Geoffrey Bawa was Sri Lanka's most prolific and
influential architect. His work has had tremendous impact upon architecture
throughout Asia and is unanimously acclaimed by connoisseurs of architecture
worldwide. Highly personal in his approach, evoking the pleasures of the senses
that go hand in hand with the climate, landscape, and culture of ancient
Ceylon, Bawa brought together an appreciation of the Western humanist tradition
in architecture with needs and lifestyles of his own country. Although Bawa
came to practice at the age of 38, his buildings over the last 25 or more years
are widely acclaimed in Sri Lanka. 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.
One of Bawa's earliest domestic buildings, a courtyard house built in Colombo for Ena De Silva in 1961, was the first 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. The Bentota Beach Hotel of 1968 was Sri Lanka's first
purpose-built resort hotel, combining the conveniences required by demanding
tourists with a sense of place and continuity that has rarely been matched.
During the early 1970s a series of buildings for government departments
developed ideas for the workplace in a tropical city, culminating in the State Mortgage Bank in Colombo, hailed at the time as one of the world's first
Looking back over his career, two projects hold
the key to an understanding of Bawa's work: the garden at Lunuganga that he has
continued to fashion for almost fifty years, and his own house in Colombo's Bagatelle Road. Lunuganga is a distant retreat, an outpost on the edge of the
known world, a civilized garden within the larger wilderness of Sri Lanka, transforming
an ancient rubber estate into a series of outdoor rooms that evoke memories of
Sacro Bosco and Stourhead. The town house, in contrast, is an introspective
assemblage of courtyards, verandas and loggias, created by knocking together
four tiny bungalows and adding a white entry tower that peers like a periscope
across neighbouring rooftops towards the distant ocean. It is a haven of peace,
an infinite garden of the mind, locked away within a busy and increasingly
Since Bawa started out on his career, Sri
Lanka's population has almost tripled, while its communities have been
fractured by bitter political and ethnic disputes. Although it might be thought
that his buildings have had no direct impact on the lives of ordinary people,
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 ordinary people can obtain a clearer image of
their own evolving culture.
In 2001 Bawa received the Chariman's Award in the 8th cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and his stature has only grown since his death in 2003. Today he is widely acknowledged as the pioneer of "tropical modernism." "Design Icons: Geoffrey Bawa," broadcast in April 2017 on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio, succinctly summed up the degree of innovation evidenced by his work saying:
It's no exaggeration to say that architect Geoffrey Bawa transformed the look of South-East Asia. And yet what he did is so subtle that we almost take it for granted today. In short, Bawa-tailored modern buildings to a specific environment. It hardly seems revolutionary and yet no one else had done anything like it in the region. (“Design Icons: Geoffrey Bawa”. Radio National. Accessed July 21, 2019. https://perma.cc/QT48-YG9P)
A.S.H.de Silva, a young doctor setting up a practice in Galle, wanted to build a house and surgery on a steeply sloping site on the northern edge of the town and picked Bawa's name out of the local telephone book. Bawa's design deconstructs the colonial bungalow and reassembles the parts in an apparently informal way to create a chequerboard system of linked pavilions trapping small gardens and courts between them. The separate elements are unfettered by a defined boundary but linked by a single roof plane and a long, raking spine wall. The roof design resembles the solution Bawa had recently adopted for a clubhouse at Ratnapura Tennis Club, also situated on a steeply sloping site.
At the foot of the slope sits the doctor's consulting room beside an open loggia that served as the patients' waiting room, connected to the house via a long staircase tunnel. This serves as the boundary to the garden,a pointer to the main entrance of the house and a device to lead the visitor up to the very heart of the design. On plan the main house appears to be a simple rectangle arranged around a central courtyard, though the section articulates the upper bedroom wing from the lower living area. A separate wing containing the kitchens, kitchen courts and servants' rooms between two parallel walls runs southwards from the living area along the contours of the site, while a pavilion to the north contains an independent flat for the doctor's sister. The house remains relatively extrovert: the internal spaces flow out into the gardens, which, in turn, reach out towards the surrounding landscape. The articulation of the plan elements and their disposition on the slope in relation to open courtyards and gardens makes good environmental sense: every room benefits from cross-ventilation or from a stack effect induced by the roof.
The plan can be compared to Mies van der Rohe's 1923 Brick Villa project, and there are certainly many similarities: both set out to deconstruct the traditional villa, both make a clear distinction between 'wall' and 'no wall', and both use continuing wall planes to link inside and outside space and to define out door rooms. But Bawa exploits the sloping site to create additional spatial effects, using the roof plane to anchor the elements to the site. He replaces Mies's solid hearth core with a void so that here, for the first time, an open courtyard occupies the very heart of the plan. While he has arrived at a solution that can be compared to the courtyard or meda midula of a traditional Sinhalese manor house, he has come to it on a fairly long and circuitous route. In typical fashion he has taken one idea -the Miesian pinwheel plan -and added others - the sloping roof, the central court - in order eventually to create something quite new.
This was a time of severe economic restraint, with imports strictly controlled. When Bawa wanted to line the central pool with blue glazed tiles Laki Senanayake achieved the desired effect with broken Milk of Magnesia bottles. However, the house's design achieved the synthesis for which Bawa had been striving: clean abstract forms are arranged in an informal way to embrace areas of landscape and to break down the separation of inside from outside.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 71-72.