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 Agrarian Research and Training Institute is situated at the southern end of Wijerama Mawatha, a broad avenue of large villas mainly housing official residences or government offices. The institute was built for a government department during a time of austerity and strict import control. The brief called for a range of large and small offices, a lecture hall, a library and a residential hostel and challenged Bawa to work within a low budget and with local materials to create a pleasant, naturally ventilated working environment.
Working with Ismeth Raheem, Bawa created a tight group of two-storey pavilions arranged in chequerboard fashion around a collection of carefully planted courtyards. In deference to the scale of the surroundings, the buildings are set back from the road behind a front garden and a simple porte cochère. In typical Bawa fashion the initial impression of axial symmetry is gently dispelled as the visitor penetrates the building and discovers the unique proportions of each successive space. Corridors are open-sided and serve single banks of rooms, encouraging cross-ventilation and removing all need for air-conditioning.
Bawa used his now familiar palette of materials with great assurance: a crisp concrete frame with neatly articulated concrete purlins and rafters supports a roof of tiles on corrugated sheeting; broad overhanging eaves cast deep shadows on the white plastered walls; access balconies are protected by chunky coconut balustrades and surfaced with polished clay tiles. Today, after nearly thirty years of use, these buildings are still in excellent condition and offer a potent exemplar of sustainable and energy-conscious design to a new generation of architects.
In the following year Bawa designed another experimental office building for the National Institute of Management Studies on a site immediately behind the ARTI. This five-floor pavilion adopted the stepped-out section developed for the Bentota Beach Hotel, making it possible to insert a surprising open courtyard at fourth-floor level.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 132-133.