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 commission for a new university campus arrived in April 1979 soon after that for the Parliament. Suddenly Bawa and his colleagues were faced with designing and running two huge projects simultaneously, each involving more than 40,000 square metres of building.
Ruhunu University was established in the Matara constituency of Ronnie de Mel, the minister of finance, on three separate campuses: a general campus located on the south coast close to Matara town,and separate medical and agricultural campuses located on inland sites. Bawa was invited to design the general campus, which comprised science and arts faculties and central administrative facilities. It was planned to accommodate an initial three thousand students rising ultimately to a total of four thousand.
The 30-hectare site straddled three steep hills, the westernmost overlooking the sea and separated from the other two by a low-lying valley that carried the main road from Matara to Hambantota. Bawa placed the vicechancellor's lodge and a guest house on the western hill and flooded the intervening valley to create a buffer between the road and the main campus. He then wrapped the buildings of the science faculty around the northern hill and those of the arts faculty around the southern hill, using the depression between them for the library and other central facilities.
A building project that in Europe would have been handled by a large team of architects and specialist consultants was run largely by an individual job architect: Nihal Bodhinayake. In typical fashion many of the important initial design decisions were taken by Bawa on site but he was happy to leave much of the detailed planning of the various buildings to Bodhinayake, therefore, unusually, had a site model made and used this to work out detailed level relationships between buildings. The model was located not in the main office where Bodhinayake worked but in the new 'home office' in 33rd Lane. It was here that Bawa would ponder the scheme and discuss its finer points with Perera, or Christoph Bon and Jean Chamberlin when they were in town.
Bodhinayake's problem was that he had to translate Bawa's ideas into the language of the building contractor. To this end he set up a strict grid based on 3 metres horizontally and 1.5 metres vertically in an attempt to fix the various pavilions on a system of coordinates and to standardize all junctions. Bawa grudgingly recognized the need for such a discipline, but reserved for himself the right to break it whenever he saw fit.
His overall strategy was developed from that used in earlier projects such as the Yahapath Endera Farm School and the Piliyandela Institute for Integral Education. Buildings were planned orthogonally on a north-south grid but were allowed to 'run with site'. Natural features such as rocky outcrops were incorporated into the bases of buildings or became focal features of the open spaces. Although there is nothing that connects the design in a literal way to historical precedents, the limited architectural vocabulary clearly derives from Porto- Sinhalese traditions and the topographical approach is reminiscent of that employed in the building of Kasyapa's Palace on the rock at Sigiriya.
The design exploits the site to make every part of the campus seem unique. Pavilions, varying in scale and extent, are connected by covered links and separated by an ever-changing succession of garden courts. Everywhere there are places to pause and consider, to sit and contemplate, to gather and discuss. The main routes either cut uncompromisingly across the contours or meander horizontally along them. Views are carefully orchestrated in a scenographic sequence that conceals and reveals in turn, playing the northern views of jungle and distant hills against the southern views of the lake and the ocean beyond, always referring back to the picturesque hump-backed bridge that connects the entrance across the lake to the central valley and acts as the linchpin of the whole composition.
Ruhunu is remarkable in that it is composed from a series of fairly simple and, in the main, unremarkable buildings - about fifty in total - all built with a limited palette of materials and a limited vocabulary of standard details. The construction is straightforward, comprising walls of plastered brick on a concrete frame and roofs of half-round tile laid on corrugated cement sheeting. Buildings are aligned carefully to minimize solar intrusion and mitigate the effects of the south-west monsoon. Few of the spaces are air-conditioned and the buildings rely for the most part on natural ventilation.
The project was let to Ballast Nedam, a Dutch firm of civil engineering contractors, though the subcontractors, craftsmen and labourers were all local. Work started on site in August 1980 and the final arts faculty buildings were handed over in July 1986, with the project continuing to final completion in 1988. The total cost, including site works and furnishings, came to 450 million rupees, equivalent at the time to about 9 million pounds sterling.The result is a modern campus, vast in size but human in scale. As Bawa wryly observed: 'If this place doesn't turn students into civilized beings, nothing will!'