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 Triton Hotel was commissioned by hotel development firm Aitken Spence in 1979. Michael Mack, one of the directors of Aitken Spence, hired long-time friend and architect Geoffrey Bawa to design a 125-room beachfront hotel on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. Construction was completed on the project in 1981, and the hotel remains in operation today.
The Triton Hotel is located just west of the Colombo-Galle Highway in Ahungalla, approximately seventy kilometers south of Colombo. The main area of the side is a rectangular beachfront parcel stretching 300 meters wide parallel to the beach and 100 meters inland from the sand's edge. A smaller sliver of land connects the beachfront land to the Colombo-Galle Highway; this strip is 300 meters long and ranges between 15 and 50 meters wide. The longitudinal axis of the property and the main hotel building is aligned with the orientation of the coastline bordering the site. This axis is rotated thirty degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian.
The long and narrow hotel snakes along the coastline parallel to the water's edge. The building is uniformly three stories tall throughout. The basic unit of the hotel is a sixteen-meter-wide single-loaded corridor, lined by guest rooms; while generally the building follows a linear path where a series of guest rooms runs parallel to the ocean, the hallways loop at points to form a handful of small square garden courtyards bordered by open air circulation spaces. The loops also create a larger order in which three major courtyard spaces are formed adjacent to the beach. The northern and southern courtyards are gardens adjacent to guest rooms, while the central courtyard is primarily occupied by the large hotel swimming pool. The pool is an irregularly shaped composition of rectangular parts that measures thirty-five meters wide at each of its extremes.
The swimming pool is part of an elegantly arranged axial sequence of spaces that leads the visitor from the eastern entry of the resort to the ocean at its western limit. The swimming pool is immediately to the west of the wall-less reception lobby, which in turn sits to the west of a large reflecting pool that borders the main entrance driveway. Bawa intentionally placed water, the reflective polished floors of the lobby, and then more water on the axis of the entry in order to create a continuity between the indoor and outdoor spaces of the hotel and the ocean visible beyond. The surfaces of the water and the lobby floors are at precisely the same level in order to emphasize this designed horizon. The effect is a dematerialization of the ground plane that draws the visitor visually through the building and to the ocean beyond from the earliest approach to the hotel.
The Triton Hotel features very clean and simple architectural detailing with little ornamentation. The concrete walls are painted a pale gold tone with white trim, columns, and ceilings. Interior spaces are light and airy, with either pale tiled floors or carpets in neutral tones. Planters in the open-air lobbies and hallways blur the lines between interior and exterior space. Throughout, the architectural palette is restrained in order to foreground the stunning views and landscape outside of the building.
While the Triton Hotel is quite simple in its design and detailing, it continues to have a powerful effect on visitors due to its clever spatial planning and understated sophistication. In this design, Bawa clearly begins to operate within the minimalism that characterizes his later works, in a departure from the vernacular style that is often associated with his early projects. However, in other ways Bawa continues to develop ideas long-explored in his practice, such as the memorable sequencing of spaces in order to highlight the natural beauty of the landscape.