When it was first suggested that she consider hiring Geoffrey Bawa as her architect, Ena de Silva had her reservations. Ena, who would later become one of Sri Lanka’s foremost artists and batik designers, had been born into Colombo’s elite. She knew what she wanted and hiring Bawa must have felt like a gamble, for Ena suspected Bawa was a dilettante – she had seen him driving around downtown Colombo in his Rolls-Royce convertible, a scarf around his throat and his golden hair streaming behind him. The sight did not inspire confidence.
However, the home he built for her in 1960 became an icon of Tropical Modernism. It defied the Le Corbusieresque Modernist trends of the time, which relied heavily on steel and glass, and turned instead to local materials – terracotta tiles for a red roof, resilient satinwood for the columns that held it up and rough, unpolished granite for the floor. A small pond reflected the trees and high windows allowed in the breeze, while a large open courtyard served as the building’s heart, anchoring a constellation of rooms. This structure, once so familiar in old colonial homes, needed Bawa to reinvent it for a new era.
Award-winning architect Pradeep Kodikara says some of these choices were a necessity of the country’s closed economy, where importing materials was simply not possible. Still, Bawa more than made do. “He captured the imagination of a rising Sri Lankan middle class coming out of independence, looking to the future but proud of their past,” Kodikara says. “Here was an aesthetic that captured that mood.” The building was so original and radical in its approach that it would contribute to Bawa’s standing as one of the greats of Sri Lankan architecture, and eventually, of the world.
But if you were to go looking for Ena’s house today, it is not where she left it. Instead, some 90km away, it occupies a corner of Bawa’s sprawling country estate, Lunuganga, near the coastal town of Bentota. From the sturdiness of its walls and its weathered exterior, it’s difficult to imagine this same structure once stood in the noisy, crowded warren of streets in Colombo’s old city. But step inside the building and you will be able to find all the evidence you need.
In an ambitious conservation effort, Ena’s house was dismantled completely – with every tile, windowpane and brick numbered and transported on lorries – and then later reassembled like a monumental, three-dimensional jigsaw. It took six years, with the task being completed only in 2016. Even Ena’s things came along for the journey – her stunning, geometric batik prints dominate the courtyard and adorn the cushions on the sofa. All is as she left it.
It’s fitting that in 2019, 100 years after his birth, the organisers of the Geoffrey Bawa centenary celebration are planning to open the doors of Ena’s house – and those of a few other Bawa buildings – to the public for the first time. What’s more, they’ve also planned a series of exhibitions, publications and lectures featuring international luminaries that will stretch from May 2019 right through to July 2020.
Born in colonial Ceylon in 1919, Bawa embodied Sri Lanka’s rich yet conflicted history – his lawyer father was of Arab Muslim and English parentage, while his mother was a Dutch Burgher of mixed European and Sinhalese descent. At first, Bawa thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps, but after a dalliance with law, he turned to architecture, qualifying as an architect at the ripe age of 38. Through the innovative practice he established with the Danish architect Ulrik Plesner, his designs materialised all around Sri Lanka. With a growing reputation came offers from abroad – and Bawa-designed buildings began springing up in places such as India, the Maldives, Indonesia and even Fiji.
Bawa’s work was lauded for its blend of the modern and the vernacular, for how fluidly it mixed the formal with the picturesque. He reconciled his pursuit of aesthetics with the pragmatic realities of living in a tropical country where the rain came down like a waterfall and a house needed to breathe if it were to survive the scorching summer sun.
As a result, his work became ubiquitous on the island. He even designed Sri Lanka’s iconic new parliament building in Kotte and was awarded the title of “Deshmanya” – meaning “pride of the nation” – in 1993. It is hard to overestimate his influence in Sri Lanka, where the buildings in his canon served as prototypes for much of what came after. Since his death in 2003, interest in the architect has only grown, driven by a new generation inspired by his approach. His best-known buildings in Sri Lanka are now sites of pilgrimage for architecture buffs from around the world.
I join them on the Bawa trail, looking for traces of the man himself in the brick and mortar he left behind – a mission that will take me from his home in Colombo, all the way down to Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast and into the heart of the island’s Cultural Triangle.
When I first meet Shayari de Silva at Number 11, Bawa’s home in Colombo, she’s foraging through an archive in a climate-controlled room on the first floor – the young Yale graduate is the Geoffrey Bawa Trust’s first offcial curator. She unrolls a large drawing of a building, pointing out its detail. “Where other architects ordered such drawings to direct builders, Bawa’s were meant to beguile clients,” she tells me, referring to the blueprints as works of art.
Today, the Trust is approaching the gargantuan task of preserving the architectural drawings, paintings and objects Bawa left to it. Shayari is joined by architect Channa Daswatte, a member of the board of trustees and one of Bawa’s closest collaborators, who eventually takes a break from their discussion to walk around the property with me.
Lovely and labyrinthine, the use of enclosed courtyards and light wells mean that this home cycles through different moods with the passage of the sun. The rooms themselves remain as Bawa intended them: his 1934 Drophead Coupé Rolls-Royce is parked in the garage; the bedroom is preserved with two incongruous stuffed toys his friends presented him with; and he chose the trees that cast shadows on the roof. In a corner, just as you enter, is a black-and-white cushion that Bawa kept there for his black-and-white dog, Leopold. To linger in this place is to understand something of how he lived and what he loved.
Running as a small private museum, Number 11 welcomed some 48,000 visitors last year. It is possible to book an intimate tour by contacting the Trust and many who follow the Bawa trail start here – later moving on to some of his most renowned creations, including the Lighthouse and Kandalama hotels. If you know where to look in Number 11, you will find the seeds of what lies ahead.
A few hours south of the capital, the lush gardens at Lunuganga are still and quiet. Over the lake, clouds are gathering with the promise of rain. My guide and I go for long stretches without seeing anyone else. Pointing out places of interest, Isuru Randeni leads the way.
Lunuganga was Bawa’s magnum opus, a space in which he straddled the line between control and abandon. He allowed the garden to remain a wild, secretive space, where tall trees stand like sentinels and a symphony of hundreds of birds is only interrupted by the rude grunting of monkeys swinging high in the branches overhead.
The Trust runs two tours every day, and it is possible to contact them and book a lunch or even stay in one of several buildings on the property. After our trek, I sit down to a dinner table groaning under the weight of a traditional meal: sweet pineapple is stewed and laced with chilli; green leaves and grated coconut are finely chopped into a raw mallung, a traditional salad; translucent slices of cucumber soak in a delicate coconut-milk gravy; and caramelised eggplant is paired with tiny onions. There is a bowl full of flavourful, fiery chicken curry and a plate heaped with red rice. It is a reminder that a Sri Lankan meal is a feast. I help myself to the crispy poppadum as darkness falls over the lake.
My tour of Bawa’s most celebrated buildings then takes me even further south to the Lighthouse Hotel, perched on the rocky promontories on the coast of Galle. The sea that borders the 1995-built property and dominates the view is rough yet beautiful, and the hotel itself is located just a few minutes away from the bastion of Galle Fort.
I first encountered a striking drawing The Portuguese arriving in Ceylon under a cloud, depicting Portuguese colonisation by the artist Laki Senanayake in Bawa’s dining room at Number 11, but here it is reimagined, rising up out of the sketch and into an awe-inspiring sculpture circling the stairwell at the heart of the Lighthouse. Senanayake was one of Bawa’s frequent collaborators, and dozens of his paintings and sculptures adorn Bawa’s buildings – but this three-storey staircase is perhaps the most famous of them all. At its base, the Portuguese commander surveys the scene through his telescope, while at the top, the Sinhala king – who resembles Senanayake more than a little – sits playing the flute. “Bawa was one of the few Sri Lankan architects who would get his clients to commission artists to produce work for his buildings,” says Senanayake. Indeed, Bawa’s interest in a building extended beyond its design – he wanted to know how it would be lived in.
From the Lighthouse, we hug the coast as we traverse the long, narrow road to Tangalle, still looking for traces of the legend. The architect’s long-time biographer insists that we do not have to look very hard – in his book Beyond Bawa, David Robson tracks 24 contemporary architects working across Asia to make his case that the architect’s influence is still deeply felt. Among them was the late RAIA gold medallist Kerry Hill, who designed Amanwella in Tangalle, one of several luxurious Aman resorts that reflected Hill’s love of Sri Lanka and of Bawa’s work.
At Amanwella, expansive suites are perched on terraces, culminating in a panoramic lobby and dining space that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Hill’s nod to Bawa is to incorporate those lovely lines of traditional Sri Lankan architecture: the long passages lined with pillars evoke ancient temples; the araliya trees leave their white flowers on the lawn; and high ceilings are paired with wide, graceful windows. Sunsets here can be spectacular, lighting up the sky in brilliant shades of pink and gold.
From Amanwella, we drive further into the heart of the island and Sri Lanka’s dry zone near Dambulla. Home to some of the country’s most famous archaeological sites, here, rocky outcrops stand marooned in thick forest. It is also home to another Bawa icon – the Kandalama Hotel. Bawa chose its site from a helicopter, opting for a ridge overlooking a shimmering lake with Sigiriya rock in the distance. Completed in 1995, the hotel was meant to disappear into the rock face, camouflaged by an abundance of green, with trees clustered about its base and trellises that fall like a veil from its upper stories.
To wander around inside Kandalama is to extend that fantasy; I feel like I am climbing through the heart of the forest to where the canopy meets the sky. “For me, Kandalama was meant to be one of those structures with a built-in self-destruct button,” Channa had told me back in Colombo. “One envisions the forest finally taking over – it would only be finally complete when there were bears in the rooms and leopards roamed the corridors.”
Channa has salient memories of his younger self accompanying Bawa when he returned to Kandalama years after he had completed it. A stroke had confined the great architect to a wheelchair and he could no longer speak, except by nodding his head and squeezing a hand. Channa wheeled him, and, he recalls: “There was this wonderful moment – we came through that tunnel-like entry and into the back courtyard. The hotel was covered in green. Bawa began to weep – he was finally seeing the building he had had in his mind.”
As I walk back through that very same tunnel, I suspect that in the end, this is what brings Bawa’s most ardent fans back time and time again to his work. It is to experience what he intended – spaces that breathe and constantly evolve, that in some ineffable way, live.
Singapore Airlines flies direct to Colombo daily; SIA’s regional wing, SilkAir, flies there four times a week. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
This article was originally published in the March 2019 issue of SilverKris magazine