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 1961 the nuns of the Good Shepherd commissioned a new chapel for their convent in Bandarawela. This small market town was situated at 1300 metres above sea level in an area renowned for its pleasant, dry climate and the convent was used as a training centre and a rest home. The original concept was developed by Plesner and Bawa with their friend Barbara Sansoni and the detailed design was then worked up by Laki Senanayake under Plesner's direction. Early sketch drawings by Plesner survive as well as Senanayake's final working drawings.
Lying beyond a group of older convent buildings, the chapel occupies a ridge that falls gently towards the east with steep slopes to the north and south. Its street façade takes the form of a long blank wall of grey rubble terminating in a squat square tower and is relieved by a series of five low recessed bays formed just above ground level by bearing arches. These serve to admit a trickle of ventilation along the inside wall of the chapel and are decorated with panels of patterned terracotta tiles. A small door in the façade - the public entrance to the chapel - opens into a wide vestibule connecting at its opposite end with the more private areas of the convent, and through two doors to the right into the chapel itself.
The chapel's granite floor follows the slope of the ground and falls gently away towards the altar, placed at the base of the tower and lit from an unseen glass roof. The roof of the chapel itself is made up of five angled vaults of red tuna wood. On the south wall of grey rubble stone abutting the road a series of terracotta reliefs depicts the Stations of the Cross, while the north wall carries four full bays of glazing incorporating three large crucifixes at their junctions and opening towards a thickly planted garden with views of distant hills. At night, spotlights illuminate the altar from the tower, while the body of the church is lit indirectly from the garden. Inspired by Donald Friend, Barbara Sansoni produced the terracotta Rising Christ that graces the solid bay in the north wall as well as the Stations of the Cross and the patterned tiles that line the bearing arches.
The chapel is one of the most impressive spaces for Christian worship to be found in Sri Lanka. The overall effect is one of focused calm and sanctity achieved through careful manipulation of space, juxtaposition of simple materials, and the careful control of light and shade. While it makes oblique references to the Romanesque Gothic traditions of Western church building, the chapel has no direct precedents. It was built almost entirely from materials found nearby or manufactured in the vicinity, and seems to grow out of the ground, a building that has been “unearthed” rather than designed.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 176-177.