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)
Cecil and Chloé de Soysa commissioned long-time friend and architect Geoffrey Bawa to design a house for them in Colombo in 1985. They partitioned a property that they had long owned in the city into smaller plots for themselves and their daughters, and they asked Bawa to design a new residence for them on their subplot. The project took several years to complete, as it was temporarily delayed upon Cecil's unexpected death. The residence was ultimately completed in 1991 for Chloé de Soysa.
The de Soysa house is located approximately 300 meters south of Beira Lake in downtown Colombo. The house is sited on a 120-meter-long and 20-meter-wide rectangular lot that spans between Dharmapala Road and Boyd Place, 20 meters to the east of Alwis Place. The majority of the site is occupied by long-established gardens, and the house that Bawa designed is located amongst mature shade-trees in the southern half of the plot, approximately 30 meters north of Dharmapala Road.
The de Soysa house is square in plan, measuring 14.5 meters to a side. The north-south axis of the house lines up directly with the north-south meridian. One half of the ground level is enclosed, while the other half serves as a transitional roofed open-air space between the interior of the house and the adjacent tree-shaded patio. The first level of the house is fully enclosed, containing the main living rooms of the house. The second level is much smaller in terms of enclosed area as the majority of the floor plan is given over to a large sunny terrace. The base of a two-story tower is located in the northeast corner of the second level plan. The enclosed space is 6.5 meters to a side, and it houses the private rooms of the residence on the second and third levels. The third floor is partially roofed by a pergola, leaving open a view to the skies.
The walls of the home are plastered white throughout while simple black anodized aluminum window sashes provide contrast and frame views of the lush garden setting. The wooden posts of the pergolas on the ground-level patio and the third level deck are also painted white, allowing the vibrant greenery that cascades over the structure and climbs the walls to lend color and patina to the otherwise neutral palette of the architecture. The richness of the garden is subtly foregrounded and becomes decorative itself via its juxtaposition with the reticence of the building, a technique Bawa employed often in his later projects, notably the Kandalama Hotel (1991-1994) and the Predeep Jayawardene house (1997-1998).
The de Soysa house is notable as an example of Bawa's later residences, both in terms of its spatial organization within the typology of the tower house, and in terms of the simplicity of its detailing. The home remains intentionally minimalist in its expression, underscoring the evolution of Bawa's architectural voice from his earlier, more traditionally articulated projects to this mature work.