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 Serendib Hotel was developed in tandem with the Bentota Beach Hotel, though it was completed a year later than its neighbour and conceived as a budget-priced rest house for travelers. Approached down a narrow road running beside the railway line, the hotel presents to the world a long blank wall broken only by a deep porte cochère. The plan consists of two long parallel buildings enclosing a string of courtyards, the building on the street side containing offices, kitchens and service spaces, while that facing the sea contains two floors of accommodation flanking a central dining room.
The layering of space is similar to that set up in the house for Ena de Silva. A series of longitudinal strata was established between the railway track and the ocean: the street, the porte cochère, the service wall, the garden, the access corridors, the lines of bedroom cells, the private verandahs, the coconut grove and the beach. A single cross-axis pierces these strata like a skewer, proceeding from the porte cochère across the central courtyard past a peacock pen to the reception desk and continuing along one side of the restaurant and beyond through the trees to the edge of the ocean.
The original building has forty-four rooms, twenty on the ground floor and twenty-four above, the lower rooms opening into small courtyards with covered verandahs beyond, while the upper rooms open onto balconies. All were designed to function without air conditioning and fitted with timber lattice louvres to encourage cross-ventilation, but this led to problems of noise transmission from the corridors and later the rooms were sealed and air-conditioned. A simple restaurant spills out onto the lawns, where open sitting areas are protected by triangular sails of orange and brown canvas stretched between the trunks of palm trees. The original design proposed roofs of coconut thatch and floors of raked sand, but the complete building employs roofs of clay tile on cement sheeting with terracotta floors.
The hotel proved very popular and it was extended towards the south in 1974 with a new block containing a further thirty rooms, a swimming pool and a poolside cafe. The link between new and old was formed by extending the gable of the original block to create a deep loggia facing the pool. The cafe is a masterpiece of sophisticated simplicity: its roof trusses sit on beams that cantilever out from the columns in a manner recalling the roofs of the devale at Embekke, while the glass screen wall dances in and out between the columns, creating a syncopation of internal and external space. Bawa also effectively solved the problem of noise transmission in this block: the corridors are enclosed and separated from the rooms by small open courtyards, with pairs of rooms connected to the corridor by narrow bridges and staircases.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 102-105.