Geoffrey Bawa

We have a marvellous tradition of building in this country that has got lost. It got lost because people followed outside influences over their own good instincts. They never built right “through” the landscape…You must “run” with the site; after all, you don’t want to push nature out with the building.

One of the twentieth century’s foremost Asian architects, Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003) was born to a wealthy family of Colombo Burghers boasting English, Dutch, German, Sinhalese and Scottish ancestors – a heady cocktail of cultures which mirrors the eclectic mix of European and local influences so apparent in his work.

Bawa spent a large proportion of his first forty years abroad, mainly in Europe. Having studied English at Cambridge and law in London, Bawa finally dragged himself back to Sri Lanka and followed his father and grandfather into the legal profession, though without much enthusiasm – his only positive experience of the law seems to have been driving around Colombo in his Rolls-Royce whilst wearing his lawyer’s robes and wig. After scarcely a year he threw in his legal career and went to Italy, where he planned to buy a villa and settle down.

Fortunately for Sri Lanka, the Italian villa didn’t work out, and Bawa returned, staying with his brother Bevis at the latter’s estate at Brief Garden. Inspired by his brother’s example, Bawa decided to do something similar himself, purchasing the nearby house and gardens which he christened Lunuganga, and beginning to enthusiastically remodel the estate’s buildings and grounds. The architectural bug having finally bitten, Bawa returned to England to train as a professional architect, finally qualifiying at the advanced age of 38, after which he returned to Colombo and flung himself into his new career.

Bawa’s early leanings were modernist, encouraged by his training in London and by his close working relationship with the Danish architect Ulrik Plesner, a keen student of functional Scandinavian design. The style of his early buildings is often described as “Tropical Modernism”, but local conditions gradually changed Bawa’s architectural philosophy. The pure white surfaces favoured by European modernists weathered badly in the tropics, while their flat rooflines were unsuitable in monsoonal climates – and in any case, shortages of imported materials like steel and glass encouraged Bawa to look for traditional local materials and indigenous solutions to age-old architectural conundrums.

The result was a style in which the strong and simple forms of modernism were softened and enriched by local influences, materials and landscapes. Bawa revived the huge overhanging tiled roofs traditionally used by colonial architects in the tropics, whose broad eaves and spacious verandas offered protection against both sun and rain, while buildings were designed to blend harmoniously with their surrounding landscape (Bawa often and famously designed buildings to fit around existing trees, for example, rather than just cutting them down). In addition, the use of open, interconnecting spaces avoided the need for air-conditioning as well as blurring the distinction between interior and exterior spaces, allowing architecture and landscape to merge seamlessly into one.

The arrival of package tourism in the 1960s brought with it the need for modern hotels, a genre with which Bawa became inextricably associated – see Basics for a list of his principal hotels. His first major effort, the Bentota Beach Hotel, established a style which many hotels across the island would subsequently follow. The main wooden pavilion, topped by a hipped roof, used natural local materials throughout and paid distant homage to traditional Kandyan architecture in its overall shape and conception; at its centre lay a beautifully rustic courtyard and pond set within a cluster of frangipani trees, giving the sense of nature not only being around the building, but also within.

Around a dozen other hotels followed – most notably the Kandalama in Dambulla and the Lighthouse in Galle – as well as major public commissions including the mammoth new Sri Lankan Parliament building in Kotte. Bawa’s architectural practice became the largest on the island during the 1970s, and most of Sri Lanka’s finest young architects started their careers working for him. Many took his influence with them when they left, and buildings (hotels especially) all over the island continue to show the trappings of the Bawa style, executed with varying degrees of competence and imagination.

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