Spotlight: Geoffrey Bawa

Spotlight: Geoffrey Bawa
A courtyard in Bawa's campus for the University of Ruhuna. Image © Harry Sowden

Despite his late entry into architecture, Geoffrey Manning Bawa FRIBA, (July 23, 1919 – May 27, 2003), explored modernism and its cultural implications and created a unique, recognizable style of design which had a lasting impact on architects across the world. Well versed in Modernist theory, Bawa was one of the original proponents of Tropical Modernism, a design movement in which sensitivity for local context combines with the form-making principles of modernism. Bawa’s architecture led to the formation of a new architectural identity and aesthetic for many tropical environments, and won him recognition and awards, including the Chairman’s Award of the Aga Kahn Special Chairman’s Award for Architecture (2001) and the title Deshamanya, in recognition of his contributions to his country by the government of Sri Lanka.

Spotlight: Geoffrey Bawa - More Images+ 10

Geoffrey Bawa; unknown photographer. Image Courtesy of The Geoffery Bawa Trust in Colombo, David Robson and Anjalendran C.

Bawa was born in Ceylon (which would become Sri Lanka in 1972), and began his professional career in the legal field after studying at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He worked in law in England for several years, but left to travel the world after the death of his mother. In 1948, Bawa purchased the Lunuganga rubber plantation, and developed an interest in gardening and architectural design.

The gardens at Lunuganga. Image © Wkimedia user Labeet licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Lunuganga. Image © David Robson
Interior of Lunuganga. Image © Wkimedia user Labeet licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Bawa had a strong desire to design, and apprenticed himself to HH Reid, an architecture firm in Colombo, Ceylon. Filled with aspirations higher than apprenticeship, Bawa studied at the Architectural Association, and graduated in 1957, at 38 years old. When he returned home, Bawa became a partner at Edwards, Reid, and Begg, and took over the practice shortly thereafter.

In his practice, Bawa tried to achieve what The Guardian has called “a new, vital—and yet essentially Sri Lankan—architecture.” [1] Bawa’s search for a way to combine the traditional and the modern attracted the attention of other artists and architects, most notably Ulrik Plesner, who worked with Bawa from 1961 to 1967.

Ena de Silva House. Image ©  Helene Binet
Geoffrey Bawa's photograph of the courtyard at the Ena de Silva House. Image © Geoffrey Bawa

Even in his early work, Bawa's buildings had a Tropical Modernist flair. In the Ena de Silva House (1960), he combined the Modernist tendencies for open floor plans and stark decoration with iconic elements of Colombo manor houses. Similarly, the Batujimbar Estate (1973) adapts modernist principles to local Bali traditions. Bawa’s ideas continued over a variety of projects; in particular, his designs for hotels were embraced for their ability to create location-specific housing, which at the time was a dramatic departure from the trend of designing hotels to fit anywhere in the world. In the Bentota Beach Hotel (1970), Bawa created a resort that referenced its surroundings while allowing for a modern lifestyle.

An Aerial View of the Bentota Beach Hotel. Image Courtesy of The Geoffery Bawa Trust in Colombo, David Robson and Anjalendran C.
The Bentota Beach Hotel. Image © Harry Sowden

After the social and governmental changes of the 1960s and '70s that ultimately led Ceylon to become Sri Lanka, Bawa received commissions for even larger projects. Bawa’s design for the Sri Lanka Parliament Building (1982) was a continuation of the investigations he began earlier in his career; it uses pitched roofs and other examples of elements from local architecture to embody the government’s lineage. At the time, the Parliament building was the largest of Bawa’s projects, and brought even more international attention to his approach. Around this time, Bawa designed several new buildings for the University of Ruhuna (1988). His use of traditional building materials and architectural elements adapted to the local climate proved to be useful, as it helped keep costs down in addition to referencing local context.

The Sri Lanka Parliament Building. Image © Harry Sowden
Gardens at the Sri Lanka Parliament Building. Image © Harry Sowden
The University of Ruhuna. Image © Harry Sowden

Bawa closed his firm when he was seventy years old, but did not stop practicing architecture. Much of his work from these later years was conceptual, and he also produced some of the most interesting built projects of his career during this period. The Kandalama Hotel (1991) and the Blue Water Hotel (1997) represent a slightly more minimalistic approach to his architectural design informed by his earlier work.

Kandalama Hotel, Dambulla. Image © Harry Sowden
The Kandalama Hotel lounge. Image © David Robson

Find out more about Bawa’s architecture via the link below.

Remembering Bawa


  1. David Robson, "Geoffrey Bawa," The Guardian, May 29, 2003, accessed May 18, 2015.
  2. David Robson, "Remembering Bawa," ArchDaily, December 19, 2013, accessed May 18, 2015.

About this author
Cite: Patrick Kunkel. "Spotlight: Geoffrey Bawa" 23 Jul 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

A courtyard in Bawa's campus for the University of Ruhuna. Image © Harry Sowden

聚焦:杰弗里·巴瓦 Geoffrey Bawa

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