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 State Mortgage Bank building in Colombo was designed by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa between 1976 and 1978. The tower is fairly atypical of Bawa's work, as the majority of his buildings emphasize the interconnection of building, ground, and landscape. Yet while the building is in many ways a departure from the prevalent interpretation of his architecture that emphasizes the picturesque or vernacular, it possesses a particular adaptation to climate and orientation not present in most tower buildings, evidencing the ecological sensitivity characteristic of Bawa's practice.
The State Mortgage Bank building is located 120 meters south of the tip of Beira lake, adjacent to the northern edge of Hyde Park. Its eastern elevation has continuous street frontage along TB Jayah Road, a secondary traffic artery in Colombo. The twelve story tower is the simple extrusion of an irregularly shaped floor plan. Consequently the building dimensions vary, but the tower is sixty meters long and thirty meters wide at its widest points. The longitudinal axis of the plan, which connects the easternmost and westernmost points of the building, is rotated forty-five degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian.
The floor plan is roughly in the shape of a lozenge, with various crenellations along the exterior facades to accommodate building lobbies and vertical circulation towers. The shorter transverse axis of the plan runs from the northeast to the southwest, while the longer longitudinal axis runs from the northwest to the southeast. A triangular stairwell forms the vertex of the transverse axis on the south elevation, while a trapezoidal stairwell serves as the opposite vertex on the north elevation. The stairwell on the north elevation is surrounded by an elevator core and various enclosed service and lobby spaces. This cluster of walled rooms at the center of the northern elevation blocks views to the north from the interior of the main area of each floor and gives the building a subtle southern orientation.
The columnar arrangement is extremely simple. Only three round concrete columns are needed in the interior of the tower because the exterior envelope is a load bearing structure, as opposed to the curtain wall systems employed in most Colombo towers. Concrete columns spaced at regular intervals along the perimeter of the building support the edges of the concrete floor slabs; at points where the building envelope bends, the rectangular columns are doubled and oriented at perpendicular angles to the direction of each wall section.
The flattened lozenge shaped of the building maximizes the northern and southern exposures while limiting western and eastern exposures. This orientation both reduces solar gain and takes advantage of the prevailing air currents to provide passive ventilation. Deep concrete spandrels provide additional shading and regulate air-intake through louvers below the vision-glass of the windows. The windows are operable on all floors of the tower, pivoting around their central axes to allow building occupants to regulate cross-ventilation.
Though the building was commissioned in 1976 to house the State Mortgage Bank, a reorganization of the Sri Lankan government under the UNP in 1977 resulted in a reassignment of the building before its occupation. The building became instead the headquarters of the Mahaweli Authority, a government ministry founded in 1979 to manage the water and agricultural resources of the Mahaweli river basin. After occupation by the Mahaweli Authority, several key modifications were made to the tower, unfortunately detracting from the elegance of Bawa's original design. The staff of the ministry consisted largely of expatriates who did not wish to rely solely on the passive means of cooling that Bawa had designed. As a result the open floorplans were partitioned and individual air conditioners were installed in many of the exterior windows, cluttering the appearance of the facade and eliminating the visual and physical openness of the interior. The building was also repainted in much brighter colors than Bawa's original subdued color scheme. Security concerns eventually caused the government to define the boundaries of the ministry's site with high concrete walls and barbed wire, restricting the connection between the building and neighboring Hyde Park. The State Mortgage Bank building has not been widely published due to its perceived idiosyncrasy relative to Bawa's practice; however, it continues to provide a valuable model for building climatically-appropriate tower buildings in similar regions.