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.
Khan, Hassan-Uddin. 1995. In Contemporary Asian
Architects. Köln: Taschen Books.
Robson, David. 2001. The Aga Khan Award for
Architecture Chairman's Award.
Sri Lanka's original Parliament building dated from 1929 and had been built to accommodate a legislative assembly of fifty members. Occupying a long strip of land running between the southern edge of the Colombo Fort and the Beira Lake, it had been designed in the Anglo-Palladian style by Austin Woodeson, chief architect of the PWD, with highly modelled façades embodying a continuous double-height Ionic order above a rusticated podium. The Assembly was placed with its entrance portico facing towards the Indian Ocean, while the debating chamber occupied a double-height volume above a piano nobile and was arranged as a hemicycle with its seats focusing on the Speaker's chair. Behind the Assembly the Secretariat was housed in a separate block with its own entrances, connected to the Assembly by a recessed link.
The Colombo Fort had always been a foreign bastion, facing the sea and turning its back on the interior of the island. During the British period it gradually lost its residential function and became predominantly a centre for government and commerce. Parliament's position in relation to the Fort symbolized the very limited powers of the new legislature: the real power was still vested in the British governor, whose base remained inside the Fort. The building's orientation towards the Indian Ocean and ultimately towards Europe served as a further reminder that the sun had still to set upon the empire.
After independence in 1948 the debating chamber was rearranged along Westminster lines with the government and opposition benches facing each other across the axis of the Speaker’s chair. However, the chamber was too small to seat the number of elected representatives and during the 1960s there was increasing pressure to build a new Parliament. In 1974 the Bandaranaike government commissioned a detailed study by the PWD and a site was selected to the immediate south of the old building on the opposite bank of the Beira Lake .A design by PWD architect Pani Tennakoon proposed a circular building in a pseudo-Kandyan style with a roof in the form of a Kandyan 'hat'. Bawa was also invited to submit a scheme at this time and proposed a linear building running parallel to the old Parliament, echoing its strong horizontal lines and subdued vertical rhythms. The debating chamber was planned as a symmetrical rectangle based on the Westminster model with side galleries for MPs, upper galleries for the public and views towards the old building and out across the Galle Face to the ocean. In an early version the chamber was given an outward-cantilevering form, sheltered by a heavy, overhanging, flat concrete roof supported on giant freestanding columns rising out of a massive tiered podium. On one surviving print Bawa has superimposed ballpoint sketches of a vari-pitched roof with a large exclamation mark. Eventually the project was cancelled and another surviving print carries the rueful comment 'shelved for lack of funds'.
One of J.R. Jayewardene's first acts after becoming president in 1978 was to decree that a new Parliament be built at Kotte, about ten kilometres inland from the Colombo Fort, at the centre of a new capital city. The choice of site seems to have been made by the President and his immediate advisers and was driven primarily by political and historical considerations. The Kotte citadel had been established during the fourteenth century at a time of great political confusion, when the island was divided into a number of rival kingdoms and was continually under threat from South India. In 1391 a chief minister of the Gampola kingdom called Alakesvara had inflicted defeat on the armies of the Jaffna kingdom. Descended from a clan of South Indian merchant adventurers who had Sinhalized by converting to Buddhism, Alakesvara proclaimed himself king and shifted the capital to Kotte, which was given the honorific title of Sri Jayawardhanapura or 'resplendent (Sri) city (pura) of victory (jaya)'. For a brief time in the fifteenth century Alakesvara's descendant Parakramabahu VImanaged to extend the power of the Kotte kingdom over the whole island for what was to be the last period of unified and autonomous government until Ceylon regained its independence in 1948.
President Jayewardene may have been swayed both by the historical resonance of the site and by its fortuitous connection with his own name. Many commentators, notably Vale (1992), have made much of this, suggesting that the shift of the capital could be interpreted as a direct provocation to the minority Tamil community. This criticism ignores the irony that Kotte was actually ruled by a line of kings of mixed Indian and Sinhalese descent at a time when political boundaries often obscured the clear distinction between Tamil and Sinhalese and when the biggest threats to security came from the Vijayanagar empire of South India and from China. It could equally be argued, therefore, that Kotte represented a last period not of Sinhalese hegemony but of Sri Lankan unity, before the onset of European colonization.
There were also good practical reasons for moving the Parliament to Kotte. Colombo was still governed as if it were a small municipality with half a million inhabitants, when in fact it had become an unplanned and chaotic metropolis of almost three million, restricted by the sea and by the marshes and lagoons that had once protected it. Its total primacy posed a serious threat to the balanced development of the whole country, economically, socially and communally and there were those who argued more radically to shift the capital to Kurunegala, Dambulla or even Trincomalee. But the move to Kotte, only ten kilometres as the crow flies, represented a sizeable conceptual shift. In practical terms it leap frogged the main belt of marshland to the immediate east of the Baseline Road and opened the possibility of new urban development on a massive scale in an undeveloped area of about 150 square kilometres, bound to the north by the Kalani Ganga and to the south by the High Level Road.But it also offered the chance to orientate the capitol away from the Indian Ocean and the West and back towards the interior of the island.
Bawa was invited to be the architect of the new Parliament early in 1979.A morning phone call from a permanent secretary led to a brief lunchtime meeting with the President, who offered Bawa the job on the spot. He was prepared to give Bawa a free hand in the design and his only stipulation was that the project be completed by April 1982. Whilst Bawa may seem with hindsight to have been the obvious choice, his practice had no experience of building on such a scale and it would hardly have been surprising if the commission had been given to the PWD or to a foreign firm of architects.
The newly created 'Urban Development Authority' (UDA) was responsible for drawing up a master plan for the new city of Jayawardhanapura.Kotte it was Bawa who actually determined the precise location of the parliamentary capitol. Having viewed the area on the ground and from the air he proposed that the marshy Diyavanna Oya valley be flooded to create a lake of 120 hectares and that the new Parliament be built on a knoll of high ground two kilometres to the south-east of the ruins of the fifteenth-century citadel, on what would become an island at the lake's centre. Bawa wasted little time in developing an overall design concept. He used his earlier Beira Lake scheme as a starting point and adapted it to fit the new site and meet the new programme requirements. One important idea carried forward was that the main debating chamber would be a symmetrical hall with government and opposition benches facing each other across the axis of the Speaker's chair. This could be interpreted as a return to the Westminster model or as a reference to the royal audience halls of Kandy and Polonnaruwa. Whichever, Jayewardene accepted the design without reservation, even though at the time almost 80 per cent of members belonged to the government party. Another idea retained from the first sketch designs was that the chamber be flanked on each side by glazed lobbies so that the members could both see out and be seen. The expanding schedule of accommodation later forced Bawa to abandon these lobbies at the lower levels so that in the final design only the upper most public galleries have direct views to the outside.
Poologasundram took charge of the management of the programme and it was at his suggestion that the construction project was let as a negotiated contract to the Japanese firm, Mitsui. Having built the Ceylon Pavilion at the Osaka Expo in 1970, Mitsui had already worked with Edwards, Reid and Begg. Once an outline design had been developed Bawa and Poologasundram spent four weeks in Japan in late 1979 working out the details of the contract with contractors.
Poologasundram realized that in this instance Bawa would not be able simply to produce a few outline drawings and then work everything out on site as work progressed. The brief called for buildings with a total area of over 40,000 square metres, to be designed and built within a period of three years. It was agreed that E.R.& B. would produce all necessary design drawings and specifications and that Mitsui would produce detailed working drawings. Mitsui opened its own office in Colombo, while Bawa set up a project office in Ena de Silva's house in Alfred Place, where a special team of architects, several of them recruited from Bombay, was established under the leadership of Vasantha Jacobsen. Eventually the two teams produced more than five thousand drawings - a far cry from the days of the Bentota Beach Hotel, which had been built with only thirty. Brian Brace Taylor later observed:
The trauma of Bawa's life was having to work with a Japanese construction firm for the new parliamentary complex, where tight schedules had to be met and few changes could be made as one went along. (Taylor 1986, p.l5)
Bawa conceived the Parliament as an island capitol surrounded by a new garden city of parks and public buildings. It would form the end point on a long promenade, beginning 8 kilometres to the west in Colombo's Viharamahadevi Park and following the grand west-east axis formed by Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, Horton Place and Castle Street before swinging southwards at Rajagiriya. Its cascade of copper roofs would first be seen from the north at a distance of two kilometres, floating above the new lake at the end of the Diyavanna Valley.The final approach would be over a tree-lined causeway to a public piazza punctuated by pools and water cascades with steps and ramps rising to the entrance loggia, from which a formal entrance and staircase would link directly on axis to the main chamber towards the Speaker's chair. As was so often the case with Bawa's designs, the starting point, the main parti, was an experiential journey, a controlled sequence of happenings, which in this case was focused on the annual state opening of Parliament.
The design placed the main chamber in a central pavilion surrounded by a cluster of five satellite pavilions, each defined by its own umbrella roof of copper and seeming to grow out of its own plinth, although the plinths are actually connected at ground and first-floor level. This compositional device had first been used by Bawa in his Hilton Hotel project of 1965. The main pavilion is symmetrical about the debating chamber, but its axiality is diffused by the asymmetry of the arrangement of the lesser pavilions around it. As a result, the pavilions each retain a separate identity but join to create a single upward sweep of tent-like roofs.
Bawa remained typically reticent about the possible sources of this design strategy and it seems likely that, as was so often the case, he drew a number of memories together to produce a new hybrid idea. The lake itself ca be read as a tribute to Sri Lanka’s two millennia of tank building, recalling the Sea of Parakramabahu at Polonnaruwa and the tree-lined lake at Kandy. The plan and the asymmetrical arrangement of the pavilions might equally be said to recall Mogul lake palaces, South Indian temples, Chinese palaces or Sri Lankan monasteries of the Anuradhapura period. Detailed plans of the Anuradhapura monasteries had long been in the public domain (Smithers 1894, Hocart 1924), but renewed interest was sparked by the publication in 1974 of Senake Bandaranayake's analysis of the Western Monasteries at Anuradhapura in Sinhalese Monastic Architecture (Bandaranayake 1974). Bandaranayake categorized a number of monastery types in terms of plan form and speculated about possible roof forms using evidence from cave paintings and drawing parallels with the traditions of Kerala. He recalls that at this time he regularly met Bawa, who borrowed a copy of the book in 1977 and kept it for several years.
During an interview in 1980 Bawa observed:
[Kotte] is a sort of design continuum, reflecting the visual formalities of the old Sinhalese buildings, grand but not pompous, like what you see in Senake Bandaranayakes book. Really it will be a set of pavilions with asymmetry of planning. (Roberts 1980)
Bawa has also said:
We have a marvellous tradition of building in this country that has got lost. It got lost because people followed outside influences over their own good instincts. They never built right 'through' the landscape. I just wanted to fit [Parliament] into the site, so I opened it into blocks. You must 'run' with site; after all, you don't want to push nature out with the building. (Aung-Thwin 1984) The main pavilion and its five satellites define a series of separate outdoor spaces between the building and the lake. Arriving in the ceremonial piazza the first satellite pavilion to the east takes the form of a large open-colonnaded audience hall for public meetings and spontaneous gatherings; to the west a second pavilion contains the public entrance and security checkpoint. On the western side of the island a less public square is defined by a third pavilion, which contains staff facilities. On the south side a fourth pavilion contains the service court and is connected by its own causeway back to the shore. A fifth pavilion at the south-east corner contains the MPs’ dining room above a covered car park and defines a large garden court facing east across the lake, connected to the members' terraces by a monumental open staircase. Traditional 'Kandyan' roofs were made from flat clay tiles laid to a shallow pitch at the eaves and a steeper pitch at the ridge. The form was appropriated by architects in the 1940s and 1950s for use at Peradeniya University and the Colombo Independence Memorial in an ill-conceived attempt to create a new national architectural style using pastiche historical forms. Bawa himself had used a vari-pitched roof in 1976 on the Seema Malaka, the lake temple in Colombo that appears almost to have served as a scale model for Parliament. But the vari-pitch roof is not endemic to Kandy: similar roof forms are found throughout the island, as well as in other parts of monsoon Asia.
Bawa has said:
A roof is a covering and its shape suggests itself at some point, some stage of the design, which is what happened to the [parliamentary] complex. (Fernando 1982)
One unchanging element is the roof - protective, emphatic and all-important - governing the aesthetic whatever the period, whatever the place. Often a building is only a roof, columns and floors – the roof dominant, shielding, giving the contentment of shelter. Ubiquitous, pervasively present, the scale or pattern shaped by the building beneath. The roof, its shape, texture and proportion is the strongest visual factor. (Taylor 1986, p.16)
In their final form the Parliament roofs are an abstraction of the traditional Kandyan roof. The use of copper in place of tile gives them the thinness and tent-like quality of a stretched skin, transporting them far from the realms of historical pastiche while recalling the fabled 'brazen roofs' of Anuradhapura. In contrast everything below the roof has been designed in an abstract Modernist mode with a simple elegance that follows the discipline imposed by a 6 x 6-metre structural grid. The pavilions are supported on two levels of plinth, expressed as a trabeated system of concrete columns at 6-metre centres, behind which the building skin is recessed within slender dark metal frames. The upper plinth steps back on the east, south and west sides to form a continuous upper terrace linking all the pavilions, but on the north side a double height order of columns rises through both levels to mark the entrance loggia.
Rising out of the upper plinth, the main pavilion houses the debating chamber. A further row of concrete columns on its lower floor creates a continuous 3-metre-deep arcade in front of the members' lobbies, while an arcade on the middle floor is formed by composite teak columns at 3-metre centres and on the top floor a perimeter ambulatory is enclosed by a fine timber screen. Above this, the roof cantilevers out 3 metres. The layering of the three levels produces a differential rhythm, while the timber lattice of the top floor exaggerates the shadow of the roof overhang and reinforces the impression that the roofs are floating above the buildings.
The ground floor, set within the plinth, contains a multitude of offices arranged around a central plant room. Ministers' and whips' offices are located at first-floor level on three sides of the main block and the chamber is on the second floor, with members' lobbies to the east and west and suites for the prime minister and the president to the north overlooking the piazza. The third floor accommodates translators and journalists and the fourth is given over to a public gallery.
Much of the interior is finished in a plain and matter-of-fact manner, with white polished terrazzo floors, off-white walls and dark timber furniture. The members' dining room offers views across the lake on three sides and, with its claytiled floors and sloping timber ceilings, has the ambience of a restaurant in a resort hotel. Rupert Scott,a former E. R. & B. assistant writing in the Architectural Review, compared the Parliament building with Bawa's favourite Keralan palace at Padmanabhapuram, peevishly bemoaning the lack of 'tortoiseshell floors, carved thrones and delicately pierced screens' (Scott 1983). In part this restraint was due to budgetary limits, and in part to the tight programme. In the main chamber, however, no expense was spared.
At the opening of Parliament the president, accompanied by the thunder of drums and the shriek of conch shells, crosses over the piazza between a phalanx of richly decorated banners designed by Ena de Silva, and passes through the loggia to a pair of heavy bronze doors. These slide open to reveal an austere stone staircase lined with murals by the artist Manjusri depicting the history of Kotte. At the landing a pair of silver doors engraved with the preamble of the constitution in Sinhala, Tamil and English, opens to reveal the short final staircase leading up into the chamber. The dignitaries ascend to appear before the Speaker's chair between the opposing ranks of members. Above them the ceiling seems to hover like a drooping tent of chain mail, with Laki Senanayake's massive chandelier of silver palm fronds hanging from its apex.
The ceiling is made from square tiles of aluminium, which, for reasons of safety, are each hung individually from the supporting roof structure. Poologasundram, who designed the structure, remembers that Bawa produced a silver chain-link purse of his mother's to demonstrate the effect he sought to achieve. The lower part of the chamber is contained within walls of rich dark timber panelling lit from concealed uplighters that act as supports for the metal flags of the eighteen korales. Above, four steeply tiered rows of visitors' seats rise towards an upper windowed gallery.
The chamber is thus more grand and ornate than the surrounding accommodation, recalling the Music Room in Brighton's Royal Pavilion with its ceiling of dragon's scales and its hanging gasoliers, as well as the British House of Lords, Indian palaces and ceremonial marquees. Scott was finally moved to declare that 'there is an enrichment [in the chamber] that, if applied to the whole building, would place it among the great monumental buildings of the world' (Scott 1983).
The new Parliament was completed within the allotted three-year period and opened on schedule in April 1982. Ironically a stone set in the wall of the main entrance loggia records that the architects were Edwards, Reid and Begg, adding, almost as an afterthought, the names of Geoffrey Bawa, Poologasundram and Vasantha Jacobsen -a Burgher-Moor, a Jaffna Tamil and a Sinhalese Buddhist. The plaque offers a reminder that Sri Lanka's various communities were all represented in Bawa's office and that, whatever the intentions of the politicians, the design for Parliament was conceived as an inclusive expression of the aspirations of the whole nation.
The opening of the new Parliament was staged against a background of rising communal violence that escalated into a bitter civil war. The continuing troubles necessitated the introduction of strict and highly visible security measures in and around Colombo. Little of the development proposed for the area around Parliament was realized and the Parliament building itself now stands forlorn, a remote citadel on an impregnable island, its approaches punctuated by check points, lines of metal barrels and barbed wire. In August 1987, as if to underline the need for this isolation, a disaffected UNP fanatic penetrated the security system and carried out a grenade attack on a meeting of the Party's inner council, injuring a number of leading politicians.
Although the new garden city capital never materialized, Parliament's transfer to Kotte did encourage the growth of Colombo towards the east. Most of that growth was, however, the result of unbridled private investment and land speculation, neither subject to planning controls nor supported by infrastructural investment. Even the first tantalizing glimpse of the Parliament building that Bawa orchestrated at the turning of the road at Rajagiriya is now obscured by unauthorized developments on the edge of the lake in which it stands. Neighbouring Bataramulla, a remote and sleepy village in 1979 is now a congested urban centre, while uncontrolled suburban development has spread more than 10 kilometres further to the east. Sadly, a unique opportunity to plan a new city has been squandered.
Sri Lanka's parliamentary traditions are part of a colonial inheritance that was espoused by a Western-educated elite. The Parliament building is by necessity a national monument but it also exists in an international arena and reflects Sri Lanka's position in the modern world. It was financed partly with foreign aid and the Japanese contractors that built it used the latest 'fast-track' techniques. Bawa's own background - his mixed family, his Colombo childhood and his Cambridge education – made it possible for him to operate within a post-colonial context and to act as an intermediary between local and global cultures.
In designing the Parliament his aim was to create an accessible monument, a potent symbol of democracy that would transcend differences of community or religion. To this end he used historical precedents in an ambiguous and abstract way, drawing on a number of sources. As a result, the building has become an instantly recognizable icon that is identifiably 'of Sri Lanka' and 'of government', although there is nothing in the design that is specifically Sinhalese or Buddhist. However, the fact that Bawa's intentions have been subverted by political events supports his assertion that buildings cannot be pre-loaded with meanings: meanings develop through time and with use.
It would be wrong to hold the architects responsible for the present isolation of the complex or the fortress-like air it has assumed. The island was intended to serve as the focal point of a city park, its lawns dotted with groups of picnicking citizens, its waterside pavilions sheltering earnest debates between parliamentarians and their constituents. For the moment, however, the image is of a Parliament under siege: the lawns are empty and the lakeside pavilions are used by armed sentries. In another time, perhaps, when peace and communal harmony prevail, the terraces, gardens and pavilions will be thrown open to the people and the Parliament might finally become what it was intended to be: the expression of many different but overlapping cultures and traditions and a symbol of open, accessible and democratic government.
Source: Robson, David. 2002. Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson, p. 146-155.