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 redesign of the Madurai Club was commissioned in 1971 by Martin Henry, then manager of the Madurai Mills thread production company. Prior to the renovation, the Madurai Mills maintained two clubs for the use of its staff; a downtown location catered to European personnel, while a more casual Garden Club in suburban Kochadai provided entertainment and dining spaces for Indian staff. Henry sought to combine the two facilities and create a single club for his senior employees on the larger site of the Garden Club. The proceeds from the sale of the downtown property financed the construction of new pavilions on the Kochadai site. Henry hired architect Geoffrey Bawa to complete the design for the new club after meeting him on the site of another building project. Though Bawa's practice was based in Sri Lanka, he opened an office in Madras, (now Chennai) from which projects in India could be managed. The success of the Madurai Club led Henry to commission Bawa to design additional mill buildings and staff housing for Madurai Mills.
The Madurai Club is located on a seventeen-acre property near the northeastern limits of Madurai, the oldest city of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India. The property is bordered by Melakkal Road to the north, a residential neighborhood to the west, highway NH-49 south, and the Fenner Rubber Factory to the east. Buildings on the site are laid out according to internal axes that are oriented to the eastern edge of the property. The north-south longitudinal axis of the site is rotated twenty-five degrees clockwise from the north-south meridian. While its shape is irregular, the property's dimensions range from 190 to 250 meters wide east-west, and from 140 to 310 meters long north-south. The site was densely planted prior to its redevelopment, and the existing population of large banyan trees was integrated into Bawa's design plan for the site.
The club is accessed via a five-meter-wide tree-lined driveway that extends south from Melakkal Road towards the main clubhouse. After two hundred meters the driveway loops toward the east, creating an automobile turnaround within an entry courtyard on the eastern side of the main club building. The building was designed according to a flexible structural grid with certain repeating key dimensions, measured in feet. A 108-foot-long entrance loggia borders the western edge of the 30-foot-wide courtyard. Twelve feet wide, the loggia is edged by rows of twelve-foot-tall stone columns spaced eight feet on center. Through a forty-foot-long section central to the loggia's length, the clubhouse is only as wide as the loggia itself, providing arriving visitors an immediate unobstructed view of the gardens beyond the building. The courtyard to the west of the loggia also maintains a separation between the renovated former clubhouse, which forms the south wing of the building, and Bawa's addition to the north.
Bawa integrated the existing Garden Club structure into his design of the new clubhouse, although he substantially altered its interior organization and material palette to create a continuity between the old and new portions of the building. The plan of the L-shaped southern wing is organized such that seven small chambers surround a billiard room centered in its corner. The central billiard chamber measures twenty-two feet wide north-south and twenty-eight feet long east-west. The clients requested an isolated location for the billiard room, so Bawa chose to locate it completely internal to the plan, bounded by other enclosed rooms. The introverted character of this chamber contrasts dramatically with the transparency and interconnectedness of the other public spaces within the club. Four rooms measuring between eight and eighteen feet wide north-south and twenty-eight feet long east-west are located in a row to the north of the billiard room. These rooms open onto a ten-foot-wide loggia to their west. To the east of the billiard room is an eight-foot-wide access hall, then three rooms that measure between eight and ten feet wide east-west and thirty-two feet long north-south. The entrance loggia wraps around the southern edge of the eastern courtyard to provide access to these three chambers, which were available for the temporary accommodation of club members and professional guests. Ten-foot-wide service spaces border the south and west sides of the billiard room, completing the corner of the southern wing.
As the original clubhouse was reconfigured to house the programs that required the most privacy, the primary social functions of the club were relocated to the new north wing of the building. The northern end of the entrance loggia opens onto a small lobby to its west. Upon entering this lobby walking westward, the visitor immediately turns to the right and gains a distant view of the tennis courts and gardens north of the clubhouse, framed by a long hallway. This hallway extends 125 feet beyond the thirty-foot-long lobby, passing alongside or through a series of public entertaining spaces. To the west of the lobby is an enclosed meeting room measuring sixteen foot wide north-south and thirty-two feet long east-west. A six-foot wide hallway separates this room from the pool court and library to its north. A shallow reflecting pool borders the west side of the corridor, measuring thirty-five feet long north-south and sixteen feet wide east-west. A set of antique Chettinad stone columns define the threshold between the roofed hallway and the uncovered pool. Immediately to the west of the pool is a ten-foot-wide club library with large sliding glass doors that open onto the internal courtyard. A sixty-foot long lounge space is adjacent to the northern edge of the library and pool court. This lounge may also be used as a dance hall, and large sliding glass wall panels allow it to open onto the west lawn in good weather. Beyond the lounge is a large covered verandah overlooking the tennis courts and western gardens. This forty-foot-long and forty-six-foot-wide porch houses several ping-pong tables and includes a small interior garden that measures fifteen feet long and twelve feet wide.
The hotel bar is located to the east of the central corridor, opposite the pool courtyard and adjacent to the entrance loggia. A small partitioned service area for staff is located in the southwest corner of the thirty-five-foot-long and twenty-foot-wide space, behind the L-shaped bar. Bawa enclosed the room with mirrored walls and heavy Chettinad doors in order to "dissolve" it from the view of children and non-drinking members dining in the club restaurant to its north. The restaurant space is forty-two feet long north-south and twenty feet wide east-west, its eastern edge fully open to a walled garden set between the entrance courtyard and the driveway to the east. The garden also borders the eastern wall of the bar, measuring seventy-two feet long north-south and thirty feet wide east-west.
Thirty feet to the north of the verandah, Bawa designed a sunken terrace for the club's three tennis courts. This 180-foot-long and 96-foot-wide area is edged by plantings and accessed via stone steps. Twenty feet to the west of the tennis courts is an outdoor swimming pool, measuring sixty feet long north-south and thirty-five feet wide east-west. A small pavilion housing changing rooms for swimmers is located twenty feet to the west of the pool. This pavilion is a miniature version of the main clubhouse, featuring a shaded loggia that wraps the perimeter of the enclosed core. Including this loggia, the structure measures twenty-four feet wide east-west and fifty-six feet long north-south. Client Martin Henry challenged Bawa during the development process to design a building constructed fully from local materials. Bawa embraced the opportunity and consequently nearly all of the building materials were sourced from the area, ten kilometers from the site. The interior partitions are either concrete block surfaced with simple cream plaster or a random rubble masonry construction, while the pitched roofs are rounded clay tiles supported by corrugated cement sheets. The roof is supported by a simple post and lintel system, where stone and reinforced concrete columns support timber roof beams and joists. The rough-surfaced stone columns are distinctive and beautiful; these solid bars of honey-colored stone were hand-split by local stoneworkers using traditional techniques. Large stone slabs recycled from an old mill were used as the floors of the clubhouse.
While the materials are rich and traditionally finished, the architectural detailing of the building is simple and modern. The wooden window frames set within the plastered walls are edged by thick jambs and sills carved out of solid stone. The hardware for the sliding glass doors was custom-designed by Bawa; oversized brass wheels are affixed to the bottom rails of the wooden door frames, allowing the transparent panels to roll across the stone floors in grooved tracks.
The only architectural elements within the clubhouse that originated more than ten kilometers from the site are the Chettinad antiques purchased by Bawa and the Henrys during a trip to Karaikudi. Chettinad doors and columns were incorporated into the pavilion's structure, while an old temple cart was transformed into a fountain within the interior pool courtyard. The design for the Madurai Club marks one of Bawa's first significant uses of bricolage in his architectural work; as his career progressed he often favored the technique as a way to integrate traditional decorative arts with his increasingly minimalist structures.
The Madurai Club was acquired by Aitken Spence Hotel Managements in 2008. The club was converted into a luxury hotel and reopened in December of that year. The architecture of the club's original design was respected in the renovation process, reflecting Aitken Spence's close relationship with Bawa himself; the firm has managed several Bawa-designed hotels for decades, including the iconic Kandalama and Triton Hotels in Sri Lanka. The Kandalama Hotel, Triton Hotel, and Madurai Club are all part of the Heritance division of Aitken Spence, which currently features four properties of architectural significance whose designs foreground integration with the landscape. Sri Lankan architect Vinod Jayasinghe designed the additions to the clubhouse and supervised the renovation of existing structures.
The renovations of the former Madurai Club aimed to restore Bawa's existing building in light of decades of visible wear, without significantly altering the pavilion's design. Bawa's clubhouse now hosts programs similar to its original uses, although their locations within the building have changed; now the entrance pavilion houses the resort's reception, restaurant, cafe, bar, and library. A significant addition was constructed adjacent to the main club structure, extending the longitudinal axis of the clubhouse approximately sixty meters toward the north. This addition attempts to match the architectural style of Bawa's original design, employing the same local materials and construction methods as were used in the first structure. The hotel lounge spaces have been relocated to this open-air pavilion, where thatched curtains between the stone columns can be unrolled to shield the porch from poor weather. Directly to the west of the extension is a new sunken swimming pool, one of the most significant changes made to the property. Described by Jayasinghe as the Temple Tank, the large rectangular pool is framed by a series of stone terraces, constructed by hand by local artisans of stone remnants from nearby quarries. The building addition and the new pool occupy the area where the club's tennis courts were previously located.
In order to increase the capacity of the boutique hotel, sixteen freestanding bungalows on the eastern half of the site were transformed into five-bedroom villas featuring recycled timber floors and solar-powered electricity. Now known as the Heritance Madurai, the former Madurai Club is considered one of the top hotels in the region, even as parts of the resort have remained under construction through mid-2010.