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)
The Montessori School for the nuns of the Good Shepherd Convent was built in the grounds of St. Bridget's Convent in Colombo in 1963. Bawa developed the design with Laki Senanayake and murals were added by Barbara Sansoni.
Although the rectangular two-floor building is strategically similar to Bawa's earlier classroom blocks, the design abandons white Tropical Modernism in favour of a witty reworking of a traditional 'wattle-and-daub' village school. The upper floor is covered by a huge umbrella of Portuguese tile on cement sheeting that cantilevers far out beyond the perimeter of the classrooms to protect the interior from driving rain and harsh sunlight, its rafters elegantly supported by an articulated concrete frame. The first-floor slab sits on mushroom topped columns and its soffit is modelled to create a cave-like quality. Open sides and the high roof encourage natural ventilation, and surrounding vegetation helps to cool the air.
Teaching areas are delineated by low walls that create small-scaled enclosures within the megastructure of the roof and the floor slab, while toilet cubicles and storerooms occupy free-standing concrete cells with organic shapes that suggest hollowed-out boulders. Balconies and spiral staircases are cast in rough, curving concrete in a manner that is reminiscent of traditional pise construction, and small openings and decorative features are placed at 'child's-eye level'.
Bawa's architecture was generally rooted in the traditions of functional Modernism and, in spite of his admiration for the Baroque and his love of decoration, he rarely strayed into the realms of Expressionism. Here, however, the skeletal structure, the organic forms and the naive decorative patterns carry memories of Gaudi's Pare Giiell in Barcelona. The classrooms are still in good condition after thirty-five years of constant use, though repainting has destroyed the harmonies of the original colour scheme.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 68-69.