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)
When they were asked to design a manager's bungalow in 1959 on the Strathspey Estate near Maskeliya, at the foot of Adam's Peak in one of the most remote parts of the Tea Country, Bawa and Plesner found themselves creating not a prototype but one of the last of its kind, a memorial to a fast-disappearing way of life.
A tea-estate bungalow can be compared to the concept of villa suburbana developed by Andrea Palladio; it is like a noble villa situated at the centre of a working farm. Indeed the design that Plesner and Bawa developed owes something to the Palladian tradition: the bungalow is contained within a formal perimeter of walls and outhouses, overlooking the estate but distanced from it and combining beauty with convenience. The atrium is employed not as a focus of peace in a hostile urban environment but more as a safe haven within a stockaded enclosure at the edge of a wilderness.
The plan was conceived as a rectangular enclosure, subdivided to create a hierarchy of three courtyards. The entrance gate is signalled by a tall square water tower of white painted rubble at the south-western corner of the enclosure. It leads into an entrance court and is on axis with the main door to the house itself, which occupies slightly more than half the enclosure and focuses on an internal north south atrium surrounded by a continuous loggia. The main rooms of the house are all arranged around the courtyard with views out towards the north, east and south, while the kitchens and service rooms are located in the west wing. Mono-pitch roofs slope gently in towards the atrium so that the external eaves cantilever up from the perimeter walls as if to draw in the vast panorama of sky and mountain An open verandah between the dining and living rooms frames views towards the north and can be screened off from both rooms or from the outer garden by a system of sliding panels.
The bungalow was built by a local contractor and most of the materials were found on or near the site: the walls of white-painted rubble have large openings infilled with glass or timber and the floors are of polished black stone. Today the house is shrouded by trees and neat rows of vegetables have replaced the old croquet lawns.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 73.