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 idea to build the farm was the brainchild of Mother Good Counsel, who envisaged a centre where orphan girls could learn agricultural and homecraft skills. It was she who secured the land - a rubber and coconut estate near Hanwella - as well as persuading the German charity Misereor to finance the project and commissioning Bawa to be the architect.
The project confronted Bawa with the issue of how to place a disparate group of buildings within a large landscape, and formed the antecedent of his designs for Piliyandela Education Centre (1978) and Ruhunu University (1980). The various elements were located formally and orthogonally in plan but, following the precedent of classical Sinhalese architecture, were allowed to 'run with the contours' in section. Individual buildings were positioned carefully to define open spaces and axes and to regulate the vistas between them.
Anura Ratnavibushana, who acted as Bawa's principal assistant for the project, has described how Bawa generated many of his ideas while actually on site, developing them in the evening, in a series of detailed sketches - usually multi layered plans and sections drawn with biro on squared paper. Often he would draw long vertical sections through the site and critical parts of the buildings. Although no models were made Bawa was able to visualize the three-dimensional complexities of the evolving design.
Ratnavibushana would work the ideas up into more finished drawings that would then form the starting point for another round of discussions and sketches. Bawa had recently obtained a copy of Arquitectura Popular em Portugal (Sindicato 1961), a detailed survey of Portuguese vernacular architecture, and this was used as a source book and a means to connect the design back to an important influence on Sri Lanka's own indigenous vernacular traditions.
An early decision to keep an existing estate bungalow - located at the southern tip of a long north-south ridge and visible from the approach road in the valley below - became one of the generators of the scheme. The bungalow was converted to provide accommodation for the nuns and was extended northwards by a courtyard and eastwards down the slope by lines of chicken sheds and a group of farm buildings arranged around an open farmyard. These various elements were all located behind a long raking rubble wall. The visitor climbed the side of the valley to the foot of this wall and was then drawn up to the bungalow's entrance. Two balcony turrets were added to the bungalow as if to provide the nuns with defensive watchtowers, while a simple ambalama was placed at the extreme southern tip of the ridge to serve as a sheltered waiting room. Below this, hidden in the trees, was the priest's house, a symbolically isolated preserve for a solitary male, its steeply pitched thatched roof inspired by Ulrik Plesner's earlier studies of thatched brick kilns (Plesner 1959a).
The bungalow acted as a pivot: turning its corner the visitor joined the main northsouth axis of the ridge, encountering the long perspective past the chapel towards the girls’ dormitory and taking in the beautiful panorama of rubber plantations on the hills to the west. The original design for a cadjan-roofed chapel was never realized, and a more conventional chapel was added in the early 1980s. The girls accommodation comprised two long buildings running either side of a garden court with a separately roofed entrance loggia at one end and a stage at the other. The west building contained the dining room and teaching area, the east the students' sleeping cubicles. Beyond the stage a smaller court was formed by a bakery with a huge tapering chimney and by a row of toilets and washrooms housed within apsidal cells. Finally, marking the north end of the ridge, a sickbay was combined with the main water tank to create an outward cantilevering watchtower. The cowsheds and farm buildings were located below the girls' block on the western flank of the ridge and three communal houses were later added nearby to accommodate groups of older girls.
All the buildings were simple and cheap and were constructed from locally available materials, including coconut timber, rubber wood, clay tile and coconut thatch. The section was designed with overhanging eaves and open trellis clerestories to protect the interiors from direct sunlight and driving rain and to encourage cross-ventilation, obviating the need for glass. Simply designed furniture was produced by village craftsmen. The project offered a vocabulary for contemporary rural redevelopment projects and influenced the government's model village programme in the early 1980s. The death of Mother Good Counsel robbed the farm school of its guiding spirit and it went into a decline during the early 1980s. The nuns sold the farm to the monks of the de Ia Salle Order, who ran it for a few years as a 'Boys' Town', but by the end of the 1990s the buildings had fallen into disrepair and the estate was sold to a brewery.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 89-91.