I have a love affair with a dead architect called Geoffrey Bawa. This love affair goes hand in hand with my passion for Sri Lanka, since Bawa is Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent architect. He died in 2003, and his work has become synonymous with the Tropical Modern style. A look firmly embraced along Australia’s east coast, especially lifestyle destinations like Byron Bay and Noosa.
My first visit to Sri Lanka was in the early 1980s. It was the dying days of the hippie trail and beach towns like Hikkaduwa were still alive with backpackers and dropouts. I was probably one of them.
I returned again in 2002. The war and political strife had decimated the place and the bars and hot spots of Hikadewa and Unawatuna were silent and forlorn, but I have kept coming back ever since.
In the early noughties, very few travellers ventured beyond the ancient port city of Gaul, on the south west corner. The far south coast at that time was primitive and untouched by tourism. Then the tsunami rolled in and a natural tragedy doubled-down on the man-made one of civil war and unrest. Through all this trouble and despair, the place still had a charm and uniqueness that made me linger. The natural beauty of the beaches and coastline has few comparisons anywhere in the world.
A couple of us battled through the myriad complications of buying village-title land land and tried to do some interesting things with architecture and design. Materials and labour were cheap and a lot could be done with concrete and teak. Hello tropical modern.
Architecture in the Tropics
My first introduction to the architecture of Geoffrey Bawa was at a small, almost derelict hotel called Claughton house, on the far south coast. It was mostly shut, but they would open it up for us if we were able to muster a table of paying people for lunch, such was the state of tourism and the economy at the time.
Sitting there on that deck, with the aid of a cold beer and a sublime fish curry, I was reminded that good architecture in the right location is capable of transporting you to a place beyond the human condition. Many people have said that Bawa is Southern Asia’s Frank Lloyd Wright. I believe so, and Claughton House is Bawa’s “Fallingwater”. Equal to Wright’s seminal house in the American Midwest.
I found myself seeking out Bawa’s buildings on each successive trip, staying in them if a hotel, and seeing his influence all over the island. There was a lot to see and I think, after many visits, I am a long way from getting to the whole portfolio of completed projects.
About Geoffrey Bawa
Bawa graduated as an architect in London in 1957 at the age of 38. He had to fulfil his family’s wishes of first finishing at law, like his father. After returning to Sri Lanka in 1960 he became prolific. Being a member of the elite, mixed race “Dutch Burgher” class, he was able to quickly build a following and gain many high profile clients.
During the 60’s his style became a part of the evolving identity of a newly independent Sri Lanka. At a time when the country had very little to celebrate, except for having the world’s first women prime minister, he became a shining light. He was adept at using light and space and combining outdoor gardens with spacious, cool indoor areas with wide covered verandas – one of the earliest practitioners of this concept.
Two other highlights of his work have also touched me. The new parliament house is an impressive structure to drive by in the capitol city of Colombo. It is probably too good a container for a lot of the sad outcomes that have emanated from inside its walls.
A far more enlightening experience is to stay at the Heritance Kandalama Hotel, in the highlands north of the original capital of Kandy. The hotel is deeply imbedded inside a cliff face and completely covered over in jungle growth. Guests enter through a magnificent, cathedral-like rock overhang. The Heritance is probably the most articulate statement of Bawa’s ability, to combine nature with the built form, and his love of doing so.
The Bawa Museum and Home
For anyone wishing to dive deeper into the Bawa oeuvre, his home, office and weekend retreat have thankfully been kept intact and are open to the public.
The Geoffrey Bawa Museum is in the area known as Colombo 3, close to the main tourist area. It is a series of old terraces that he bought and had renovated as his practice grew. A short documentary is shown on arrival. The premises have been kept in the original, lived-in state: Bawa’s antique Rolls Royce is even parked in the garage. Tours are run on a strict schedule so visitors must turn up at the appointed time.
“Lunaganga” is the Bawa weekend retreat a couple of hours south of Colombo. Allow yourself some time as the walk through the extensive gardens is a treat to be savoured. There are mosaics and sculptures by many friends who came to visit – including Australian artist Donald Friend. Lunch can be ordered in advance if you wish to spend longer, and there are even some guest quarters that can be booked for overnight stays.
Before leaving Sri Lanka and on the way out, have a meal at the Gallery Cafe in Paradise Road, Colombo. It served as the Bawa studio and workshop at the height of his powers. It has now been converted into a contemporary open-air restaurant with a lovely ambience and an OK menu. A perfect way to drink a toast and say farewell to Geoffrey Bawa and all that he bought to the world.
Find out more about the Sri Lanka tours here.