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Geoffrey Bawa: An Island Visionary

Geoffrey Bawa: An Island Visionary

By Cosmo Brockway

Sri Lanka is a paradise for lovers of architecture. The island is dotted with villas and bungalows set like jewels in sweeping gardens and plantations waiting to be explored. Many of these buildings were conceived by the man called ‘Sri Lanka’s greatest architect’, Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003).

Often hailed as the father of the ‘tropical modernist’ movement, the story of this visionary designer is as fascinating as his creations. Born to a successful lawyer, the Anglo-Muslim Justice Bawa and his Dutch-Sinhalese wife Bertha, Geoffrey and his elder brother, Bevis, enjoyed a privileged childhood. In a society where being of mixed race was historically often seen as an impediment to social acceptance, the Bawas were wealthy, cosmopolitan and mixed in the Ceylonese elite circles of the day.

Bawa studied at Cambridge University following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather then followed them into law, qualifying in 1944. He returned to Colombo to work briefly in a law firm but used his inheritance to travel across the Far East, the United States and Europe. After nearly settling in an Italian villa, Bawa returned to his native island and bought a rundown rubber plantation, which opened his eyes to the joy of garden design and then of buildings. This personal revelation led Bawa to train as an architect in his late thirties.

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A natural eye for beauty and a deft cultural understanding led to Geoffrey quickly becoming one of Sri Lanka’s most prolific designers. His distinctive creations are liberally scattered throughout the island, typified by monochrome palettes, pavilions and courtyards, and the marriage of traditional and experimental.

Bawa was not a designer confined, while his fingerprint can be most clearly seen in tropical metropolis Colombo, he worked on hotels, villas, Buddhist monasteries and the breathtaking Houses of Parliament at Kotte, which surges triumphantly out of an artificial lake.

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Bawa’s impact on the fast-growing luxury travel scene was revolutionary and has never been rivalled: he designed 35 hotels between 1965 and 1997, of which 13 were built in Sri Lanka, including the iconic Bentota Beach Hotel.  He is credited with creating fully sustainable buildings long before the notion was fashionable. The vision was always a long-haul one, sometimes confounding onlookers, staff at the 20-year old Kandalama Hotel tell of Bawa describing the newly-built hotel as peering from under a canopy of lush vegetation, much to their bemusement. Now, of course, long after his passing, it is exactly that.  

To his many admirers, his spirited touch was unparalleled. ‘He was a man who could civilise a landscape with a pot’, according to close associate Ulrik Plesner while another fellow architect Christopher Beaver praises his designs as: ‘so perfect you almost don’t know they are there’. Credited for resurrecting the courtyard house style, beloved of his Muslim and Sinhalese ancestors but previously disapproved of by the British, Bawa drew inspiration from the ancient local manor houses while infusing them with an unmistakably modern aesthetic. Materials were tactile and deeply natural; roofs of half-round Portuguese tiles, walls of plastered brick, smooth satinwood columns, timber latticed windows and rough granite floors. Seamlessly flowing into their environments and focusing on the interplay of light and the interconnecting of the outside with the interiors, Bawa’s buildings were fresh, vital and at their heart, an ode to Sri Lanka, as she grew from independence infancy.

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The Lunuganga Estate and Bawa’s Colombo home, ‘Number 11’, are open for public and private tours. Lunuganga is one of Sri Lanka’s great highlights, a pristine garden and villa paying homage to a man who loved them for over 50 years. At Number 11, Bawa combined four individual bungalows in the charming and serene suburb of Colombo 3. Walking through the decorated glass door with its semi-circle moonstone is to chance upon an interior fashioned by genius, full of treasures and surprises.

Bawa’s brother, Bevis, shared his pioneering design ethos and separately created an estate called Brief Garden which is also open to visit and sporting, according to Ampersand Travel’s Chloe Goolden: ‘an utterly encapsulating and eclectic collection’ of sculptures in a pleasingly unmanicured garden.  

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Bawa’s legacy has been managed since the late 1990s by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Against all the odds this small but heroic group has succeeded in maintaining both Lunuganga and Number 11 as living museums to Bawa. Michael Ondaatje, the novelist paid fitting tribute to Geoffrey Bawa with these words:

‘Every artist works on a different scale. A page. A painting. A sonata. A novel. A house. A garden. But essentially they all create, in some ways, self-portraits of themselves. Art is a long intimacy. The scale of the achievement might be grand and take years but it has to be personal and carefully pieced together and specific to its culture.’

For more information or to start planning your tailor-made holiday to Sri Lanka, please contact us: // +44 (0) 207 819 9770

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