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 StateMortgage 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 Colombo house, as the main residence and generally the first port of call for visitors, offers a contrasting prelude to Bawa's country estate at Lunuganga, and together they reflect Andrea Palladia's advice to the citizens of Vicenza in his Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura:
A city house is certainly of great splendour and conveniency to a gentleman who is to reside there all the time he shall require for directing his own affairs and those of the state. But perhaps he will not reap much less utility and consolation from a country house, where the remaining part of his time will be passed in the art of agriculture and improving his estate, where exercise will preserve the health and strength of his body and where his mind, fatigued by the agitations of the city, will be greatly restored and comforted so that he can devote himself to literature and contemplation. Thus the ancients commonly used to retire to such like places, where being oftentimes visited by their virtuous friends, having pavilions, gardens, fountains and such pleasant places, they could easily aspire to as much happiness as can be attained here below. (Palladio 1738 ,2, ch.12, p.46)
The journey to Lunuganga begins on the doorstep of the house in 33rd Lane, whence the car sets out on the harrowing journey along the coast road to Galle. After 60 kilometres the road crosses the Bentota River over the old Dorman Long Bridge, providing glimpses of the Bentota Beach Hotel, Bawa's lost masterpiece, and the sea beyond. On the left a narrow, bumpy road snakes through a dense hinterland of small villages to a causeway that crosses the neck between the Bentota River and the Dedduwa Lake,offering the first distant view of Lunuganga's northern terraces. But, like William Kent's scenario for the great eighteenth century English garden at Stowe, the road now leads off in a circle so that the final approach to the house is from the other side. At last a laterite track leads through a paddy field and towards a thickly wooded hill where an overgrown portal announces the boundary of Lunuganga and a steep driveway swings up through the trees to arrive at the foot of a cascade of steps that climb to the bungalow's southern terrace. The view from the entrance terrace towards Cinnamon Hill and a distant temple comes as a complete surprise. It is as if, having been spun around in a game of blindman's buff, the blindfold has suddenly been removed to reveal the centre of a magic kingdom. The bungalow lies at the hub of the composition and it is the only point from which all of the garden's separate elements can be comprehended.
The estate sits astride two low hills on a promontory jutting into the Dedduwa Lake, a brackish lagoon fed by an estuary of the Bentota River. A mile away to the west, the waves of the Indian Ocean roll in over coral reefs to break onto a white beach fringed with coconut palms. To the east, beyond serried ranks of rubber-tree-covered hills and rice-carpeted valleys, lies the mysterious Sinharaja Forest, Sri Lanka's last surviving area of primeval rainforest. The area around Lunuganga is the wettest and most fertile region of the island, a vast hothouse of exotiv trees and plants. But like so much of Sri Lanka's landscape, Lunuganga is a man-made creation, which in its previous incarnations has been a Dutch cinnamon garden and a British rubber estate.
In 1948 there was nothing more here than an undistinguished bungalow surrounded by 25 acres of rubber trees, enjoying only limited views northwards across the Dedduwa Lake. Since then hills have been moved, terraces cut, woods replanted, new vistas opened up and the old estate road has been buried within a ha-ha. The house itself has been turned inside out, but the original shell survives within a cocoon of new verandahs, courtyards and loggias.
Conceptually the garden at Bentota owes more to the gardens of Renaissance Italy and eighteenth century England than it does to King Kasyapa's vast water garden at Sigiriya or the great Mogul gardens of India. One is constantly reminded of Pope's advice to the young Lord Burlington:
To build, to plant, whatever you intend, To rear the Column or the Arch to bend, To swell the terrace or to sink the Grot, In all, let Nature never be forgot, But treat the Goddess like a modest fair, Nor overdress, nor leave her wholly bare, Let not each beauty everywhere be spy'd Where half the skill is decently to hide, He gains all points who pleasingly confounds, Surprises, varies and conceals the Bounds. (Pope 1985)
It is tempting to see Bawa as a latter-day Burlington, and Lunuganga as his Chiswick Villa. Here he held court, drawing together a circle of painters, designers and architects and plotting with them to write a new chapter in the history of Sri Lankan art and architecture. Here also he developed and honed new ways to set buildings into their site, to create enclosed and semi-enclosed outdoor spaces, to link interior with exterior. The garden may well have been inspired by the gardens of the Villa Orsini or Stourhead, but it is still fresh and vital, while they are now the conjectural remains of something formerly great. It is today what they once were: a place for private enjoyment, for contemplation, for gatherings of friends.
Bawa never kept a systematic record of the evolution of the garden and its chronology is now hard to unravel. One fascinating diary of events is provided by a large leather-bound visitors' book containing a plethora of photographs and sketches as well as signatures and greetings: in 1965 Ulrik Plesner reflects on the problems of the Hilton project; in 1966 Ismeth Raheem records having seen over forty species of bird during one afternoon; in 1973 Donald Friend leaves a doodle of his museum on Bali; in 1997 President Kumaratunga approves the designs of her new Official Residence; and in 1998 Prince Charles drops in for tea. Perhaps the most memorable visit of all, however, was on 3 January 1988 when a friend called Ray Wijewardene flew down from Colombo in a microlight and, misjudging his landing, crashed into the main roof of the bungalow.
During the early 1950s Bawa was still feeling his way into his garden project and lacked the money to pay for ambitious designs. He turned the house around, moving the main entrance to the southern terrace and converting the old west porch into a glazed verandah, so that cars were excluded from the immediate vicinity of the house and were hidden in the trees below the steps. He also levelled the northern terrace and began clearing the Cinnamon Hill vista. Work was interrupted, however, when he left to pursue his architectural studies in Britain in 1953.
After 1958 the Cinnamon Hill vista was completed and the cliff below the northern terrace was excavated to create the 'Scala Danese'. The enthusiasm of this period was recorded by Ulrik Plesner in an article for a Danish magazine (Plesner 1959a), later translated for the White Book:
Recently, whilst the hill was being excavated and the staircases were being finished off and ferns were being planted and one was debating whether to lower or raise the level of the paddy fields or whether to build a series of pyramids... suddenly it was realized that there was a hidden view lying behind 200 metres of trees and plants. The chairs were turned, all other work was abandoned, and in a few hours trees were felled, undergrowth removed, branches cut, snakes killed and a whole new view - and garden - was made. (Taylor 1986, p.44)
During the late 1960s and early 1970s Bawa was busy with various projects in and around Bentota and found it convenient to bring part of his office down to Lunuganga. A covered bridge was thrown over the ha-ha and next to it a small house was built to accommodate office staff who came down to work over the weekend. Sometime in the mid-1970s, Bawa added a tiny square pavilion to the eastern terrace and called it the 'hen house'. This simple, elegant structure - four brick piers infilled with timber lattice on three sides and with a door on the fourth, supporting a square hipped roof of Portuguese tile - established in one stroke the entire grammar and vocabulary for the Seema Malaka and the Parliament building in Kotte. Soon after, a guest house was built in the form of a portal to separate the entrance terrace from the eastern terrace beyond.
In 1983 the 'Garden Room' or 'Sandella' was built along the southern edge of the eastern terrace. This exquisitely proportioned pavilion forms an edge to the terrace and resolves the various axes that cross it: here Bawa could sit and work, perched in his eyrie above the drive, keeping half an eye on the entrance terrace, looking out through the trees towards the causeway on the lake, seeing without being seen. Next, beyond the Sandella he built the ochre-coloured Gothic Court that ends the axis from the entrance steps and leads into the sequence of sculpture galleries that terminate at the eastern tip of the hill.
The fame of the garden finally reached the ears of the priest of the Katakuliya temple that, with its white stupa, forms the focus of the Cinnamon Hill vista. He suggested that, as Mr Bawa derived so much pleasure from contemplating the stupa, he should donate the money needed to pay for its repainting. Bawa considered this request for a moment and then suggested that, as he could see only half the stupa from Lunuganga and had little interest in its reverse side, he would happily make a donation, but only for half the cost.
Over the years Bawa was unsuccessful in his attempts to extend the estate by acquiring the lower half of the promontory on which it was set, but he did manage to acquire two neighbouring islands. During the 1970s the Bandaranaike government introduced laws limiting the size of private estates and the larger island was officially registered as a wildlife sanctuary to prevent its being confiscated.
During the 1980s, pressure of work in Colombo produced a period of relative stasis at Lunuganga. Bawa retreated to his garden not to work but to recover from the travails of the week. He still had ambitions to buy out his neighbour and extend his domain westwards beyond the 'Field of Jars' but the owner could not be budged. And so Bawa built a new pool court and loggia on the west side of his bedroom, framing the view towards his neighbour's land, and added the Black Pavilion and Sundial to the lily ponds at the eastern end of the Broad Walk.
The view southwards from the main entrance terrace is now framed by a corridor of trees: in the middle distance a lone moonamal tree leans over a large pot on the summit of Cinnamon Hill, pointing to the white dagoba of the distant Buddhist temple beyond a thin sliver of water, so that the eye runs down and up through a cone of space, leaping from the pot - the 'hand of man' – towards the temple and the sky. The area to the east of the bungalow has been transformed into a series of interconnected terraces that step down towards the lake's edge and are framed by kitchens, outhouses, servants' quarters, the guest house, the office pavilion and the sculpture gallery. To the north a lawn runs from the foot of a spreading aralia tree towards the undulating parapet of a steep cliff, offering views northwards and westwards across the lake. Below the parapet a narrow pathway snakes along the face of the cliff between the rock face and the undergrowth, connecting to a series of stairways. At the foot of the cliff a broad swathe of swamp has been transformed into a water meadow divided into rice paddy squares leading to the lake's edge. To the west of the bungalow, lawns slope towards a fringe of shady terraces that drop down into the Field of Jars and the valley of rice paddy that runs towards the lake.
A garden is not a static object: it is a moving spectacle, a series of scenographic images that change with the season, the point of view, the time of day, the mood. And so Lunuganga has been conceived as a series of separate contained spaces, to be moved through at leisure or to be occupied at certain times of the day. From the house it is possible to set out in any direction and combine the different parts of the garden into any one of an infinite number of possible spatial sequences. All of this has been achieved on a piece of land measuring 500 metres from north to south across the peninsula and 300 metres from east to west along the Broad Walk. The limits of the whole garden can be inspected by a brisk walker in fifteen minutes, though to experience it in all its parts would take the better part of a day.
Over the years the original rubber trees have been replaced progressively by a rich variety of trees and plants, and the hill has been liberally sprinkled with pavilions, walls and statues. The result is a civilized wilderness, not a garden of flowers and fountains; it is a composition in monochrome, green on green, an ever-changing play of light and shade, a succession of hidden surprises and sudden vistas, a landscape of memories and ideas. Here is no orgy of topiary and bric-a-brac. Works of art are carefully placed to form objects for contemplation, punctuation marks on routes, pointers or distant beacons: a leopard lies in the dappled shade beside the lake, guarding the watergate; a young boy beckons on the edge of the cliff; a grotesque Pan grins up from the edge of the paddy. Christoph Bon's beautiful black-and-white photographs for the book that records the garden for all time capture perfectly the monochromatic quality of the planting and the constant dappling of the light. Bawa wrote in the book's epilogue:
For years the garden had grown gradually into a place of many moods, the result of many imaginings, offering me a retreat to be alone or to fellow-feel with friends. An added pleasure is to observe the reactions to this place, from puzzlement to the silence of contentment, from the remarkable comment of the friend of a friend -“This would be a lovely place to have a graden” – to the lorry driver who walked around the garden whilst his bricks were being unloaded and then said to me: 'But this is a very blessed place!' (Bawa et al. l990, p.219).
In 1992 Bawa made his last substantial addition to the garden. On the far side of Cinnamon Hill on the edge of the trees lay the ruins of the former workshops of the metalwork craftsman Bellic Baas. These were removed to make way for another guest house - The 'Cinnamon Hill House', a simple structure of four roofed pavilions - two bedrooms with open-to-the-sky bathrooms, an open loggia and a servant's room - connected by flat roofed links. But it is a house that is full of echoes. The entrance is formed by the splay of the bedrooms and the servant's room, and is a miniature version of the entrance to the Kandalama Hotel. The visitor arrives through the woods from the ha-ha and is funneled into the 'mouth of the cave' to discover the loggia and the views out across the tank towards the Katakuliya temple. And the loggia itself contains a memory of the church in Bandarawela: a blank wall to the right, an open screen with cruciform columns to the left, and an 'altar table' on the axis. Bawa, whose work was always enlivened by quotations from other architects, now quotes himself.
After his stroke in 1998 Bawa was exiled from his garden for over a year, being confined to his Minotaur's lair at 33rd Lane. But in 2000 his health improved sufficiently for him to start visiting Lunuganga again and he is now able to stay there for weeks at a time. Although he is still paralysed and unable to speak, his general health has improved and he clearly derives great benefits from these visits. The garden is now managed by two young architects, Michael and Aasha, who are employed by the Lunuganga Trust. Each morning Bawa is wheeled out onto one or other of the terraces to meet them, and together they plan the day's cutting and pruning: Michael points towards a clump of trees, Aasha whispers in his ear and Bawa gestures with his good left hand. In this way, although trapped within a corporeal prison, Bawa can still communicate with the garden he has been crafting for more than half a century.
Today the garden seems so natural, so established, that it is hard to appreciate just how much effort has gone into its creation. Vast quantities of earth have been shifted, trees and shrubs have been planted and transplanted, branches have been weighed down with stones to train their shape: nothing exists now that has not been introduced into the composition or consciously allowed to remain. The various buildings constructed down the years appear simply to have grown out of the ground, carefully restored remnants of some earlier period of occupation, messages on a palimpsest. Nor is it apparent how much work is needed to maintain such careful casualness. Ignore the garden for a week and the paths and staircases will clog up with leaves; ignore it for a month and the lawns will run wild; ignore it for a year and the terraces will start to crumble; after two or three years the jungle will return and the garden will be lost for ever.
In 1948 as Sri Lanka was shaking off the shackles of empire, a young man dreamt of making a garden. Today the garden is in its prime but, after the passage of over fifty monsoons, Sri Lanka has lost its innocence and the young man has grown old. As he sits in his wheelchair on the terrace and watches the sun setting across the lake it may be that he reflects on his achievement. Perhaps the garden had simply been waiting there for him to discover it beneath a canopy of jungle?
But this is a work of art, not of nature: it is the contrivance of a single mind and a hundred pairs of hands working together with nature to produce something that is 'supernatural'. What should become of this magic world? Ought it to be frozen or preserved? Ought it to become a national monument maintained by bureaucrats and trampled over by thousands of souvenir-hunting tourists? Better by far to let the jungle swallow it up than to see it turned into a travesty of its former self.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 238-260.