Of presence and palimpsest: an exhibition looks into the life of Geoffrey Bawa

It is Essential to be There is the first major showcase hosted by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust that brings together previously unseen archival material from the Sri Lankan architect’s practice.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Apr 15, 2022

"I would go home and buy a land somewhere near home…In January 1948 I went home."

A key statement from a letter by Geoffrey Bawa on display at the showcase | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
A key statement from a letter by Geoffrey Bawa on display at the showcase Image: Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There © Lunuganga Trust

In a letter to a friend, Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) expressed his desire to find a place for himself in his homeland Sri Lanka. In the same letter he shared how he found it in 1948 when he purchased a dilapidated rubber estate and converted it into the famous garden of Lunuganga in Bentota. He made it his place of rest and reflections, a place that reveals the soul of his architecture and where most of his key works took shape. Bawa was known to be a complicated man who sought happiness in his architectural practice and his presence at Lunuganga. There’s something about his way of working that those who were closely associated with him only knew. In order for him to conceptualise a piece of architecture, Bawa immensely valued his presence on a site. “Yeah, I can’t really say anything until I see the site,” he often said. This importance of understanding a context before nurturing a piece of architecture on it became the starting point for an exhibition that was recently hosted at the The Stables, Park Street Mews in Colombo by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Titled It is Essential to be There, a statement by Bawa himself, it was the first major showcase that delved into the legendary Sri Lankan architect’s practice by drawing from his archives.

STIR in a conversation with Shayari de Silva, Curator, Geoffrey Bawa Art & Archival Collections, looks into some key aspects of the exhibition.

Zohra Khan: In the exhibition's video walkthrough, you said that the idea of There is quite nuanced and is drawn from a lot of things from Bawa’s life. Besides topography, what are these things that resonate with this word?

Shayari De Silva: I think when Bawa said It is essential to be there, he's speaking about being on site and understanding the site in its context, in its geography, in its climate. But what we are suggesting is that by looking at that statement through the lens of the archive, it is also an attunement to a broader context that is informed by social, political, and economic context as architecture always ease. In many ways, Bawa’s understanding of place is quite layered and rich.

49 mins watch The exhibition walkthrough with Geoffrey Bawa Trust chairperson, architect Channa Daswatte and curator of the Geoffrey Bawa Art and Archival Collections, Shayari de Silva | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
The exhibition walkthrough with Geoffrey Bawa Trust chairperson, architect Channa Daswatte and curator of the Geoffrey Bawa Art and Archival Collections, Shayari de Silva Video: Kavindu Sivaraj, © Lunuganga Trust

Zohra: How did you arrive at the sub themes of the exhibition on which the various galleries have been curated?

Shayari: Each theme of the exhibition really builds on those layers of understanding of There. The first one, which is the Introductory Gallery, is where we look at different objects that describe place in different ways - in photographic and emotional ways, through language, writing, films, and three dimensional objects. The next gallery, which is called Situating a Practice, is looking at that needed topographic engagement with the site. We have four projects: one urban, one by the coast, another in the hills, and the next in the dry zone. Each project is deeply intertwined with the site. The third gallery is called Searching for a way of Building, and it looks for that search in Bawa's practice to build in a way that was appropriate to the context of Sri Lanka. It means dealing with the climate in terms of shelter from the heavy rains and using natural ventilation to provide comfort from the heat alongside building at a time where resources become scarce. Sri Lanka of the 60s and 70s is the period in which those projects of that area were built. They were also dealing with very limited resources, limited imports, and really having to use contemporary technology in a very local way using local craftsmen and local materials. The fourth gallery is Defining New Directions in which we look at three very ambitious projects that engage site in a conceptual way and are really challenging the very understanding of those places. The Ceylon Pavilion at Expo ‘70 in Osaka, the Ruhunu University campus for a Southern town called Matara in Sri Lanka, and then the Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. And then the last gallery, which is called Places Unbuilt is a point of departure where we say, if everything happened on site and the place is so intrinsic to Bawa’s work, then what about the places that only exist today as ideas and on sheets of paper, which is what the unbuilt projects of the archives are.

  • Section, Ena de Silva House. 1963 | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
    Section, Ena de Silva House. 1963 Image: Drawn by Laki Senanayake. Geoffrey Bawa Trust. © Lunuganga Trust
  • Section, Kandalama Hotel. 1991-1994 | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
    Section, Kandalama Hotel. 1991-1994 Image: Drawn by Tim Beecher. Geoffrey Bawa Trust. © Lunuganga Trust
  • Ground Floor Plan, Jayawardena House. 1997 | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
    Ground Floor Plan, Jayawardena House. 1997 Image: Drawn by Waruna Gomis. Geoffrey Bawa Trust. © Lunuganga Trust
An exercise in studying staircases and ways of traversing different levels, probably the only known sculpture made by Geoffrey Bawa is also on display | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
An exercise in studying staircases and ways of traversing different levels, probably the only known sculpture made by Geoffrey Bawa is also on display Image: Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There © Lunuganga Trust

Zohra: The drawings and models that are part of the exhibition reveal an exercise in palimpsest and living details. Could you elaborate on this layering and the architect’s idea behind this presentation style?

Shayari: I actually wouldn't say that the style of drawing and style of understanding architecture is something very richly layered in material, and natural conditions is only the idea of Geoffrey Bawa. In the exhibition, we have a drawing which is one of the only drawings by Laki Senanyayake of the Ena de Silva house. He describes it as being bored of drawing the way he had been trained as a draftsman and about really drawing all of the qualities of the house that Ena would bring to it. Laki was very interested in natural environments so he shows the all-important mango and frangipani trees, which are in the courtyard. I think in that style of drawing they were also influenced by others who were visiting and staying with Geoffrey Bawa. That way of drawing then becomes picked up by different people during Bawa’s practice. Laki himself was only there very briefly in the 60s but I think what is interesting is that with each new author of the drawings, there's a difference. Although that same attention is paid to showing exactly what is there, especially in terms of the natural environment, I think you actually see quite a range in styles, in focus of attention with the different people who did the drawings.

A letter by Geoffrey Bawa on display | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
A letter by Geoffrey Bawa on display Image: Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There © Lunuganga Trust

Zohra: Could you share a key anecdote that you particularly find beautiful about the life of Geoffrey Bawa from the gallery presenting Colleagues, Clients and Friends?

Shayari: The exercise of oral histories with people who knew him and worked with him was incredibly moving in multiple ways. For me it was a way of discovering somebody that I didn't know but whose work I know so closely. I found the oral histories with Sunethra Bandaranaike and Anura Ratnavibhushana which are two of the first ones we did. One is a friend and the second is a colleague. These were very moving because they both spoke about a very generous and very caring man and a side of power that maybe we don't always speak about because we are often talking about the work. They spoke to his personality, which they found very generous and supportive, and I thought that was really interesting. I highly recommend that everyone listens to those recordings. They all had so much to offer in terms of describing this person. It would be very hard to pick one.

A glimpse from the gallery | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
A glimpse from the gallery Image: Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There © Lunuganga Trust

Zohra: While this exhibition was originally scheduled two years ago to celebrate 100 years of Geoffrey Bawa’s birthday, has the delay influenced the curation in any way?

Shayari: I think yes and no. When we hoped that this would be the final event in a year-long program in 2020, to us it was an important opportunity to look closely and look afresh at Bawa’s work. But we also hoped that it would set up the landscape for close looking at architecture, but then talking about it more broadly, which is what we are mandated to do with the trust. It's really not intended to be solely a legacy building exercise but because of the year and a half delay that was caused by the pandemic, I think that conversation was really prolonged. And in many ways we were able to really test and grow the content of the exhibition. But I do feel that some of the dialogues, notably things like bringing in the importance of scholars which should have happened a bit earlier in the whole conversation, but just in terms of how it was planned and how it became possible to have events maybe took a few years. I also think that we tried with the public program for the exhibition to jump ahead a little bit, or to catch up in a way and have a conversation that was much more broadly about the built environment and its relationship to various other disciplines, which is where we very much hope to keep our focus at present and in the future to have a broader and a wider discourse, I suppose.

A glimpse from the gallery | It’s Essential to be There | Sri Lanka | STIRworld
Map, Lunuganga. 1989. Image: Drawn by Sumangala Jayathilake. Geoffrey Bawa Trust. © Lunuganga Trust

Zohra: Where do you see this showcase going? How do you anticipate this could impact the state of architecture to come?

Shayari: If I understand the question correctly, it's about the kind of ambitions of the exhibition. Really a lot of it was to work with our communities and our audiences, to look very closely at our built environment and its implications with our present living conditions, our present social and political contexts. For us, the exercise of looking retrospectively at something like an archive is very much about understanding better where we are today and the directions in which we are heading. And I think some of the conversations that we have had, were very timely in terms of what is happening in Sri Lanka, which is recursive in some ways to the context that Bawa built in with the closed economy, with a very volatile social condition. I think the exhibition is a helpful place to say that we can look at designers providing some, certainly not all, but some solutions to really palpable problems that persist today.

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