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 Pradeep Jayewardene house was commissioned by the grandson of past Sri Lankan president J.R. Jayewardene in 1997. Pradeep asked architect and family friend Geoffrey Bawa to design an informal vacation home for the extended Jayawardene family in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. A fire had destroyed their original bungalow a decade earlier, and the family desired a new shared retreat at the same location to replace the lost structure. The openness and simplicity of the pavilion that Bawa ultimately designed allows the architecture of the home to defer to the dramatic topography and views of its cliff-top setting.
The site is on the northern outskirts of Mirissa, a small coastal town approximately 150 kilometers southeast of Colombo. The house overlooks the Weligama Bay from atop the steep bluff that forms its eastern coast. Access to the site is via a 375-meter-long private road that connects directly to the Colombo-Galle Highway. At the end of the drive, two gates regulate entry to the site at its northeastern corner. A single gate to the west allows pedestrian access to the sloping lawn that leads up to the main house, while a double gate to the east opens onto a short continuation of the road. The driveway terminates in a small garage structure eighty-five meters south of the gate. The main residence, a strictly rectangular structure thirty-four meters long and twelve meters wide, is located on the precise crest of the hill that rises above the bay, ten meters to the west of the garage. The longitudinal axis of the house is rotated approximately seventy-two degrees counter-clockwise from the north-south meridian.
The split level structure of the house takes advantage of the sloping site, masking the enclosed mass of the building by setting it into the earth. This minimizes the visual impact of the building volume and contributes to the effect of structural lightness that Bawa sought to achieve. A small set of walled rooms is located a half-level below the primary living space, opening onto a small tiled lower courtyard near the garage. A large open air pavilion occupies the western two-thirds of the house floorplate, while the lower bedroom level completes the eastern third. The roof of the sunken bedrooms is raised only a few feet above the ground level of the upper living space, and it functions as a second open air sitting area with built-in benches. The roof plane is high enough to cover all levels of the house in one linear gesture. The roof cants gently to the south, both to allow for water runoff and to spatially open the pavilion to the sloping lawn and bay views to its north.
The house is extremely spare in its articulation. There is essentially no ornamentation of the steel and concrete structure aside from the gold paint that covers the concrete walls of the rooms on the lower level. Large wooden doors with cast iron hardware and bronze knobs mark the threshold between the interior and exterior spaces of the home.
The design for the Pradeep Jayewardene house can be seen as the development of basic spatial ideas present in Bawa's earlier work. Bawa's biographer David Robson has noted the similarities between this project and the A. S. H. de Silva House (1959-60), designed nearly forty years earlier. Both residences feature a single strong, sloping roof plane that creates a continuity between the enclosed and open air spaces beneath it. The Pradeep Jayawardene house was completed in 1998, late in Bawa's career, and its elegance and clarity can be attributed to the maturity of Bawa's vision after forty years of continually evolving practice.