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)
In spite of the downturn in tourism, the Lighthouse Hotel was commissioned by Herbert Cooray in 1995 for his travel company Jetwings. Cooray's father had been the contractor for the Carmen Gunasekera House in 1958, and the Coorays had built a number of Bawa's projects before becoming successful developers and hoteliers in their own right.
The hotel is sited on a rocky promontory once occupied by a magistrates' circuit bungalow, and sits tightly between the main road and the sea about a mile to the north of Galle. The sea is inhospitable but the views are stunning. The main entrance and reception buildings of the hotel hug the southern tip of the ridge and offer views towards the Galle fort, the entrance and service points being housed within rubble retaining walls that enclose the lower slopes of the rock.
A massive porte cochère leads past the reception desk to a vertical drum enclosing the main stair, which spirals upwards to the upper terraces and restaurants. The staircase itself was designed by Bawa's old friend Laki Senanayake and is conceived as a swirling mass of Dutch and Sinhalese warriors re-enacting the Battle of Randeniya. The lounges and restaurants carry memories of old rest houses and planters' clubs, while the furnishing of the terraces and verandahs is solid and rugged to withstand the buffetings of the south-west monsoon. The first floor is finished in samara-coloured render and the upper floor is recessed behind a delicate colonnade. A three-storey range of hotel rooms runs along the edge of the shore northwards from the main reception areas, a parallel service block behind forming a tranquil courtyard of clipped grass and bare rock. A second range of hotel rooms steps back towards the road to create an open terrace with a bar and pool looking out to the ocean.
The strategy is to both confront the relentless crashing of the waves and provide contrasting areas of shelter and tranquillity. No single space is self-contained or complete: each is in part the consequence of a previous space and the anticipation of a subsequent one; each retains links with its neighbours and with the outside so that the eye is continually invited to explore. The architecture itself is muted, but offers subtle memories of Moorish palaces, ocean liners, ancient manor houses and colonial villas.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 212-215.