It was the late 1950s. Architect Geoffrey Bawa had won his most memorable residential commission — to design a house for Batik artist Ena de Silva and her husband, Osmund. It was barely a decade after Sri Lanka had won its independence and everything was still very British in the landscape, be it manor houses or bungalows surrounded by generous gardens. Bawa, who by then was experimenting with verandahs and courtyards, chose to turn the house inwards and gave Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo’s affluent neighbourhood, its first urban courtyard house. He was mindful that land would soon be scarce, and gardens would be a luxury.
He subsequently brought in connecting courtyards that effused light and shadows into rooms, blurring the interior and exterior spaces. Architect, author and critic David Robson, who has written books on Bawa and gave a talk on “Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka”, at the recent Frame Conclave in Goa, shared, “He moved away from ideas of tropical modernism, which was a postcolonial take on the international style. It employed abstract forms and industrially-produced building components, showing scant regard for place and culture. Bawa realised that these were culturally inappropriate to cope with Ceylon’s humidity: pure white surfaces discoloured, grilles let in rain spray, flat roofs leaked and over-heated. He began to experiment with traditional elements such as verandahs, courtyards, overhanging roofs, and locally produced materials such as clay tile, stone and timber, demonstrating that a contemporary architecture could still connect to the past and that, using traditional construction, it could still be spatially ambitious. His buildings were naturally cool and comfortable long before terms such as sustainable and energy-efficient had become fashionable.” The de Silva house became a way that Sri Lanka looked at itself and its past, making it one of the most important homes in South Asian architecture.
Born in Ceylon in July 1919, into a family of mixed ancestry, Bawa’s father was an Anglo-Muslim lawyer and his mother a Dutch Burgher. His brother, Bevis, nearly 10 years older to him, became a well-known landscape architect, whose English garden, Brief, in Kalawila village in Beruwala, is a landmark in Sri Lanka. Bawa, who lived most of his student life outside Sri Lanka, returned after World War II, armed with a law degree from Middle Temple, London. His love for the high life led him to buy a rubber plantation along the south-west coast in Bentota, in 1949. His ambition to turn it into a European garden soon made him realise he didn’t have the expertise. It prompted him to enrol at the Architectural Association, London, for a diploma in architecture. Robson says that to this day, Bawa is remembered as the tallest, oldest and most outspoken student of his time. He was 38 when he returned to Sri Lanka as an architect in 1957. This year marks Bawa’s birth centenary. He passed away in May 2003, having signed on numerous building contracts in Sri Lanka and abroad, including institutions, hotels, and residences.
Those who have collaborated with Bawa and been influenced by him say he was motivated by beauty, and could “civilise a landscape with a pot”. One sees it in his designs, be it the impeccably planned Lunuganga (salt river in Sinhala), “recognised as one of the most important Asian gardens of the 20th century”, which was his country house and lifetime laboratory; the recently demolished Bentota Beach Hotel, which spanned out like a colonial Dutch fort but kept its Asian aesthetics intact with louvered wooden windows and a central courtyard; or the Ruhuna University in Matara, where he wrapped buildings around existing hills and afforded ocean views that affirmed his stenographic talent. The Heritance Kandalama hotel, which Bawa imagined to be “an austere jungle palace”, offers views of the Unesco World Heritage site, Sigiriya Rock, the surrounding mountains and the Kandalama reservoir. Bawa was also commissioned for the Sri Lanka Parliament in Kotte.
By the 1970s, with the nationalist policies of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party gaining steam, Bawa felt there was a need to open a subsidiary office in Madras (now Chennai). Martin Henry, the manager of erstwhile Madurai Mills, commissioned him to create a club for senior employees. It led to other projects, including the remodelling of the Connemara Hotel in Chennai, and hotels in Goa and Puducherry. His work extended to countries like Indonesia, Mauritius, Egypt, Fiji, Japan, among others.
The Aga Khan Special Chairman’s Award for Architecture (2001) and the title Deshamanya by the Sri Lankan government for his contribution to his country (1993) made Bawa a celebrity across the subcontinent. In Singapore, the first book on Bawa, The White Book (Concept Media; 1986), was a compendium of his works that influenced many architects of the time. Among them were Willie Lim, Ernesto Bedmar, Kerry Hill, Made Wijaya and Mok Wei Wei. “Even if pastiche Bawa did exist, many architects chose to adopt his principles into their designs. For instance, Mok Wei Wei, who designed the National Museum of Singapore and the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, used Bawa’s method to make architecture relevant. He used his Chinese history and heritage to build in a modern way,” says Robson.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Past, He Built’