A decade after Sri Lanka’s independence, at a time when the influence of colonial architecture was still predominant, a fresh graduate (though in his late thirties) of the Architectural Association in London bought the third in a row of four small bungalows on 33rd Lane, Colpetty, in Colombo. It consisted of a sitting room, a bedroom, a small kitchen and an even smaller second bedroom for the architect’s manservant, Miguel. Over the next decade, he would buy the remaining three bungalows as well and transform them into his home-office: Number 11, the birthplace of some of the most brilliant designs by Geoffrey Bawa, and the starting point of my Bawa pilgrimage.
In the garage, I’m greeted by a silver 1934 Drophead Coupé Rolls-Royce, among other vintage cars. In the early 1940s, Bawa roamed across Europe in the Rolls, shipping it down when he returned to the island. A classical beauty, it sets the tone for the architectural odyssey that is to follow. Bawa’s creations are renowned for their often blurred boundaries between the indoors and the outdoors, resulting in a delightful play between space and light. In true Bawa fashion, the labyrinth of rooms, corridors and garden courts of Number 11 flow seamlessly into one another. It reminded me of a statement he’d once made: “I design from the inside out. The play of light is vitally important- after all, it makes the greatest difference to one’s quality of life.” Bawa’s eye for the smallest of details marks each carefully curated piece in the house, offering a glimpse into the life of a very private genius.
Though Bawa loved entertaining, and was always seen with a crisp gin and tonic, he preferred to be a man of few friends. Openly gay, he did not have a long-term partner and devoted his life to architecture. Born into a family of lawyers in 1919, he was of mixed Sri Lankan Muslim and European parentage. He lost his father when he was only four years old and was brought up, along with his older brother Bevis, by their mother and two maiden aunts. Continuing the family tradition, he left for England when he was 19, returning a barrister, only to depart from both the island and the profession in 1946, soon after the passing of his mother. His initial plans were to make a lakeside villa in Italy his home, but when that didn’t come to pass, he purchased an abandoned rubber plantation near Bentota called Lunuganga in 1948 and decided to transform it. In the process, his frustration with his own technical inadequacy prompted him to take up an apprenticeship with architect H. H. Reid, before he finally pursued a formal education in architecture. A personal project that had sparked an interest in gardening and architecture eventually became a career.
As I stand in Lunuganga estate’s Glass Room, I cannot help but lose myself in the exquisite view it offers. With two sides walled by the glass that gives the room its name, I feel contained and afloat at the same time. For me, Bawa’s philosophy of ‘a house is a garden’ resonates nowhere more so than at Lunuganga. After all, this expanse of tamed wilderness was his place of awakening. Frangipanis are a ubiquitous feature in the countryside residence. Lunuganga (translating to salt lake) gets its name from the Dedduwa Lake it borders. Bawa shaved away the jungle foliage to create a view of this serene water body as well as the island at its centre. Ever an artist, he used to hang weights on the branches of the frangipani trees, so that their
naturally multi-stemmed branches opened out a little more; he even trained peacocks and peahens to sit on them, painting the perfect picture. With four suites and a two-bedroom cottage, to me, Lunuganga is protean. From the Red Terrace to the Yellow Courtyard, the Black Pavilion to the Cinnamon Hill house, the Southern Terrace, Western Terrace, the Gate House, the Plain of Jars — each seems to be a unique note orchestrated by a maestro, creating a golden harmony. Bawa continued to perfect the house-cum-garden even after a stroke in 1998 left him paralysed and unable to speak, experimenting until his death in 2003. He was cremated on the Cinnamon Hill.
Bentota has numerous other Bawa-designed properties, while only a handful have preserved the original design — some have been converted into hotels (such as the newly launched Boutique 87, a fabulous villa with just two rooms, set in a 17-acre estate), others renovated and a few demolished. But a little more than an hour’s drive away from Lunuganga lies another one of Bawa’s masterpieces: the Lighthouse Hotel. In Galle, Jetwing Lighthouse is perched on a rocky cliff and was among Bawa’s final projects. His association with the proprietors of the hotel chain goes back decades; they were involved in the construction of many of his projects. Close friends and ardent enthusiasts of his design philosophy, they looked to no other when developing their own chain of hotels.
While many would have seen the surrounding rocks as an obstacle, Bawa took great pleasure in merging natural landscapes with man-made creations. Any distinct natural feature was seen as more material to masterfully mould. Exploring the many corridors and stairways of Jetwing Lighthouse, I am repeatedly and pleasantly surprised by the rocks that rise up to greet me within the structure. The main staircase, also
carved from one of the rocks, is a spiralling illustration of the Battle of Randeniya — a fierce encounter between the Sinhalese armies and the Portuguese that resulted in the colonisers’ defeat, despite their superior cannon power. The copper and brass banister was crafted by Laki Senanayake, one of Bawa’s closest friends, and as
the warm sunlight falls on it, the battle unfolds before my eyes in ripples and swirls of fluid movement. The hotel also features numerous pieces of handcrafted furniture and paintings by artists Barbara Sansoni and Ena de Silva, both of whom were also close friends of Bawa. The hotel’s entrance façade echoes the granite finish of the Dutch Fort, while its various public areas treat you to infinite views of the Indian Ocean.
On my drive back to Colombo, I couldn’t but dwell on Bawa’s contributions to Asian architecture. Would we ever produce another architect of his calibre? What are the odds of a lawyer becoming one of the most celebrated
architectural icons of the 20th century? Bawa pioneered a new and distinct architectural fingerprint — tropical modernism, in which vernacular architecture embraced modernism. These spaces revolved around their residents, forming a symbiotic relationship with the prevailing climate and culture. Bawa’s genius
won him the Aga Khan Special Chairman’s Award for Architecture and a Deshamanya, the second-highest civilian award by the government of Sri Lanka. He never won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, the highest recognition in architecture, but as David Robson, a professor of architecture who wrote Geoffrey Bawa: The
Complete Works in 2002, so rightly stated in Bawa’s obituary, “The omission of any official accolade in Britain was partially put to right in 1998 by Prince Charles, who slipped away from the 50th anniversary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence to pay a personal tribute to the ailing architect at Lunuganga.”
As I pull up in front of the last work of art on my Bawa pilgrimage, I can’t help but smile contentedly at the sight that awaits me. Though Colombo is home to a handful of private residences, galleries and government offices
(including the Sri Lankan Parliament) that bear the Bawa signature, I chose to end my journey at the only temple designed by him. It’s close to sunset, the Beira Lake mirrors the golden hues of the sky, and from its unbroken surface emerges a simple Buddhist temple. Built on three interconnected podiums, the temple is linked to the road by a walkway. Redesigned following the sinking of the original 19th-century edifice, Bawa chose to move away from traditional temples and took inspiration from the monasteries of ancient Sri Lanka. Forging a
place of tranquillity in the middle of an otherwise chaotic city, this embodiment of elegance wholesomely echoes his approach to architecture. Paraphrasing the words of Robson, Bawa ultimately derived pleasure from creating buildings that brought pleasure to others, and as I stood rooted in the middle of the temple, that is exactly what I felt — contented pleasure.