Geoffrey Bawa: A century of excellence | Daily News

Geoffrey Bawa: A century of excellence


The Guardian called his work “a new, vital—and yet essentially Sri Lankan—architecture.” Only one man could win that accolade during the last 100 years – Vidya Jothi Deshamanya Geoffrey Manning Bawa, whose 100th birth anniversary falls today.

Born on July 23, 1919, Bawa was an influential figure in global architecture who spread Sri Lanka’s name far and wide. Bawa was a late developer in terms of architecture – he initially studied and practised law in England and then switched to architecture earning his spurs from the Architectural Association only at age 38 in 1957. When he returned home, Bawa became a partner at Edwards, Reid, and Begg, and took over the practice shortly thereafter.

Known as a proponent of Tropical Modernism, a design movement in which sensitivity for local context combines with the form-making principles of modernism, Aga Kahn Award Winner Geoffrey Bawa encapsulated the very best of Sri Lankan elements in his work here and abroad. His work evoked the pleasures of the senses that go hand in hand with the climate, landscape, and culture of ancient Sri Lanka. His use of traditional building materials and architectural elements adapted to the local climate proved to be useful, as it helped keep costs down in addition to referencing local context.

Crown jewel of Bawa’s work

His purchase of the Lunuganga rubber plantation near Bentota in 1948 marked a turning point in his career, as he began to incorporate natural and local elements in all his designs. Lunuganga, where his ashes were scattered after his death in 2003, has become an attraction in itself for architecture and garden design buffs from around the world. Visitors cannot also miss the nearby “Brief” garden, designed by Geoffrey’s irrepressible elder brother Bevis, himself one of the country’s leading landscape architects. The house and the gardens immediately arouse curiosity in the visitor. It is perhaps evocative of the two brothers’ minimalist approach. Bawa’s biggest project is the Parliament of Sri Lanka building (opened in 1982), built on an island in the middle of Diyawanna Oya. There really is no other Parliament building like this anywhere in the world.

According to World Architecture Community, “the Parliament is an asymmetric group of colonnaded pavilions with striking copper roofs ‘floating’ on a man-made lake. Bawa has used a modernist framework to support indigenous components of past architecture and produced a building of great beauty and harmony. This is Bawa’s most symbolic work, conceptualized as movements through spaces, resulting in the asymmetrical configuration. It is also perhaps the only project where he has allowed form to override the priority of landscape”.

While this can be described as the crown jewel of Bawa’s work (along with perhaps the Kandalama Hotel), we have to rewind to 1960, to the house he designed for renowned artiste Ena de Silva (daughter of Sir Richard Aluwihare, the first Ceylonese Inspector General of Police) in Colombo, to begin Bawa’s journey. It was a chance encounter between Bevis and Ena that resulted in this work. It was Bevis who suggested that Ena should hire his brother as the architect for their new house. The rest, as they say, is history.

This was the first house in Colombo to fuse elements of traditional Sinhalese domestic architecture with modern concepts of open planning, demonstrating that an outdoor life is viable on a tight urban plot. He later incorporated many of these elements in to his own house in Colombo. And the house did not have even a single pane of glass. Ena’s house has now become one of the most famous private houses in the world, not least because it was later saved from irreversible demolition and rebuilt elsewhere. That is a separate story in itself. (Ena herself would be involved with Bawa on the Parliament project much later, designing some of the indigenous motifs that adorn the Chamber).

As Bawa’s reputation spread, he got many more contracts which he used to show his creativity and talent. His design for the University of Ruhuna (1988) has few parallels. Bawa’s design deployed over fifty separate pavilions linked by a system of covered loggias on a predominantly orthogonal grid and used a limited vocabulary of forms and materials borrowed from the building traditions of the late Medieval Period. It exploited the changing topography of the site to create an ever varying sequence of courts and verandahs, vistas and closures. These design elements have since been duplicated at similar sites.

But the controversial Kandalama Hotel took the cake for his passion for infusing nature and man-made structures. While there was a barrage of criticism that the hotel project would endanger the environment, none of it came true after it was constructed. Ironically, the very people who made a huge din over the project can now be seen sipping cocktails in the hotel’s restaurants. Here is a building that is completely in harmony with the surrounding environs – guests must get used to seeing all sorts of creatures lurking in the outer structures. In fact, some visitors say it resembles an abandoned building overrun with vegetation from afar, until you enter the vast lobby. But that his intention all along – build the hotel into the mountainside and let the vegetation take over the interior. The one-kilometre long Bawa masterpiece has become a destination in itself, even though Sigiriya and Dambulla are nearby.

He also designed the Blue Water Hotel in Wadduwa, where water is a dominant theme. The Blue Water another example of Bawa’s minimalist style. His use of space, lengthy corridors, open views, use of water, terracotta tiles and frangipani trees make this location another icon in his repertoire. He also designed the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, which too makes great use of the oceanfront location. All three hotels are low-rise – Bawa was not a fan of the high rise and navigation is easy, even if rains outside. Posthumously, the Anantara Kalutara Resort was completed according to one of his designs in 2016.

Among the other buildings he designed in Sri Lanka are: S. Thomas Prep, Colombo, Bishop’s College, Colombo, Bentota beach Hotel, Bentota Railway Station (whose windows seem to be straight out of a train), Serendib Hotel, Seema Malaka at Gangaramaya, Colombo, State Mortgage and Investment Bank, Club Villa Hotel, Bentota, Heritance Ahungalla and a good number of private houses including that of Pieter Keuneman. He also designed a number of buildings and structures in India, Indonesia, Singapore, Mauritius, Panama, Egypt, Fiji and Maldives, though his envisaged UN building project there has not yet been built. One cannot forget his artistically designed former office in Colombo, which now houses the Paradise Road/Gallery Café following a conversion by Udayashanth Fernando, which was approved by Bawa himself.

Although primarily an exterior architect, Bawa did have a passion for interior design – it is known that he had a special place in his heart for staircases, perhaps the least admired part of any building. He took care to ensure that no two staircases designed by him looked alike. He also worked closely with local and foreign interior designers, artists and painters and building safety experts.

Passion for travel

Apart from architecture, Geoffrey Bawa had a few other passions, most of which were shared by Bevis. He was an avid traveller who had explored virtually every continent. He found himself in Venice and Budapest at the start of the Second World War. He travelled across the United States, Europe, India, Indonesia, China and Japan. He sometimes did travel purely for business (architectural projects), but most of his trips were adventures that he used to learn more about the world. He was fascinated by some of the buildings and structures he saw in his travels and did not hesitate to admire the work of fellow architects or designers. There are reports to the effect that he almost settled down in Italy, but life somehow gave him a special place in Sri Lanka. He did not travel abroad after a trip to South Africa in 1997 and spent the rest of his life in the land he always loved, the one he would always return to.

He also had a penchant for luxury goods (some of which were picked up during his overseas travels) and luxury cars. He had a few exquisitely-designed cigarette lighters and Swiss chronometers. In later years, he sported ivory-tipped walking sticks which blended seamlessly with hands that sported a gold ring or chain, apart from his selected watch for the day. Legend has it that one of his walking sticks was a hand-me-down from the Bishop of Mumbai.

The two brothers had a crowded garage. Among their collection were several Rolls-Royces, including a Silver Ghost and a Silver Shadow from the early 1920s. Geoffrey used a 1922 Rolls-Royce 20 HP during his travels and work in India, which he later brought down to Sri Lanka. Another one of his favourites was a 1934 Rolls-Royce Drophead Coupe which he purchased in England. He was seen around London in this gorgeous car, which he used to drive as far as Rome. Incidentally, it was in this car that he drove to the State Opening of the new Parliament building in 1982. Perhaps the only other car that could match it in terms of grace and performance was the official Daimler limo used by President J.R. Jayewardene himself. Geoffrey Bawa also owned a number of Mercedes-Benz cars, including a rare 300 Adenauer limousine and an absolutely smashing 280SL.

For all his affinity for luxury, Geoffrey Bawa was a remarkably simple man, which was also reflected in his dress. His favourite workwear was the long shirt with multiple pockets. When a more formal attire was called for, he wore a coat and a pair of light-coloured trousers.

The two brothers were very close and shared a lifelong passion for good design and architecture. They indeed had a lot of things in common. When Bevis passed away at age 84 in 1992, Geoffrey lost his closest friend, mentor and yes, a part of his life. Geoffrey would follow suit just 11 years later.

Geoffrey Bawa’s legacy will live on in the buildings he has designed. Every time we stand in amazement at the sight of the Kandalama Hotel or wonder at the undulating movement of water at the Blue Water, Bawa’s creative genius will spring to mind. Bawa’s departure was a major loss to architecture, but he mentored many others who have since taken on the mantle and become renowned architects in their own right.

The respected website ArchNet had this to say when he passed away: “The intense devotion he brings to composing his architecture in an intimate relationship with nature is witnessed by his attention to landscape and vegetation, the crucial setting for his architecture. His sensitivity to environment is reflected in his careful attention to the sequencing of space, the creation of vistas, courtyards, and walkways, the use of materials and treatment of details. Bawa has exerted a defining influence on the emerging architecture of independent Sri Lanka and on successive generations of younger architects. His ideas have spread across the island, providing a bridge between the past and the future, a mirror in which people can obtain a clearer image of their own evolving culture.” 

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