Geoffrey Bawa – Explore the Best of Sri Lankan Architecture
There is only one modern architect who has indelibly stamped his mark and authority on Sri Lankan architecture, and who remains a benchmark of quality against which all succeeding architects are measured.
That towering figure is none other than Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003). Yet surprisingly he only became an architect at the age of 38, beginning at the latter part of the 50s and continuing until his stroke in 1998. He may be best known for the extraordinarily luxurious private houses and hotels, but his portfolio also includes a number of public housing projects, schools, universities, churches, factories and of course the Sri Lankan parliament.
Since his death Bawa’s reputation has dramatically grown, both through the activities of the admirable Geoffrey Bawa Trust, and also by scholarly monographs on his output. David Robson – Bawa’s official biographer and friend – is the undisputed expert on the great man. His latest book – In Search of Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka – beautifully photographed by Sebastian Posingis, is a valuable and timely survey of those buildings that have thankfully survived the many ongoing despoliations, as well as a clarion call to rescue those that are at risk before it is too late.
Historians typically like to tell the story of architecture through a succession of styles. In Bawa’s case, he is universally identified as the driving force behind ‘Tropical Modernism’. In fact Bawa defies classification, as his many projects ranged a number of styles from Tropical Modernism to Contemporary Vernacular, and from Minimalism and Brutalism to Late and Regional Modernism – on which he was ahead of the curve.
Jayawardene House, Mirissa, 1997
Perched atop cliffs overlooking Welligama Bay, this is the last house that Bawa built. Now a boutique hotel and transformed beyond recognition, the original house was designed with elegant restraint. It had consisted of a large open-sided veranda below a steel canopy with an exposed raised floor to the rear. “It was as if Bawa had worked for 40 years to distil the tropical house to its bare essentials – an umbrella roof floating in a copse of casuarinas and coconut palms.”
“Bawa is not a style.” Robson explains, “During a career that spanned over 40 years he refused to be straight-jacketed, never confining himself to one architectural language and always refusing to become a prisoner of his own success. He had a consistent approach to design and a determination to treat each project as a unique problem requiring a unique solution. Every design was for him an experiment and he never repeated himself.”
The Blue Water Hotel, Wadduwa, 1996
Although Bawa designed many hotels this – The Blue Water Hotel – is the closest to the capital Colombo and was his last resort. Located within a coconut grove on the edge of the ocean, this huge hotel “was conceived as a vast suburban palazzo”. With its long corridors and muted palette it is decidedly minimalist in design. The hotel was recently extended with new buildings designed by Bawa’s associate Channa Daswatte.
Even as an older student at London’s Architectural Association, Bawa was never swayed by fads, fashions and ideology – not least by the Modernists who wanted to turn their backs on history.
Bawa’s architecture was sophisticated, balanced, rooted and sensitive to his moment in time and place:
Sensitive to history – the European tradition as well as the more recent colonial experience, and of course the indigenous heritage of the ancient kingdoms of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa; sensitive to the contemporary – gleaned both from his studies and his extensive travels; sensitive to the client’s needs – he famously grilled one of his clients for two long days; sensitive to the experience – his scenographic approach meant that he focused on the actual sensory experience of space; and also sensitive to the natural environment – it was after all partly his love of gardens and his ambitions for Lunuganaga that impelled him from a law career into architecture in the first place.
The Gallery Cafe, 4 Alfred House Gardens, 1961
Now a popular art gallery/cafe, this building was first built in 1961 for a client, and then subsequently acquired by Bawa for his architectural offices. Designed by Bawa as a series of pavilions separated by courtyards, the style borrows both from traditional Sinhalese and also Dutch colonial traditions. “The design incorporates a number of Bawa’s characteristic innovations: turned timber columns with granite bases and capitals; roofs formed from half-round clay tiles laid on corrugated cement sheets; projecting windows with lattice shutters.”
Bawa’s principled approach to architecture was ‘sustainable’ long before the term was even coined. Furthermore, blurring the boundaries between `inside’ and ‘outside’ may be cliche and commonplace today, but Bawa was doing this (for both living and work spaces) at a time when it was not even fashionable to do so.
The New Sri Lanka Parliament, Kotte, 1979-82
Bawa was commissioned to design the new parliament by President Jayawardene in 1979 at Kotte some eight kilometres east of Colombo. The new capital city that it was hoped would emerge around it never materialised. Bawa’s design was based on earlier detailed proposals that he had made for a new parliament to replace the British neo-classical building. Positioned on an island within an artificial lake on drained marshland, the building was a masterpiece of design. Bawa’s parliament design was however criticised for being more weighted towards Buddhist Sinhalese traditions and ignoring other minorities.
But Bawa also characteristically blurred the boundaries between East and West, and between old and new. The end result was a unique architectural oeuvre that was fluid, human, painterly and above all timeless. His is a legacy that will continue to influence, educate and inspire architects across the world for many generations to come.
The New Sri Lanka Parliament, Kotte, 1979-82
The main chamber with its palm frond chandelier and silver korale flags that line the galleries.
Robson’s book ‘In Search of Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka‘ is an updated addition to his scholarly work ‘Bawa The Complete Works‘ (2002). Arranged geographically around a series of circuits – it will undoubtedly inspire you to go see them for yourself. Bawa was always rather reticent on the subject of his own buildings, urging people to experience them themselves.
“However much one tries to explain architecture in words,” he once said, “I do not think this is possible as it is only the final built object that can be judged, understood and liked or disliked” – and since the recent end of the civil war, many now do explore the best of Sri Lankan Architecture.
The Sunethra Bandaranaike House, Horagolla, 1984-86
Bawa remodelled the grand stables with restraint over four years in the 80s with his assistant Philip Fowler into a double height living space. A timber mezzanine and exposed beams are the main detailing in an otherwise minimalist interior. The two side pavilions house the main bedrooms and library, but the main life of the house takes place in the enclosed gardens and their verandas. Another wing was added to the stables in ‘L’ shape to create dining, kitchen and staff quarters. “Bawa treated an ancient building with respect, adding a new chapter to its unfolding story, and created an elegant pleasure pavilion for a cherished friend.”
Quite a few of Bawa’s surviving public buildings may be visited and even stayed at – not just the hotels he designed, but also his house in Colombo or the magical Lunuganaga. At a time when architectural tours are becoming increasingly popular – with more than 63% of tourists citing architecture as the motivation for their trip – Bawa ‘pilgrimage site’ tours of Sri Lanka are appealing to a wide demographic of international hardcore fans – not just architects and garden historians. Bawa’s impact on succeeding generations of younger Sri Lankan architects has been considerable, and it is certainly possible to speak of a Bawa School. But he has also joined that great pantheon of the greatest creators of mankind and will continue to inspire the world over.
The Jayakody House, Park Street, Colombo, 1991-96
This romantic three level residence sits on an unusual plot and has a myriad of fascinating features. There are a number of courtyards at different levels, roof terrace, elegant raised loggia and a bird-cage tower housing a spiral staircase. “The project took several years to build and for a time Bawa lost interest in it. Having provided the original sketch design, he delegated its execution to his friend Milroy Perera and only intervened again when it was nearing completion.”
David Robson is an architect, academic and writer who was a personal friend of Geoffrey Bawa. He is Bawa’s official biographer, having published three books — BAWA: The Complete Works (2003), Beyond Bawa (2005) and Bawa: The Sri Lankan Gardens (2009). During a long and illustrious career, David has contributed to many academic journals and books.
Steel Corporation Offices and Housing, Oruwela, 1966-69
Sadly this beautiful three story office building that projects onto the reservoir, is now abandoned and at risk. The facade is made up of pre-cast concrete cells only some of which are glazed. Consequently the tall-ceilinged interiors are cool and full of light. “Seen from the reservoir bund the building looks like an elegant Mississippi River boat moored to the shore.”
Sebastian Posingis spent much of his childhood in Sri Lanka and India and gained a degree in anthropology from the University of Canterbury in the UK before turning to his first love as an architectural photographer. His clients have included the Four Seasons hotel group, Waldorf Astoria and Conrad Hotels & Resorts. His work has also appeared in Der Spiegel, New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Geo Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Condé Nast Traveller and Vanity Fair.
Geoffrey Bawa’s Town House, 11, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, 1962-68
Bawa initially rented the third of a row of four small bungalows that he eventually took over in its entirety and redesigned. He replaced one bungalow with an outward looking Corbusian tower or “periscope” that had a sitting room, loggia and roof garden. Part of the building eventually became a home-office where he produced the extraordinary work of his final decade. “In its final form the house functioned as a space laboratory where Bawa could experiment with lighting effects, induced ventilation and tricks of scenography.”
IN SEARCH OF BAWA: MASTER ARCHITECT OF SRI LANKA
by David Robson
published by Laurence King,
Photography supplied courtesy of Laurence King Publishing
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