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)
Constructed between 1967 and 1969, the Bentota Beach Hotel is one of architect Geoffrey Bawa's most important works. It is an iconic example of Bawa's architectural style during the 1960s, as well as the critical model for hotel design in tropical climates during the decades following its construction. The resort is notable in that it successfully caters to a predominantly foreign clientele, meeting specific expectations in terms of desired services and amenities, while still respecting and representing the local culture in which it is set. The building was commissioned by the Sri Lankan government, which operated many resorts and hotels in the country during that period.
The hotel is located on a unique and picturesque site between two beaches in Bentota, a sixty-kilometer drive south of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The site is to the immediate southwest of a major bridge that crosses the Bentota River as it passes within 200 meters of the Indian Ocean, creating a long and narrow spit of land to the northwest of the site. The Colombo-Galle highway, the road that crosses the Bentota River via the steel-frame bridge, bounds the hotel property along its eastern edge. The western edge of the site is defined by the coastline of the Indian Ocean, and the north by that of the Bentota River. The grounds of the hotel are approximately 370 meters wide east to west and 250 meters long north to south.
The central building of the hotel is located atop an existing sand mound that was previously the site of a colonial Dutch fortification. The building is square in plan at the first level, excepting a trapezoidal extension of the northern gallery beyond the eastern edge of the square. This projection contains service spaces for the adjacent public areas of the resort, out of the way of the principal guest circulation and major ocean views. A simple ring of galleries surround a large open central courtyard, the entirety of which is occupied by a large rectangular reflecting pool. The pool occupies approximately one quarter of the floor area of the first level, and it is located just southeast of the center of the plan in order to increase the relative size of the ocean-facing northern and western galleries. Planters scattered as islands within the central pool provide space for large trees to grow within the courtyard. The leafy canopy of trees shades the central open space and defines the ceiling of this calm interior room.
The second and third levels are each L-shaped, located atop the north and west galleries of the first level. The second and third levels are narrower in plan than the galleries of the first level, yet Bawa elevates the floor plane of the second level above the pitched roof of the first level such that the second level to appears to cantilever over the roof of the first. In turn, the balconies of the third level cantilever beyond those of the second level. This building profile, reminiscent of an inverted pyramid, recalls a distinctively local architectural tradition, seen in the palace at Padmanabhapuram and the Saman Devale temple at Ratnapura.
The ground level of the hotel is contained within a large stone podium built around the original sand mound. The massive stone walls are an architectural nod to the history of Dutch fortification structures on the island, and spaces are carved into the ground behind the walls for shopping arcades as well as pedestrian circulation between the first level and the surrounding grounds. The hotel is entered via a large porte cochère carved into the masonry podium on the eastern side of the building. A large stone staircase leads from this partially enclosed driveway up to the reception lobby, located in the east gallery of the first level.
The Bentota Beach Hotel contains ninety guest rooms. The brief originally called for thirty rooms, which were placed in the L-shaped second and third floors of the central building. Additional guest wings to the north and south of the main structure were added later to increase the capacity of the hotel. These long and narrow two-story wings contain twenty and forty rooms respectively, pinwheeling off of the northeast and southwest corners of the central square as bent single-loaded corridors. All guest rooms face either the Indian Ocean to the west or the Bentota River to the north, assuring all visitors spectacular views from their private balconies.
The site slopes down from the hill anchoring the main hotel building toward the Indian Ocean at the west. The elevational change allows the west side of the first level of the building to form a terrace that overlooks the large pool and outdoor cafe on the ground level. The hotel restaurant is located on the western side of the first level, affording dramatic ocean views to diners.
A variety of natural materials were used in the structure and decoration of the hotel. All of the building materials were locally sourced, as imports were heavily restricted during the years in which the hotel was constructed. The materials selected were intended to age well with time and exposure to the humid tropical climate. Terracotta tiles, dark wood columns and balustrades, unfinished granite bastions, and polished concrete floors form an earthy palette of surfaces within the building. The ceilings of the public spaces are decorated with rich batiks and hand-loomed fabrics in warm colors. Though Bawa hoped that the building would be completely exposed to the elements in the common spaces, the client insisted that the first floor restaurant and lounges be enclosed with glass walls and air-conditioned.
The Bentota Beach Hotel was acquired by the John Keells Hotels Group after the Sri Lankan government sold its portfolio of hotel properties to private firms in the 1980s. A major renovation of the hotel in 1998 included the replacement of the original clay tile roofs with green metal sheeting, the redecoration of the guest rooms and lobbies, and the reconstruction and expansion of the stone podium at the base of the building. While Bawa personally embraced the aging of materials and the development of a patina on buildings over time, the hotel was thoroughly cleaned and all materials were sealed or replaced to make the structure appear perpetually new. Though the renovations were made in hopes of increasing the value and luxury of the hotel as a four-star tourist destination, architectural critics have argued that the changes detract from the success of Bawa's iconic design. Guests to the hotel today continue to admire its tranquil courtyard, dramatic ocean vistas, and well-landscaped grounds.