by David RobsonSep 17, 2019
Today, July 23rd is Geoffrey Bawa’s (1919-2003) 101st birthday, an apt occasion to celebrate this important Sri Lankan architect. Bawa was one of the most prolific and influential architects and landscape designers in South and South-East Asia of the modern period, whose beautiful buildings and gardens not only helped to define his young country’s architectural identity but are also being rediscovered as hugely inspirational by young architects from around the world.
Bawa’s built works include dozens of houses, clubs, chapels, schools, colleges, offices, and hotels across Sri Lanka and India, as well as in Indonesia, Fiji, Pakistan, and Mauritius. Among his most renowned works are S. Thomas' Preparatory School (Colombo, 1964); Ceylon Pavilion for the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan; Sri Lankan Parliament Building (Kotte, 1982); University of Ruhuna (Matara, 1988); and the architect’s own country estate, Lunuganga – 40 acres of gardens on a former rubber plantation in Bentota. Lunuganga served Bawa as an experimental laboratory for testing ideas over a period of 50 years. Since the architect’s death, the estate has been maintained and operated by Lunuganga Trust. This otherworldly pilgrimage site is open for tours, dining, and overnight experience.
Bawa was born into a wealthy family of mixed European and Ceylonese parentage in Colombo, the capital of Ceylon, then the British Crown colony. He first studied law in England and in 1944 became a barrister. Bawa returned to Ceylon after World War II and started working at a law firm in Colombo only to discover his disinterest in the chosen profession. After quitting, he embarked on a two-year tour to the Far East, the United States, and Europe. Returning to Sri Lanka in 1948, which by then had just gained its independence, Bawa purchased the aforementioned estate to turn it into a villa inspired by the idyllic villas he fell in love with, in Italy. However, young Bawa quickly realised that he lacked technical knowledge to carry out his dream. First, he apprenticed at an architectural office of Edwards, Reid and Begg in Colombo and in 1952, went back to England to study architecture at the Architectural Association in London. Bawa graduated in 1956 and the following year returned to Sri Lanka to launch what would become a remarkable career as an architect.
I remember quite clearly hearing the name of Geoffrey Bawa for the first time during one of my trips to China some years ago. He was referred to as among the top references for architects throughout Asia, which was surprising because I never encountered his work until then. The architect’s name is not mentioned in most of the “official” western textbooks – not in Vincent Scully’s Modern Architecture and not even in a more comprehensive Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture. It is not mentioned in numerous other books, even the ones devoted to green architecture, Bawa’s raison d'être.
Apparently, our most authoritative books tend to focus on mainstream tendencies with precedents situated almost exclusively in Europe and the United States. Other territories and examples that don’t fit into an established narrative of leading historians tend to be ignored. We may think that the times of favouring just one particular story of what constitutes modern architecture are behind us and that the profession is a lot more diverse and inclusive now, but it is simply not so. For example, as recently as in 2017, Rizzoli published a guide, 100 Buildings: 1900-2000. It asked internationally renowned architects and professors to nominate the world’s most important buildings. When all their lists were compiled, the ultimate 100 buildings list was produced – 53 in Europe and 32 in the US, leaving just mere 15 works to the rest of the entire world. But examine those 15 buildings closer and you will realise that six of them were designed by the same usual suspects, either from Europe or America. Now that we know why not everyone may be familiar with Bawa’s work, let’s talk about why everyone should.
It is hard to describe Bawa’s buildings in precise stylistic terms. There are features that would disqualify identifying his architecture as Modernist altogether: symmetrical plans and elevations, pitched ceramic-tile roofs, insistence on the use of verandas and deep eaves, framed doors and windows, hand-carved traditional carpentry and metalwork, ornamental shade screens, eclectic and often antique furniture, fancy chandeliers, and most strikingly – the outright refusal of this architecture to take charge over nature with over emphasised respect for such features as stone outcroppings and unruly plants. There is, in fact, an implausible conflict here, as if Bawa was trying to create places that are first enjoyable and sensationally delightful and later follow the reductive principles of Modern architecture.
That’s why if we want to define Bawa’s place in the history of contemporary architecture, not simply admit that his work is genuinely likable, we are forced to analyse his achievements in precise terms without categorising him because he simply doesn’t fit in any of the prevailing and convenient categories. Bawa’s scholars list a number of his buildings’ characteristics – from tropical modernism, critical vernacular, critical regionalist, and contextualist to folksy, nostalgic, romantic, phenomenological, and genius loci or genius of the place. Yet, these definitions are imprecise. Perhaps his work could not be properly defined in the 20th century at all because it required assuming a clear identity – whether stylistic, regional, or personal. None dominate in his work. But in the 21st century we seem to operate in a completely different paradigm when nothing is definitive, precise, or pure. All kinds of boundaries are being dissolved – typological, programmatic, cultural, regional, and most apparently, personal, as young architects increasingly choose to give up their authorship in favour of solving issues that tend to be pragmatic rather than stylistic. That is exactly why Bawa’s influence is gaining ground in the recent years.
I would argue that rather than in complete buildings, his significance lies in fragments and notions. They exalt a multiplicity of ways of how to merge architecture and landscape, juxtapose modern and historical elements, blur inside and outside, frame seductively beautiful views, introduce traditional materials, reveal layers of history, and celebrate such notions as nostalgia and decay. His work is at once pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. Bawa’s buildings are like plants; they unfold and make everyone within comfortable and joyous. None of these structures are ever finished or thrived for perfection, they constitute beginnings of journeys by absorbing all kinds of qualities of their surroundings.
In Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa is celebrated as a national hero and guru – he was the inaugural recipient of 1982 Gold Medal of Sri Lankan Institute of Architects and won Sri Lankan Presidential awards twice (1985, 1993). Internationally, he was honoured with the 2001 Aga Khan Chairman’s Award and his exhibitions were held in London and New York (1986), São Paulo (1995), Brisbane (1996), and posthumously in Frankfurt (2004). Apart from Lunuganga, my personal favourite of Bawa’s projects is Kandalama Hotel (1994) in Sigiriya. The architect personally chose the site deep in the jungle. The complex is cut naturally into the existing cliff with stone outcroppings showing up within the interiors. The residential wings are faced with a system of trellis-like light concrete frame, which is almost entirely taken over by the jungle roots and lush greenery. The buildings’ flat roofs serve as public gardens at the treetop height. Thinking about this and other projects by the architect, I insist – Bawa does not belong only to Sri Lanka, Asia, or the tropics; his legacy is universal and should belong to the entire world. While Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings and gardens offer numerous hints and glimpses into how architecture could be reinvented next, his architecture remains to be discovered.