Beliefs and ideologies
According to David Robson (2001), Bawa was a very introverted and private person, who kept his thoughts and feelings to himself; he carefully separated his work from his personal life and friends. Deliberately enigmatic and subtle, he did not like to offer any explanation or justification about his ideas and beliefs. Nevertheless, given the proliferation of buildings and houses he designed or constructed, these soon became self-evident. Bawa became one of the most revolutionary and influential architects in Sri Lanka throughout his decades-long career. He had discovered his passion for historical and vernacular contexts in the 1950s after redesigning the landscape of a rubber plantation in Colombo and restoring and extending the existing old house. Starting his architectural training and career rather late, Bawa’s maturity, extensive travels, and varied experiences, along with his personal beliefs and ideologies, helped create a unique and pragmatic architectural style (Richards, 1986). Thus, he was able to creatively combine his broad knowledge of the traditions and history of his own country with the lessons learned from his travels and academic experiences. His architecture and designs were characterised by ‘understatement’,’ ‘quietness,’ as well as ‘formlessness’,’ qualities derived from Buddhist teachings that are integral features of the Sri Lankan identity (Robson, 2002).
Prioritising traditional craftsmanship, Bawa worked with experienced local craftsmen; he much preferred to make decisions and change details in situ rather than on paper, much like the great master builders of centuries past (Richards, 1986). Influenced by Sri Lankan environmental aesthetics, Bawa’s designs expressed his ideals of a sensitive connection between nature and architecture. His buildings are often surrounded by attractive landscaped elements. Bawa was fortunate to be able to choose the site himself for most of his projects and, in this way, many of his structures also became a harmonious part of the landscape they were built in. Inspired by both nature and the vernacular, his buildings often incorporated surprising changes of level and form; they were anything but monotonous and predictable (Robson, 2002). One of his idiosyncrasies was to locate and retain trees and vegetation on site rather than place them on drawn plans; these would then complement his design features, adding to the integrated outdoor experience he wanted to achieve.
Bawa’s serene garden retreat, Lunuganga Garden in Bentota, is one of his best-known projects. He began the transformation of a former rubber plantation into an extraordinary garden paradise. Even before he embarked on his career as an architect, he was intent on fashioning it into an idyllic garden, an enterprise that would last almost fifty years. The 25-acre property located on the banks of the Bentota River 90 kilometres south of Colombo was in constant transformation from the 1920s on. After purchasing the estate, Bawa refurbished the existing construction and, taking into consideration the site’s topography, he designed harmonious terraced gardens featuring sculptures, courtyards, lily ponds, romantic pavilions, and lush vegetation (Figure 2.9). The site is described as “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” (Robson, 2001:22). Bawa carefully placed sculptures and oriental urns in key points of the garden as objects for contemplation. For Bawa it was a peaceful
Figure 2.9 Lunuganga Country Estate and Bentota River, Sri Lanka, by Geoffrey Bawa
Source: Photographer: Helene Binet/Archnet garden haven where he could commune with nature. Even after his stroke in 1998, which left him unable to speak, he continued to visit the site and make adjustments with the help of two young architects maintaining the estate (Taylor, 1990). The construction and the garden appear so natural and fluid, as if they were extensions of nature itself.
Bawa’s projects can be categorised according to period and influence. Early in his architectural career, he primarily designed utilitarian buildings: schools, office buildings, or factories. Bawa was familiar with the pioneering work of Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew in tropical modernism design which took into consideration hot, humid climates and adapted local materials and techniques to the essential concepts of modernism. He also had studied the work of Le Corbusier (Robson, 2002). Influenced by their promotion and use of sustainable construction, Bawa’s early residential projects modified the typical and popular British bungalow design by incorporating elements of traditional architecture to create a new postcolonial bungalow more suited to the environment. He later introduced Scandinavian-inspired arrangements in the form of courts, roof gardens, and covered terraces. Acknowledging that pitched roofs and overhangs were appropriate architectural features for protection from the frequent rains of the tropical climate of Sri Lanka, Bawa also incorporated these into his contemporary vernacular designs. Projects such as the Dr A.S.H. de Silva residence (1959) or the Ena de Silva house are vivid examples of his skill in creating inside and outside interconnectedness whereby nature moves seamlessly from without to within. Another early work that is representative of his use of contemporary vernacularism is the Yahapath Endera Farm School, Hanwella, built for orphan girls (1966) on a rubber and coconut estate outside of Colombo. The buildings were constructed on a formal orthogonal grid, taking note of the topography; he positioned the buildings with open spaces and vistas using local materials for cost effectiveness.
Bawa also built a number several of Sri Lanka’s first purpose-built tourist hotels and resorts. The most well known were the Kandalama Hotel (Figure 2.10) and Bentota Beach Hotel (Figure 2.11). Ceridwen Owen views the Kandalama Hotel, which was one of Bawa’s later projects, as a model
Figure 2.10 Kandalama Hotel, Dambulla, Sri Lanka, by Geoffrey Bawa Source: © Aga Khan Trust for Culture/Christian Richters (photographer)
Figure 2.11 Bentota Beach Hotel, Bentota, Sri Lanka, by Geoffrey Bawa Source: © David Robson of how architecture can go beyond traditional depictions of people- environment relations as two distinct phenomena; this is accomplished by maintaining a space of dynamic tension (Owen, 2008:53). Bentota Beach Hotel, built in the 1970s, is one of his large-scale internationally acclaimed projects. Here, Bawa showcases one of the exemplary uses of the tiled roofs- cape. This hotel became the benchmark for all future hotel developments in Sri Lanka (Brawne, 1995). Bawa created a subtle yet coherent atmosphere of ancient palaces, manor houses, and colonial villas, which responded to the whims and needs of the modern well-heeled tourist. The simple design hides a complex and ingenious thinking. The hotel is organised around a central courtyard, similar to Le Corbusier’s La Tourette. The rooms are located on the top floors with spectacular sea views. The construction materials are local: terracotta, concrete, rough granite, and dark timber, deliberately introduced to create an authentic feeling of traditional and old (Taylor, 1990).
Perturbed by the political issues and the constant changes and crises in Sri Lanka, Bawa considered moving abroad in the middle of his career. In 1971, and for the next few years, he completed a number of foreign projects - in India, Japan, Indonesia, Mauritius, Singapore, and even Egypt. However, being invited and inspired by the Sri Lankan government’s request for him to build a series of public buildings inaugurated a new stage in Bawa’s stellar career. These commissions launched the regional modernism period of Bawa’s career. Bawa skilfully and effectively addressed tropical climatic issues, such as mould, rain, and humidity, in order to build environmentally appropriate workplaces. This blueprint for functional tropical modern was evident in his design of the Industrial Estate, Pallakelle (1971), the Agrarian Research and Training Institute in Colombo (1974), and the State Mortgage Bank Tower in Colombo (1976). One of Bawa’s most monumental projects, during this period, was the New Parliamentary Complex at Kotte, 1979-1982 (Figure 2.12). The existing marshy valley was flooded, and an artificial island was created for the new building. Bawa used reinforced concrete, coated with crushed stone, for the primary structure and traditional local timber for the construction of the large two-pitch roofs and exterior galleries. The main centrally located chamber is surrounded by five pavilions that appear like satellite roofs; these are connected by a plinth on the ground and the first floor. Another grand design of Bawa’s (Figure 2.13) was the stunning University of Ruhunu campus in Matara (1980-1988). Here, making use of the undulating existing topography, he created a series of pavilions, courtyards, and open terraces situated at different elevations. Vistas and closures, using few materials and simple forms, help create a modern, aesthetically pleasing, mainly orthogonal design (Robson, 2002).
Although Bawa continued to accept commissions abroad for several decades, beginning with the Ceylon Pavilion for the 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan, Bawa preferred to work in his homeland. His most well-known structures were mainly hotels, such as the Lighthouse Hotel, Galle (1995), the Blue Water Hotel at Wadduwa, and private houses, such as the de Soysa House
Figure 2.12 New Parliamentary Complex, Kotte, Sri Lanka, by Geoffrey Bawa Source: © David Robson/Harry Sowden (photographer)
Figure 2.13 University of Ruhunu, Matara, Sri Lanka, by Geoffrey Bawa Source: © David Robson
(1990), the Jayakody House (1993) and the Jayawardene House (1997). Even though built decades after his first projects, these buildings still retain the simplicity and elegance characteristic of Bawa’s signature tropical modern style.
A number of Bawa’s Sri Lankan projects, such as the Bentota Beach Hotel, were designed with cultural and climatic contextual particularities in mind, have received international recognition. Indigenous local and regional architecture became a key feature of his designs; this added to Dutch and British colonial influences helped create a particular sophistication and quality unique to contemporary Sri Lankan architecture (Richards, 1986). Geoffrey Bawa’s visionary transformation and artful merging of landscape with buildings demonstrated that the use of new technologies combined with traditional materials and designs could reinvigorate old traditions to create beautiful and functional living and working spaces.
Bawa designed mainly for the privileged urban upper middle classes who actually made up less than less than 5% of the population (Jayawardence, 1986). The majority of Sri Lankans were poor and lived in impoverished rural areas and farms. Although he was criticised for catering to his affluent clientele at a critical time of urbanisation and rural planning, it was these clients who provided his commissions and gave him free rein to experiment and create. Despite this, the importance of his architecture remains unquestionable. Bawa actively contributed and promoted the process of national and cultural architectural regeneration in Sri Lanka and set an inspiring example for future architects. He was instrumental in creating a paradigm shift in architectural attitudes and practices. Bawa’s architectural career wears many hats: he has been variously described by critics as a romantic, a tropical modernist, a regionalist, and a vernacularist (Robson, 2001). In view of his extraordinary and iconic projects, Bawa represented all of these things, making him a bit of a Renaissance man, a visionary architect who was able to transform regional architecture into a timeless and unique architectural language and heritage specific to its time and place.
It is difficult to delve deeply into Bawa’s fundamental beliefs about architecture; he was a very private and reclusive person and deliberately chose not to openly talk about his buildings and designs. Unlike Lathy and Chadirji who published many articles, essays, and books about their respective work, Bawa preferred not to write about his architectural ideologies. Rather, he was an architectural sensualist, who firmly believed buildings have to be experienced, not simply described in words.