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)
In 1963 the Swiss company Baur & Co commissioned a new manager's bungalow for a remote coconut estate near Nikarawetiya in the Dry Zone about 100 kilometres north of Colombo. Baur's Swiss director, Thilo Hoffman, wanted a prefabricated house similar to that built for the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1959. He provided a survey plan of the estate that identified a flat site next to the main estate road and the architects sketched out a first proposal based on the house they had built for Shell at Anuradhapura in 1960.When Plesner made an initial visit to Polontalawa, however, he made the radical suggestion of shifting the house into an area of large boulders. Hoffman then accompanied Plesner and Bawa on a working visit, when it was proposed that the house be built in the form of a cluster of pavilions inserted amongst the boulders. He seems to have warmed to the idea immediately and all thoughts of a low-cost prefabricated bungalow evaporated. The house was sketched out roughly on a piece of paper and then set out on the ground with sticks and string.
Bawa later told Channa Daswatte:
We discovered a spot full of boulders and we all said how excellent and splendid it would be to build a house there. So we got sticks and string, brought some chairs and sandwiches, and set the house out with the contractor, who followed every gesture of our hands.
Ulrik Plesner remembered: 'Geoffrey stood in the middle, telling the jungle villagers what to do and keeping them giggling - he was always the star on site while I was the grey eminence' (letter to the author).
The house was built without drawings by the local estate staff, acting mainly under Plesner's supervision. The compound is defined by a high encircling wall of rubble entered through a lychgate. A small entrance court leads between two boulders into the main living area, an open pavilion defined by a roof spanning from one vast boulder to another. A grand piano was placed beside one of the boulders, perhaps to emphasize the civilizing effects of the house on this remote and inaccessible site. Beyond the living area are two rubble-walled pavilions, one for the manager and one for his guests. A third pavilion, set behind the living room and next to a service entrance, contains the kitchens and estate office and is signified by a rubble water tower. A system of detachable rattan screens could be hung on the appropriate side of the living area during the monsoons.
Employing materials from the site and its immediate surroundings, this is a house that grows out of the landscape. It belongs to a long Sri Lankan tradition of cave temples insinuated between boulders and tucked under cliffs, and indeed such a temple exists at Kadiyagawa, just a mile to the north-west of the site. Here for the first time Bawa and Plesner exploited and celebrated a natural landscape to the full and succeeded in expressing the roof as a totally autonomous element.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 93-94.