In this article, originally published in Indian Architect & Builder, architect and writer David Robson pens an intimate and personal account of the life and work of Geoffrey Bawa – an incredible architect with an un-paralleled legacy in Sri Lanka and south-east India.
Ten years have rolled by since Geoffrey Bawa’s death and fifteen since ill-health forced him to hang up his tee-square. It's time to take stock: what was his legacy? How were his ideas disseminated? What influence has he had? What were his qualities? Who was Geoffrey Bawa?
Bawa’s architectural career began at the end of 1957 when, at the age of thirty-eight, he returned to Ceylon after completing his studies at the Architectural Association (the A.A.) in London and became a partner in the near moribund firm of Edwards Reid and Begg. The practice occupied offices in the Colombo Fort. His fellow partners were Jimmy Nilgiria and Valentine Gunasekera and early collaborators included Turner Wickremasinghe and Nihal Amerasinghe. At the end of 1958 he recruited Danish architect Ulrik Plesner who worked as his close associate until the end of 1966.
The early buildings with which Bawa and Plesner were associated – such as the Ekala Industrial Estate and the Bishop’s College Classroom Block - followed the precepts of Tropical Modernism that had been promoted at the A.A. by the likes of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. After 1961, however, they adopted a more regionalist approach which took its inspiration from traditional typologies and technologies – as was evident in their designs for the Ena de Silva House, the Bandarawela Chapel and the Polontalawa Bungalow.
In 1962 the practice moved to new purpose-built premises in Alfred House Road where Gunasekera operated his own separate studio while Bawa recruited a batch of young assistants that included Anura Ratnvibushana, Ismeth Raheem, Pheroze Choksy and Vasantha Jacobsen.
1967 was a year of catharsis. A disagreement over attribution led to Plesner’s departure, Gunasekera moved out to set up his own office, Nilgiria was forced into retirement and the engineer K. Poologasundram suddenly appeared as Bawa’s sole partner in a reconstituted Edwards, Reid and Begg.
The following decade was one of consolidation. Bawa and his colleagues managed to ride the political storms and survive the constraints of the Bandaranaike government, producing a series of innovative designs for hotels, such the Serendib at Bentota and the Neptune at Beruwela, and public buildings, such as the Mahaweli Tower and the Agrarian Research and Training Institute.
One by one, however, his team of young collaborators upped sticks and left to found their own offices. By 1977 when J.R. Jayawardene came to power, only Vasantha Jacobsen remained. The new government signalled the beginning of Bawa’s busiest decade during which he built the new Sri Lanka Parliament and the Ruhunu University Campus.
In 1989, in his seventieth year, Bawa ended his partnership with Poologasundram and withdrew from Edwards, Reid and Begg. But, instead of retiring, he now started a small design studio in his Bagatelle Road home, recruiting a new generation of young assistants including Sumangala Jayatilleke, Amila de Mel and Channa Daswatte. Over the next two years Bawa was happy to amuse himself with a succession of fantasy projects in India and Southeast Asia until a commission to build the Kandalama Hotel at Dambulla in 1992 kicked off a final six years of astonishing activity.
In 1998 ill health finally overtook him and he suffered a stroke which left him paralysed and unable to speak and, after five terrible years in the shadows, he finally died in 2003.
Bawa’s Legacy Lunuganga and 33rd Lane
Bawa’s personal architectural odyssey began in 1948 with his purchase of the rubber estate near Bentota which he renamed ‘Lunuganga’. The project to transform this into a landscaped garden took up most of his spare time and money for the next fifty years. It was here that he experimented with interplay between building and landscape, between inside and outside space. The result was one of the most important Asian gardens of the 20th C.
Then, in the early 1960s, he bought a row of tiny bungalows off Colombo’s Bagatelle Road and embarked on a process that would transform them into a labyrinth of courtyards and verandas topped by a white Corbusian tower. This town house also served as his space laboratory where he experimented with architectural scenography and the effects of light and shade.
His town house and country estate both survive and are open to the public.
Although Bawa was involved in the design of at least twenty-five private houses, several have been demolished and many more have been compromised by insensitive alterations. Today only a few survive in their original form: the A.S.H. de Silva house in Galle, the Raffel House in Ward Place, the Bandaranaike House at Horagolla and in Colombo the de Soysa House and the Jayakoddy House.
Few of Bawa’s houses were open to the public and several have never been properly documented or published. Nevertheless, his designs were enormously influential and had a big impact on the housing aspirations of a whole generation of urban Sri Lankans.
During the 1960s the population of Colombo was growing more rapidly than its infrastructure which meant that land for housing was becoming increasingly scarce. Shrinking plot sizes reduced privacy and comfort, threatening the viability of the bungalow typology which the British had bequeathed.
Bawa’s first response was to turn the house in on itself and resurrect the courtyard. Courtyard houses had been popular with the Kandyan Sinhalese, with Jaffna Tamils, with coastal Moslems and even with the colonial Dutch, but their use was discouraged by the British and by British planning regulations.
The Ena de Silva house was conceived as a series of pavilions and verandas contained within a high surrounding boundary wall and arranged to form a major central courtyard and five subsidiary courtyards. Its spatial qualities were enhanced by the choice of materials: walls of plastered brick, roofs of half-round Portuguese tiles, columns of satin wood, windows of timber lattice, floors of rough granite. The house recalled ancient Kandyan manor houses, but the open plan and continuous flow of space suggested a more contemporary parti.
The typology was further developed in a set of row houses in Fifth Lane and an austere walled courtyard house in Cambridge Place. Sadly none of these has survived in its original form: the Ena de Silva House, surely one of the most significant Asian houses of the 20th C., was demolished in 2011 to make way for a hospital car park, all but one of the Fifth Lane Row houses have been replaced and the Cambridge Place house has been much altered.
Bawa’s second response was to build upwards. The house that he designed for future Housing Minister, Peter Keuneman occupied three floors, and turned the normal spatial hierarchy on its head: the ground floor was given over to a car port, office and staff quarters, the first floor was occupied by the kitchen and bedrooms, and the top floor was reserved for sitting room and roof terrace. Similar tower designs were employed in the hauntingly beautiful Martenstyn House and the de Soysa House, while the Jayakoddy house and Bawa’s own house in 33rd Lane combined the typologies of tower and courtyard.
A third response was the ‘roof house’: houses such as the Polontalawa Estate Bungalow and the Jayawardene House at Mirissa dispensed with walls and asserted the primacy of the roof in the tropics.
These prototypes offered a new design strategy for tropical urban living and set in motion a lifestyle revolution which would later spread across Tropical Asia. Bawa drew inspiration both from 20th C. Modernism and from Sri Lankan tradition and encouraged people to value their own past. Today, however, his architectural vocabulary and palette of materials have become so commonplace Sri Lankans have forgotten just how radical they were only fifty years ago.
The importance of his innovations, which has never been fully acknowledged in his native land, was clearly established by the Singapore-based writer Robert Powell in his series of books on the tropical Asian house – books which adopted Bawa’s drawing style and extolled his design philosophy.
Between 1965 and 1997 Bawa produced designs for thirty-five hotels. Of those intended for Sri Lanka, thirteen were built but only five – the Triton, the Neptune, Kandalama, the Lighthouse and Blue Water – still accurately represent Bawa’s original design intentions. Of the ten designs for other parts of Asia only one - an extension to the Connemara Hotel in Chennai - was ever realised though it has since been demolished.
In 1966 Bawa drew up the master plan for Sri Lanka’s first purpose-built resort at Bentota and, having built its unique tourist village, went on to design two of the five designated hotels. The Bentota Beach Hotel was arguably the first in Asia to offer an alternative to the banalities of international hospitality architecture and proposed a building which responded to site, climate and tradition - a building which was ‘of its place’. The hotel was set on a mound between the river and the sea on the site of a former Dutch fort. The ground floor entrance area and service wings were contained within a massive stone rampart while the reception rooms were arranged around a courtyard at first floor level with two levels of bedrooms above them.
The design used a palette of materials similar to that of the Ena de Silva House and invoked the atmosphere of a Kandyan manor house, but the organisation of outward facing cells around a central communal courtyard also appeared to draw inspiration from le Corbusier’s monastery of La Tourette. Typically, Bawa had borrowed from widely different sources to create a new hybrid.
Import restrictions forced Bawa and his team to improvise, and apart from the single lift, almost everything in the building was produced locally. Between them they produced all furniture as well as the soft furnishings and artwork. Tragically this masterpiece was ruined in a disastrous makeover in 1997 and the subtle magic of the original design was lost forever.
A series of hotels followed including the Serendib at Bentota, the Neptune at Beruwela and the Triton at Ahungala, each of them unique and each of them surprising in its originality. Then during the 1990s came a final outburst of creativity which produced the astonishing belvedere at Kandalama, the rugged ocean-defying Lighthouse in Galle and the urbane Blue Water at Wadduwa.
Bawa’s ideas were carried to Bali by his friend the artist Donald Friend, who invited him to build the Batujimbar estate at Sanur in 1973. This and the later White Book helped to broadcast his innovative designs around Southeast Asia where they served as a primary source for a whole generation of hotel builders and exerted a huge influence on hospitality design throughout the tropical world.
Educational, Social and Commercial Buildings
Bawa’s classroom designs for St. Thomas’s Preparatory School and Bishop’s College employed the language of ‘Tropical Modernism’, whilst the St. Bridget’s Montessori was an essay in ‘Contemporary Vernacular ‘ and was intended to evoke the idea of a village school. Later the Ruhunu University Campus offered a masterly demonstration in how to weave magic with simple low-cost buildings by marrying them to the topography and developing carefully landscaped spaces between them.
A series of low-cost buildings for the Catholic Church – among them the chapel at Bandarawela, the farm orphanage at Hanwella and the Integral Education Centre at Pilyandala - demonstrated how Bawa’s evolving methodology could be applied to a variety of inexpensive social projects.
The Ekala Industrial Estate was an early essay in Tropical Modernism, though its simple white prismatic forms did not stand up well to the tropical climate. In contrast the Pallakelle Industrial Estate near Kandy successfully adopted simple pitched roofed pavilions and employed a palette of traditional building components.
The Maheweli Office Building, commissioned in 1976 for the State Mortgage Bank, was an uncompromising modernist design for a sculptural high-rise and was later hailed by Malaysian architect Ken Yeang as the world’s first ‘bioclimatic skyscraper’. The building’s plan-shape acted as an aileron to trap prevailing winds and was orientated to minimise solar gain, while its facades were designed as a breathing wall to encourage cross-ventilation.
The Agrarian Research and Training Institute in contrast, created a prototype for low-rise low-energy office development, and used simple low-cost materials.
The Sri Lanka Parliament
The new Parliament in Kotte, commissioned by President Jayawardene in 1979, was Bawa’s biggest and most significant work and survives almost intact, though after thirty years it too is showing signs of wear and tear.
Bawa imagined that the parliament would stand on its own island in the middle of a new lake at the heart of a garden city. The building’s necessary monumentality was softened by its pitched roofs and deliberately contrived asymmetries and it was surrounded by gardens and pavilions to host meetings between people and their elected representatives. Together with Tamil engineer Dr. K. Poologasundram and architect Vasantha Jacobsen, a devout Buddhist, Bawa set out to create a building which would reflect every facet of Sri Lanka’s complex history and culture and serve as an icon of transparent and accessible democracy. But architects’ intentions are often ignored. The U.D.A.’s plans for a garden city were forgotten as the new Parliament was engulfed by the chaotic new suburbs of Kotte and Battaramulla, while the idea of an open parliament was sacrificed to the need for security, and the intended image of multi-ethnic plurality was subverted to one of Sinhalese-Buddhist hegemony.
The Broadcasting of Bawa
Bawa used contacts in London to gain publicity for his work. The Architectural Review showed seven of his early projects in 1966 and twelve years later carried a perceptive critical essay by Michael Brawne under the title ‘Bawa in Context’.
The first book devoted to Bawa’s work was published by Concept Media (the publishing arm of the Aga Khan Foundation) in Singapore in 1986 and came to be known affectionately as the ‘White Book’. It was orchestrated by his friend Christoph Bon with the assistance of Architect C. Anjalendran, and was edited by Brian Brace Taylor.
The book was the first of its kind to feature an Asian architect and was unique for its mixture of picturesque drawings, all made in the explicit Bawa style, clear photographs and short pithy texts. It was an instant success, particularly across Southeast Asia.
Ten years later I was invited by Bawa to collaborate with him on a more detailed and comprehensive book but our collaboration ended suddenly when he suffered a massive stroke early in 1998. This tragedy almost nipped the project in the bud, but his trustees asked me to continue under my own steam.
My book, ‘Bawa the Complete Works’, finally appeared in 2002, a year before his death. Had Bawa not been incapacitated, the resultant book would have been different, but his influence on the project was still powerful. I tried to represent Bawa’s point of view, though, as I became aware of the importance of his various collaborators, particularly Dr. Poologasundram and Ulrik Plesner, I tried to give them the credit they had been quite wrongly denied in the White Book. My aim was to present an objective testimony while avoiding the temptation to theorise or descend into hagiography.
An early reaction to the book, before it was even published, came from the Tel Aviv lawyers of Ulrik Plesner who attempted to stop its publication, claiming that the book “would cause grave damage to the reputation of their client.” This was surprising because Plesner had helped with the research and had approved the final draft before it went to the publishers. The book gave full credit to his role as Bawa’s associate and as co-designer of projects that they developed collaboratively between 1959 and 1966.
But, as he has shown in his own published account of his Sri Lanka years, Plesner wanted more: he sought to promote himself, not just as Bawa’s collaborator, but as his guru. With disarming hubris he wrote: “I felt I had serendipitously met something (sic) great which needed nursing and guiding. And I believe that the only architecture school Geoffrey ever had was the one I put him through (over) the next few years.”
The reality of their collaboration is now impossible to unravel. Over a period of seven years they were close associates and good friends. Their final unhappy separation was precipitated by Bawa’s solo acceptance of a citation from the Hawaii Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and sealed by Plesner’s insistence that he be given equal credit for their joint work. Plesner went on to publish a number of their projects under his own name and Bawa expunged him totally from the White Book of 1986.
Plesner implies, misleadingly and erroneously, that took on the leading role in the sixteen projects which are featured in his book, though they were all built under the name ‘Edwards, Reid and Begg’, and were designed collaboratively with Bawa and other office colleagues. He makes much of his role in the design of the Polontalawa Estate Bungalow, the jewel in his crown, and gives an account which relegates Bawa’s contribution to that of a clown who entertained the bystanders. But it was Bawa who set aside the original design and persuaded the client, Thilo Hoffman, to shift the bungalow into a pile of boulders. This was confirmed by Hoffman in 1998: ‘The real client was I. Both Geoffrey and Ulrik were involved; the first tying of strings laying out the foundations of the different parts was done in my presence with Geoffrey and Ulrik and our people. Geoffrey provided the ideas, the inspiration, the basic concept and Ulrik transformed them into reality’.
Many predicted that, with Plesner’s departure in early 1967, Bawa would sink into obscurity. But the reverse was true – Bawa’s career ran on for three more decades during which he continued to re-invent himself and produce works of astonishing originality: in the final analysis the period of their collaboration accounted for only seven out of the forty years of Bawa’s working life.
Bawa’s international standing was confirmed in 2001 when he received the Aga Khan Special Award for Architecture, and again in 2004 when he was the subject of a massive retrospective exhibition in the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt. At the same time, critical articles on his work appeared in journals in such far flung places as Singapore, Japan and Australia.
Ironically, however, his work is now held in higher esteem in other parts of Asia – Singapore, Malaysia, Japan - than in his native land. In Sri Lanka people pay lip-service to his memory, but little is done to protect or preserve his legacy. One by one his buildings are demolished or altered beyond recognition and the number of buildings which survive in a condition which truly represents their architect’s intentions reduces year by year.
Bawa’s methods and ideas were first disseminated by his early assistants, who broke away from Edwards, Reid and Begg to establish offices of their own. Each had contributed to the Bawa phenomenon in their own way but each went on to develop their own voice. Though clearly influenced by their time in his office, each produced work which was refreshingly original and none resorted to ‘Bawa Pastiche’.
Bawa began to tackle projects outside of Sri Lanka: in the 1970s came the Madurai Club and the Connemara Hotel in South India and the Batujimbar Pavilions in Bali; in the late 1980s there were the spectacular unbuilt projects in Southeast Asia: the Singapore Cloud Centre, the Bali Hyatt Project, Banyan Tree Resort on Bintan, the Albert Teo Row Houses; in the early 1990s came the magical designs for houses in India. All of these contributed to Bawa’s growing reputation, especially across Southeast Asia. But the biggest effect came from the publication of the White Book in Singapore 1986. It was said at the time that you couldn’t visit an architects’ office in Singapore without finding a well-thumbed copy open on someone’s desk. In the barren desert of functionalist Singapore, Bawa’s regionalist methodology spread like wildfire and was adopted by a whole generation of architects, including Willie Lim, Ernesto Bedmar, Kerry Hill, WOHA, Bensley and Bunnag and Made Wijaya.
But the White Book also encouraged pastiche Bawa. From Bali to Bangkok, the Bawa style was applied like wallpaper. In Singapore Macdonalds commissioned a MacBawa drive-in complete with reflecting pools and Frangipani trees. In Sri Lanka ‘Bawa-type’ houses sprang up across Colombo’s suburbs and a rash of Bawa-style public buildings appeared, among them the Timber Development Corporation building at Kotte, the Welikada Plaza in Rajagiriya, and Savsiripaya in Wijerama Mawatha. Even the new British High Commission was not immune.
After 2000 a group of young architects, among them Madhura Prematilleke, mounted a campaign against what they saw as Bawa-mania. Prematilleke called for architects ‘to come out from under the Bawa umbrella’. This sent an important message to the next generation – learn from Bawa, but do not copy him. Bawa, of course, never ‘copied himself’ and tried continually to develop new ideas – he would surely have supported Prematilleke’ admonition.
The Geoffrey Bawa Trust
Bawa’s estate has been managed since the late 1990s by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Against all the odds this small group has succeeded in maintaining his Lunuganga Garden in pristine condition and has now turned his Colombo house into a living museum.
In 2004 the Trust invited Senake Bandaranayake to deliver a memorial lecture in the A.R.T.I. building and this has now become an annual event, sponsored by Miles Young, to which key speakers are flown in from around the world.
The principle of ‘coming out from under the umbrella’ under-pinned the Geoffrey Bawa Award which the Trust inaugurated in 2009. Based on the Aga Khan Award Cycle the Award aims to encourage good new architecture of whatever complexion. Its first two cycles have revealed a rich seam of original architectural talent and the premiated designers can be said to have learned from Bawa without imitating him. Shiyamika de Silva’s Indrasena House is a minimalist modern design which sets up a powerful dialogue between inside and outside space, Palinda Kanangara’s estate bungalow at Ginigathena civilises a rugged landscape, Tisara Thanapathy’s town house is a contemporary take on the Bawa-inspired tradition of inward-looking courtyard houses.
Bawa enjoyed a unique view of the post-colonial world: he was half Asian and half European and his life spanned the divide between colonial Ceylon and independent Sri Lanka. He was an addicted traveller who filled his mind with a rich store of architectural images and he delved into the whole history of architecture. But he also explored the architectural traditions of his native Sri Lanka and was able to fuse elements from widely different sources to create new ideas.
He was an intuitive designer with a strong spatial sense and could conjure up fully fledged ideas in his head. These often developed as scenographic journeys, rather like story-boards for a film. He had come to architecture from an interest in garden making and conceived of buildings as elements in a landscape, seeking always to break down the barriers between inside and outside space.
Although he was no great draftsman, he produced endless sketches of plans and sections in order to convey his ideas to his colleagues. He recognized his own short-comings and surrounded himself with people who were good at doing those things which he was unable to do himself. With them he acted as an impresario, the conductor of an orchestra, an incisive judge, an arbiter of taste, an uncompromising critic: they enabled him to achieve things that he could never have achieved by himself whilst he inspired them to achieve more than they had ever dreamed of.
The Architectural Association in London introduced him to modernist ideology, but his earlier training as a lawyer had bred in him a health disregard for cant. Although he adopted a modernist approach in his early work he soon realised that white cubist architecture was unsuited to the humid tropics and shifted towards a regionalist position, borrowing from vernacular forms and adopting local materials and technologies. Coming at a time of economic restraint and import restrictions this shift produced a way of building which was efficient, inexpensive and appropriate to climate and culture.
Bawa was driven by pragmatic considerations: local materials were cheap and readily available; traditional forms had been developed to function optimally in the tropical climate. He avoided using large areas of glass or air-conditioners because these were expensive and increased energy consumption. His buildings were naturally cool and comfortable and, long before the terms had been coined, were sustainable, energy conscious and ecologically friendly.
He was also driven by aesthetic considerations and strove to create buildings which were contemporary in spirit and yet rooted in tradition. He derived enormous pleasure from making buildings, particularly if they gave pleasure to others, and it was no surprise that he was singled out by philosopher Alain de Botton in his book ‘The Architecture of Happiness’.
In the final analysis we can say that Bawa bequeathed a new but timeless way of building to his native Sri Lanka just as it was emerging from four centuries of colonial hegemony.
Who Was Geoffrey Bawa?
Who then was Geoffrey Bawa? What was the source of his genius? Ten years after his death these questions remain unanswered.
Bawa was a very private individual. He enjoyed good company but had few close friends and remained a solitary figure. He divided his life into compartments and went to considerable lengths to keep them apart. When friends got too close, or when they strayed across compartmental boundaries, some inner mechanism drove him to repulse them. He had no long-term partner and, during the latter part of his life, lived only for architecture. At times very generous, he could also be quite mean and was capable of childish spitefulness.
Bawa liked to travel both to experience new places and to escape from the claustrophobic world of Colombo. But his greatest pleasure was to spend time in his garden at Lunuganga.
He destroyed the greater part of his office records in 1997. He didn’t keep a diary or, if he did, none has survived. He was reluctant to discuss his work in theoretical terms and avoided interviews. His one written statement about his architecture appeared originally in the Times of Ceylon Annual of 1968 and was then recycled for the Architects’ Journal in 1969 and finally popped up in the White Book in 1986. He avoided being photographed and the only clear recording of his voice was unearthed by accident in London after his death. When Tissa Abeyesekera made his moving film about Lunuganga, Bawa was only willing to appear as a shadowy silhouette in the final long twilit pan shot.
In 1954, when Bawa arrived at the Architectural Association in London, there was nothing in his earlier life to suggest that he was cut out to become an architect. His lawyer father had died when he was four years old and he was brought up by his mother and two maiden aunts. His brother was ten years his senior and they were never close. His school career at Royal College was unremarkable and he failed to distinguish himself at St. Catherine’s College Cambridge or in his short-lived career as a lawyer. In 1947 a world tour took him through Southeast Asia and across the United States and eventually to Italy where he thought to settle down. But in 1948 he returned to Sri Lanka, bought an abandoned rubber estate, and embarked on a project to transform it into a landscaped park, the project which would awaken his interest in architecture. Six years would pass, however, before he registered as a student at the Architectural Association. There, during three years, he failed to make any lasting impression and was remembered only as the oldest, the tallest and the most ostentatiously wealthy student of his day. Then, at the age of thirty-eight, he returned to Ceylon and embarked on a career which would lead him to become one of the most significant Asian architects of his day.
Here, then, is the unanswerable conundrum – what transformed this slightly wayward and aimless dilettante into such a committed architect? Wherein lay his genius? What was the source of his inventiveness? We shall probably never know.
David Robson, architect, divides his time between practice and teaching and is a prolific writer. Robson has written some remarkable books on legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa including ‘Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works’. Robson has also written and researched on contemporary practices of architecture in Sri Lanka and the south-east with titles like Anjalendran: Architect of Sri Lanka, and Beyond Bawa: Modern Masterworks of Monsoon Asia.
All drawings and archive photographs are presented courtesy of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Other photographs are by the author or have been drawn for the most part from the collection of Harry Sowden.