow and rearranged its constituent parts in such a way as to create semi-enclosed spaces, marking a turning point in the local architectural landscape.
“When you look at the better examples of what remains to us of these earlier buildings, you will find that they all look at life in Ceylon squarely in the face. They look at the rain, at the termites, at the social needs, at the view to be had from verandahs and windows, at the needs of life at the time…” Geoffrey Bawa, The Times of Ceylon Annual, 1968
Bawa’s blooming reputation was recognized in 1979, when he was invited by President Jayawardene to prepare designs for a new parliament to be built at Kotte, about eight kilometers to the east of Colombo. Having flown over the site at inception, Bawa came up with a radical proposal; the marshy valley would be flooded to create a lake of 120 hectares and the new complex would be built on a knoll of high ground, an island, at the lake’s center. The new Parliament building was unearthed as an asymmetric composition. Its cascade of copper roofs could be seen as far as two kilometers away, floating above the new lake at the end of the Diyavanna valley. A combination of traditional Sri Lankan and South Indian architecture was incorporated within a Modernist framework to present a powerful new image of democracy, cultural harmony and progress, all with a sense of understated monumentality.
During the 1980s Bawa also designed the Ruhunu University near Matara, a project that allowed him to demonstrate his mastery of external space and was a lesson in how to integrate buildings within natural landscape. The result was a network of pavilions and courtyards, placed with casual clarity and evoked a sense of theatre across a pair of rocky hills overlooking the Indian Ocean. These two projects brought Bawa international recognition at the time and Bawa was fast becoming Sri Lanka’s most famous architect. As he began laying down a canon of prototypes for buildings in a tropical Asian context, his attention to landscape and vegetation were becoming his signature and the very foundation for his design.
Some of these ideas took seed in three hotels built in Sri Lanka in the 1990s: the Kandalama, conceived as a non-indulgent jungle palace, snaking around a rocky outcrop; the Lighthouse at Galle, rising out of the rocky coastal panorama; and the Blue Water, a cool and calm pavilion set within an idyllic coconut grove on a stretch of untouched beach at the edge of Colombo. All three demonstrate Bawa’s intuition to “consult the genius of the place in all.” During this time, Bawa found himself having less time to spare for the smaller, more intimate projects he held so dear, but when a favorite client from the early 1960s requested a second house for her daughter, he created a monolithic tower slotted within the branches of a huge Bo Tree in a corner of the original family garden. With its strong geometric design, the Martenstyn House, as it was named, signaled a rekindling of his fascination with Modernism and gave way to a new chapter in Bawa’s repertoire.
Holding the key to a greater understanding of Bawa’s design aesthetic is his own garden at Lunuganga, fashioned from the abandoned rubber estate he fell in love with all those years ago. This labour of love occupied Bawa for fifty years and he fondly referred to it as a testing ground for his emerging ideas. Lunuganga is a distant retreat, an outpost on the edge of urbanized Colombo, paying spectacular homage to the greater garden that is Sri Lanka. A series of outdoor rooms evoke memories of Sacro Bosco and Stourhead, conceived with an exquisite sense of quiet drama. The town house on Bagatalle Road in the heart of Colombo, in contrast, is an introspective assembly of courtyards, verandas and loggias, created by piecing together four tiny bungalows and a white entry tower that peers like a curious neighbor across rooftops toward the distant ocean. It is a haven of peace, a tranquil garden of the mind, locked away within a bustling and increasingly hostile cityscape.
In 1998 Bawa was tragically struck down by a debilitating stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. A small group of colleagues, led by Channa Daswatte, have continued to work on projects he initiated, embracing the importance of his work. His architecture is a subtle blend of modernity and tradition, of Eastern and Western influences. Both formal and picturesque; he blurred general consensus of what was considered to be indoor and outdoor, the building and the surrounding landscape. Extracting just what he required from tradition, Bawa created architecture that was symbiotic with nature, that translated into something new and exciting but intrinsically Sri Lankan. His ideas have spread across the island, providing a bridge between the past and the future, a reflection in which ordinary people can perceive a clearer image of their own evolving culture.
Geoffrey Bawa is now regarded as having been one of the most important and influential Asian architects of the twentieth century. His work has had tremendous impact not only on generations of local architects that succeed him, but also upon architecture throughout Asia and is unanimously acclaimed by connoisseurs of architecture worldwide. His international standing was finally confirmed in 2001 when he received the special chairman’s award in the eighth cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. In Sri Lanka his imprint is everywhere, from Montessori schools, farm orphanages, convents, universities, factories, hotels, parliament buildings and private homes. His public work spanned 40 years until he succumbed to his stroke in 2003. Just as any good gardener would do, Geoffrey Bawa planted seeds all over this tropical island and we are truly privileged as we continue to watch them bloom.
Lunuganga Estate was the country home of the renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. The garden at Lunuganga remained his true muse and occupied him for over 50 years as he pruned and plucked away at his masterpiece. Left to the Lunuganga Trust, the gardens are now open to the public from 9am to 5pm daily with an entrance fee payable at the gate. A guided tour of the garden is available on request and the fabulous buildings on the estate are run as a country house hotel.
With five glorious suites and one en suite-on request all rooms pay homage to the lifetime of the architect and are decorated with an eclectic mixture of original antiques with contemporary and traditional artworks. In addition there are several rooms and garden pavilions for relaxation and we highly recommended it as a must visit when you arrive in Sri Lanka.