Remembering Bawa

A Life in Architecture

David Robson

1 Introduction

The People In-between

2019 marks the centenary of the birth of Geoffrey Bawa, the most prolific architect of post-independence Sri Lanka and one of the most important Asian architects of the 20th Century. Bawa was born in the British Crown Colony of Ceylon into a family of mixed ancestry - his father was a successful Anglo-Moslem lawyer and his mother a Dutch Burgher. He was one of the ‘people in-between’ who prospered under the British, but were resented by the Sinhalese. Having grown up during the final chapter of the British Empire, his career unfolded in the newly independent Republic of Sri Lanka and, though he received a Western education, in later life he developed an increasingly Asian outlook and drew inspiration as much from his native Sri Lanka as from his long sojourns in Europe.

Propelled by his mother towards a legal career, he studied English at Cambridge and Law in London during the Second World War. After a brief stay in Colombo during 1946 he set off on  a world tour,  finally returning home in 1948 just as Ceylon was celebrating its independence. Having joined a Colombo law firm, he  purchased ‘Lunuganga’, an abandoned rubber estate, aiming to create of it a tropical version of an Italian garden. But, while the garden project fired his imagination, it revealed his lack of technical knowledge. It was his French cousin, Georgette Camille, the first visitor to Lunuganga, who advised him to ‘become an architect and use other people’s money to develop your ideas’.

Towards Architecture

It’s difficult to explain how this reluctant lawyer and seeming dilettante who, hitherto, had shown little interest in anything related to architecture, should suddenly be transformed, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, into a fully focussed and highly talented architect. Only one thing seems certain: it was the garden project that fired his imagination. In 1954 he enrolled to study architecture at the Architectural Association (A.A.) in London where he was one of the oldest, tallest and wealthiest students of his day. At that time, the A.A. was racked by fierce arguments between different modernist factions, but Bawa used his lawyer’s training to ‘cut through the cant’, arguing that there were lessons to be learnt from every period of history. Having spent much of his final study year in Rome, he wrote a dissertation on the work of the German Baroque architect, Balthasar Neumann and finally qualified as an architect in 1957 at the age of thirty-eight.

Back in Colombo, Bawa became a partner in Edwards, Reid and Begg, the ghostly remnant of a former British architectural practice. The founding partners were long dead but Bawa’s début was cushioned by an established team of seasoned technicians and talented young assistants. And a year later he was joined by Ulrik Plesner, a young Danish architect, who provided the professional expertise that he lacked.

The Failure of Tropical Modernism

Bawa’s time in London had coincided with the founding of a new Tropical School within the A.A., and, although he didn’t enrol, he became a friend of course-leader Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew.  Fry and Drew were leading proponents of ‘Tropical Modernism’ – a post-colonial version of the International Style that was broadcast, indiscriminately, across the entire tropical zone, employing simple abstract forms and industrially produced building components while often ignoring particularities of place and culture.  Bawa’s first buildings – classroom blocks for two Colombo schools and an industrial estate at Ekala – were essays in Tropical Modernism, and employed simple white geometric designs, patterned brise soleils and supressed roofs.

It soon became clear to Bawa that, as well as being culturally inappropriate, Tropical Modernism could not cope with the humid heat of Ceylon: pure white surfaces discoloured, grilles let in rain spray, flat roofs leaked and over-heated.  Inspired by the pioneering work of his compatriot Minnette de Silva, he began to experiment with the use of traditional forms such as verandas, courtyards, overhanging roofs,  and locally produced materials such as clay tile, stone and timber. He thus demonstrated that a contemporary architecture could still connect to the past and that it could be spatially ambitious while using traditional technologies. During the early 1960s he shifted to the Modern Regionalist mode that would become his hallmark. This shift can be seen in a clutch of projects which were published in the Architectural Review in 1966, which included the Ena de Silva House (1961), a new office for the practice (1962) and the Bandarawela Chapel (1963).

In 1966 Bawa fell out with Ulrik Plesner who quit E.R& B. and returned to Europe. He then persuaded engineer K. Poologasundram to become his partner and office manager. Bawa now embarked on the first of a series of magical hotels that served Sri Lanka’s burgeoning tourist industry. The Bentota Beach Hotel (1969), recently demolished, was conceived like a monastic fortress with rooms clustered around a central courtyard, fusing the idea of Le Corbusier’s Couvent de la Tourette with memories of ancient Kandyan manor houses.  It was one of the first hotels in Asia to offer an authentic Asian experience to its guests. 

A Contextual Architecture

Bawa set out to make an architecture of place which responded to both physical and cultural contexts and sought to a develop a new contemporary language that was informed by lessons from the past. He believed that one should learn from the whole of history – “from Vignola to the Bauhaus” and was inspired as much by the monasteries of Anuradhapura as by Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp, as much by Sigiriya1 as by gardens of the Italian Renaissance. Working like a scenographer, he conceived of a building as a series of tableaux to be experienced sequentially. He sought to break down the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and to establish a dialogue between building and landscape, juxtaposing buildings with each other or with natural features in such a way as to create outdoor rooms.

The 1970s

Like many of his background he felt threatened after 1970 by the nationalist policies of the S.L.F.P. government and he opened a subsidiary office in Madras. This led to his being commissioned to design a staff club in Madurai for Madurai Mills (1973). At the same time, he undertook work in Bali where he designed an estate of fifteen villas for Austrakian architect, Donald Friend (1974). In both projects he demonstrated that, when supported by thorough background research, the Regionalist approach could be applied successfully to very different contexts.

The 1980s

The election of the Jayawardene government in 1977 heralded a period of economic liberalism and brought Bawa a clutch of major projects. These included the new national Parliament at Kotte (1982) and the Ruhunu Unversity campus  (1984). He also built several new hotels including the Triton at Ahungalla.

International Recognition

In Britain, Bawa was championed by Michael Brawne, who wrote a number of perceptive articles in the Architectural Review2, and by Christoph Bon of Chamberlin Powell and Bon, a close friend who funded a monograph on Bawa in 19863 and published an elegiac photographic study of the Lunuganga garden in 19904. Both books were widely read across south and southeast Asia and each incorporated drawings from the Bawa office, executed in the unique picturesque manner which would become the lingua franca of Tropical Regionalism.

The Final Decade

At the end of the 1980s, exhausted by the big projects of the previous decade, Bawa closed his office and opened a small design studio in his Colombo home with a handful of young assistants. Over the next three years he produced imaginative designs for projects across Asia, which, although not built, were extensively published.  These included a magical design for a pyramidal conservatory in the Singapore Botanical Gardens (1988) and an ambitious plan for an extension to the Hyatt Hotel in Bali (1989).

Now in his seventies and in failing health, he embarked on a final canon of innovative built projects including the austere Kandalama Hotel (1994), the rugged Lighthouse Hotel (1996), perched on a rocky seashore north of Galle and an elegant minimalist house on the cliffs overlooking Weligama Bay.

Bawa’s Legacy

In 1998, whilst working on the design for a new presidential palace, Bawa suffered a massive stroke that left him paralysed and, after a long illness, he died in 2003. Paradoxically it was during this period that his work received wider recognition: in 2001 he was given a lifetime’s achievement award by the Aga Khan, in 2002 a comprehensive monograph on his work was published in London5, and in 2004 the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt staged a major retrospective exhibition. As a result, Bawa’s ideas were widely disseminated and made a significant contribution to the debate about identity in modern architecture.

In Sri Lanka there are no mechanisms to protect heritage assets.  During the fifteen years since his death a number of Bawa’s buildings have been demolished or altered beyond recognition.  Recent casualties have included the Hanwella Farm Orphanage, St. Bridget’s Montessori School and the Bentota Beach Hotel.  Others gems, such as the Steel Corporation Offices and the Bandarawela Chapel, are under threat. The sad irony is that, although lip-service is paid to his name, his buildings are often ignored and neglected, even by those who pretend to be his defenders.

2 Modern Regionalism

Bawa’s shift towards a regionalist position was in part inspired his compatriot Minnette de Silva.  Minnette, a graduate of the A.A. and a close friend of Le Corbusier, had proposed a ‘Modern Regional Architecture’ in a prescient article in the Bombay journal ‘Marg’6. These ideas were taken up and developed in an article in 1966 by Bawa7 and pre-dated theories of ‘Critical Regionalism’ that was advanced by Frampton and Tzonis some twenty-five years later.

The Ena de Silva House, 1960-62

In 1960 Bawa was commissioned to design a house in Colombo for Ena de Silva, a Kandyan aristocrat who had become a celebrated a batik artist and champion of local crafts. She wanted a house that would incorporate traditional features - courtyards, verandas, a shrine room – but she wanted a modern house with an office for her husband and a studio for her and her son. The de Silva site was small by Colpetty standards – about 750 square meters – and with Ena’s encouragement, Geoffrey developed an introspective plan that effectively turned the house inside-out with its various elements arranged around a large central courtyard and a series of lesser courts: a garden-in-a house. In doing this, Bawa was reviving the Sinhalese tradition of courtyarded manor houses while, at the same time, creating a new prototype for living in a modern tropical city.

The plan of the Ena de Silva house was wholly modern: the main living spaces flowed seamlessly around the central courtyard, while the service elements were contained in a separate side wing, and the symmetrical partie was eroded by subtle games of asymmetry. But the palette of materials was traditional: the roof was clad with half-round Sinhala clay tiles, the ground floor was of cut granite, the veranda around the central courtyard was supported on round columns of polished timber with granite bases and capitals. In a time of severe import restrictions, there was a minimum use of cement and steel and a total absence of glass: windows were enclosed by shutters and screened by elegant latticed screens.

The design of the de Silva house coincided with the development of a new drawing style in Bawa’s office, largely inspired by artist Laki Senanayake and architect Ismeth Raheem.  Senanayake’s drawing of a section through the house was not a recipe for how it should be built but rather an evocation of how it would feel: the trees are real trees and a tiny tortoise can be seen crawling across the veranda. This way of drawing was the perfect expression of Bawa’s design methodology, and was widely imitated across Southeast Asia, becoming the lingua franca of Modern Regionalism. In 2014 the house was demolished to make way for a hospital car park, but its key elements were salvaged and painstakingly re-assembled by the Bawa Trust on the edge of the garden at Lunuganga.

The Bandarawela Chapel, 1963-65

In 1940, the Order of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd acquired an old estate bungalow in the hill country near Bandarawela to serve as a rest and retirement home for older nuns. The chapel that was added in 1962, was the brainchild of Eileen Mills, an Irish nun known as ‘Mother Good Counsel’. She approached designer Barbara Sansoni who ran weaving centres for the nuns and, through her, was introduced to Geoffrey Bawa. The chapel was built on a shoestring budget and the design relied heavily on locally available materials: black ‘kalugal’ stone for the walls, local timber for the ceilings and clay tiles for the roof. Bawa’s team had to improvise to produce suitable furnishings and light fittings and created the artworks which adorned the church’s interior.

The chapel occupies a ridge which falls gently towards the east. The south side of the nave faces the street and takes the form of a long blank wall of rubble which terminates in a square tower. Two doors open into the west end of the chapel from a transverse vestibule that links the street to the back of the convent. The granite floor of the nave follows the slope of the ground and falls gently towards the altar. The altar table is placed at the base of the tower and is lit dramatically from an unseen glass roof. The roof of the nave is made up of five angled vaults of red tuna wood. The south wall is punctuated by a series of five arched recesses which hide slits that provide ventilation and cast an ethereal glow of light up the inside surface of the wall. The north wall contains four full bays of glazing which incorporate three large crucifixes at their junctions and look out across to a garden to a view of distant hills. The simple palette of materials suggests a building which seems to grow out of the ground, which has been 'unearthed' rather than constructed.

Barbara Sansoni made the terra cotta Stations of the Cross which line the south wall as well as the tile reliefs within the bearing arches and sculpted the figure of the Risen Christ which stands at the west end of the nave.  Laki Senanayake designed the priest’s vestments, the altar table and the setting of the altar crucifix. Ulrik Plesner was responsible for much of the furniture, including the original nuns’ desks in the nave and the folding confessional in the vestibule. The chapel is one of the most impressive contemporary worship spaces to be found in Sri Lanka. The overall effect is one of focused calm and sanctity achieved through the careful manipulation of space, the juxtaposition of simple materials and the careful control of light and shade. The chapel’s apparent simplicity belies a subtle sophistication.  It admits to no clear precedents, having little in common with the 19th C. Portuguese revival churches that dominates Catholic Sri Lanka, and owes more, perhaps, to Scandinavian precedents.

3 The Pleasure of Architecture

A city house is certainly of great splendour and convenience to a gentleman who is to reside there to direct his affairs. But he will not reap much less utility and consolation from a country house where his remaining time will be spent in improving his estate, where exercise will preserve the health and strength of his body, and where his mind will be greatly restored and comforted. Thus, the ancients used to retire to such places where, having pavilions, gardens and fountains and being visited by their virtuous friends, they could aspire to as much happiness as can be attained here below8.

Two projects occupied Geoffrey Bawa during much of his career: his garden retreat at Lunuganga and his town house in Colombo. Both acted as test beds for his emerging ideas, and both illustrated one of the main principles that informed his work: that buildings should give pleasure, both to those who make them and to those who use them. He derived as much pleasure from making a building as from knowing that his buildings gave pleasure to others. He was under no illusion that buildings could actually make people happy, but he was convinced that bad buildings could make them unhappy.

Geoffrey Bawa’s Town House

In 1959 Bawa moved into the third of a row of four tiny bungalows that lined a short cul-de-sac at the end of 33rd Lane in Colombo Colpetty. It offered just enough space for a living room, a bedroom and a tiny kitchen with a minute room for his manservant. Then over the next eight years he proceeded, one by one, to buy up the whole row and to amalgamate them into a single dwelling. The first house was demolished to make way for a four-storey tower that incorporated an entrance and carport on the ground-floor, a guest suite on the first-floor and a garden terrace on the second floor. The second house served for a while as an independent flatlet but was later converted to a studio and office, while the fourth house was fashioned into a dining room and drawing room. The cul-de-sac, now redundant, was transformed into a long passage lit by tiny courtyards and lightwells. This was his space laboratory where he worked, like a scenographer, to create a moving tableau of visual delights and surprises.

From the street you enter a dark carport in which Bawa’s beloved Rolls Royce and Mercedes cars sit forever on chocks like pieces of automotive sculpture.  From there a long white corridor draws you down to a small atrium framed by Chettinad columns where a terra cotta horse’s head nudges you onto the main lateral axis towards a small sitting room and pool court that lie at the heart of the labyrinth. The identity of the original bungalows was erased and the final result is an introspective, almost subterranean, matrix of rooms and garden courts which create the illusion of infinite space on what is, in reality, a tiny plot. There are rooms without roofs and roofs without walls, all connected by a grid of axes and internal vistas and punctuated by works of art and pieces of architectural salvage. In contrast, the tower above the car-port appears to be a reworking of Corbusier’s Maison Citroen, its levels connected by a winding white staircase. It functions as a periscope rising above the surrounding rooftops and in former times gave views across the city to the south and east and a glimpse of the sea towards the west.

The Garden Retreat at Lunuganga (1948-1998)

After buying the Lunuganga estate in 1948, Bawa devoted much of his spare time and money during the next fifty years to developing it as a landscaped garden. The former rubber plantation straddled two low hills and ran from north to south across a narrow promontory that projected out into a brackish lagoon, a few kilometres inland from the Indian Ocean at Bentota. Measuring a little over four hundred meters from shore to shore, it covered an area of about eight hectares. The old estate bungalow occupied the summit of the northern hill and was hemmed in on three sides by rubber trees. An entrance drive swung up around the hill from a gate on the garden’s east side to an entrance porch on the bungalow’s west elevation. Having removed the drive, Bawa created an entrance court, hidden in the trees below the bungalow’s southeast corner and connected by cascades of steps to the south terrace. He then cut a swathe through the rubber trees on the southern hill and reduced the height of its summit by a couple of meters in order to open up a view towards the southern part of the lake and a line of distant hills. The narrow lane that crossed the estate between the two hills to provide access to neighbouring properties was sunk within a deep ‘ha-ha’ and the two halves of the garden were joined by an enclosed bridge. The hillside on the north side of the bungalow was remodelled to create a lawn which ran towards an artificial cliff, criss-crossed with secret paths and staircases. These looked down on a long a long broad walk and a water-garden that ran along the edge of the lagoon. The original bungalow was relegated to the status of shelter and was cocooned in a series of courtyards and verandas. The former porte cochère became the main sitting space and the entrance was moved to the south terrace. Bawa’s own private suite of rooms opened to two separate courts, one containing a plunge pool and a tiny look-out tower. Pavilions were added to the east of the bungalow to provide guest rooms, a gallery and a study, forming between them a series of terraces that stepped down towards the water gardens. The garden may well have been inspired by the English landscaped gardens that Bawa encountered during his Cambridge years and by Italian Renaissance gardens that he visited during his year in Rome, but it also owed much to the great landscape traditions of ancient Ceylon. There was never a fixed plan: the garden was a moving project that evolved over time. The various elaborate drawings that were produced over the years were not blueprints: each served simply as a record of the garden at a particular moment in time. Even at the end of his life Bawa was still dreaming of extending the garden to envelop the whole of the promontory.

He conceived of the garden as a set of tableaux that would change with the season, the time of day, the weather; as a series of spaces that could be connected in a variety of different scenographic sequences. It was, he said, a garden within the larger garden of Ceylon and views out beyond the garden’s boundary played an important role in the composition. Over the years the original rubber trees were replaced by a wide variety of mainly indigenous trees and plants and the garden was embellished with pavilions, walls and statuary. The result was a civilised wilderness: not a garden of manicured parterres, of flowers and fountains, but a succession of hidden surprises and sudden vistas, a composition of green on green, an ever-changing play of light and shade, a landscape of memories and ideas. In its prime, the garden seemed so natural that it belied the effort that had gone into its creation or the amount of work that was needed to maintain is air of careful casualness.  Ignore it for a week and the paths would clog up, for a month and the lawns would run wild, for a year and the terraces would crumble and the jungle return. It was a work of art, the contrivance of a single mind and a hundred pairs of hands working with nature to produce something that was ‘supernatural’. Bawa would later observe:

‘Looking back on the making of the garden, seeing it as it is now, it seems inevitable that it should be there’………… It has grown gradually into a place of many moods, the result of many imaginings offering me a retreat in which to be alone or to fellow-feel with friends. An added pleasure has been to observe the reactions of others, from puzzlement to the silence of contentment;  from one visitor who exclaimed that ‘this would be a lovely place for a garden’ to the lorry driver who walked around while his bricks were being unloaded and declared that ‘this is a very blessed place!’.

4 The Genius of the Place

‘Consult the Genius of the Place in all,
That tells the waters or to rise or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale.9

Bawa’s interest in gardens led him to become an architect and it was, therefore, hardly surprising that landscape came to play an important role in his designs. He had been inspired first by English landscaped gardens and by the gardens of the Italian Renaissance. But he also came to admire the classic landscapes of Sri Lanka – the vast park monasteries of Anuradhapura, the rock citadel of Sigiriya with its hanging gardens and its astonishing pleasure park, the forest monatseries of Ritigala and Arankale. What these all had in common was a respect for topography and for natural features such as rocks and water courses. Sites were planned almost invariably to align with the points of the compass but symmetries were broken to accommodate natural features. Individual buildings were placed in such a way as to create outdoor spaces either with other buildings or with rocky outcrops and to set up a dialogue between inside and outside.

Polontalawa (1963-64)

In 1963 Bawa’s associate Ulrik Plesner was approached by Thilo Hoffmann, the director of Baur AG, a Swiss commercial company based in Sri Lanka. Hoffman wanted to build a manager’s bungalow at Polontalawa, a remote coconut estate to the northeast of Chilaw. He had seen a circuit bungalow in Anuradhapura that Bawa and Plesner had designed for Shell, and suggested that something similar could be built close to the junction of two estate roads. While Plesner was happy to go along with Hoffmann’s suggestion, Bawa insisted that nothing could be decided until all three of them had visited the site. Once on site, Bawa decreed that neither the proposed location nor the Shell design was appropriate. Peering into the distance he pointed to a collection of massive boulders and suggested to Hoffmann that they would provide a more interesting location. Having explored the boulders, Bawa called for ‘sticks and string’ and proceeded to set out a full-sized mock-up of the bungalow. This was the design that Plesner later worked up under Bawa’s supervision.

A high rubble wall, suggestive of a defensive stockade in a hostile wilderness, encircles the boulders and iss breached only by a small lych-gate. This opens to a rocky pavement that snakes between overhanging rocks before dropping into the main living space. The living space is open-sided and is defined only by an overhanging roof that is supported on a massive concrete ridge-beam spanning between two huge boulders. Beyond lies a pair of pavilions. The first, reached by a narrow staircase from a small courtyard contains the main guest bedroom, its end wall filled by a boulder that hangs over the bed. The second contains the manager’s quarters. The outer wall and the buildings interact to define boulder gardens that are scattered with rocks and almost smothered by tree roots. The bungalow was constructed entirely of materials gleaned from the surrounding area and seems to grow out of its site. It speaks to a long tradition of hermitages and monastic retreats that were built in former times in caves and under boulders.

The Kandalama Hotel (1992-94)

In 1992, Bawa was invited by the Aitken Spence Group to design a hotel in the Cultural Triangle, close to the foot of the famous Sigiriya Citadel. However, when he visited the proposed site, he declared it to be too close to the ruins, and, pointing vaguely with his stick, persuaded his clients to look for another site on the edge of the ancient Kandalama reservoir, a few kilometres away to the south. The Kandalama was one of the last in a long line of Bawa hotels.  During his career he had produced over forty hotel designs. Of the thirty intended for sites in Sri Lanka, fourteen were built, while, of the ten intended for other parts of the world, his extension to the Connemara Hotel in Madras was the only one to be realised.  But his designs were widely disseminated and had a considerable influence on hotel design throughout Southeast Asia. The Kandalama Hotel was built against a cliff-face on a ridge that towered over the southern shore of the adjacent reservoir. Occupying two long articulated wings that twist to follow the topography, it resembles an ocean liner that has been stranded on a remote mountain top. Visitors arrive via a steep ramp and are deposited at a cave-like entrance in a rocky outcrop that separates the two wings. A tunnel leads through the rock to a lounge that looks out over an infinity pool and across the reservoir towards the Sigiriya Rock. Just as on a ship, the five levels of rooms lie below the entrance level and are accessed by open decks that hug the face of the cliff. Each room has a generous balcony and a bathroom that look out across the tank, leading Ena de Silva, who contributed many of the furnishings, to ask: “Where else in the world can you sit on the loo and look out at such a view?”

The flat roofs serve as roof gardens and the facades are hung with timber slats that support thick foliage, so that the hotel disappears into the surrounding jungle. It functions like a giant hide or a belvedere, a building to look out of rather than to look at. Its architecture is robust and unadorned and is punctuated by the outcrops of rock that burst through the walls. Each of the two wings sets up its own dialogue with the cliff-face, with the surrounding jungle and with the distant views. Measuring almost a kilometre from end to end, and located far from major roads, the most astonishing thing about the Kandalama Hotel is the fact that it was built at all and that his clients were prepared to trust their architect with such an undertaking.

5 An Architect of the State

Like the Vicar of Bray, Bawa managed to duck under the waves of political change and received commissions from governments of every hue. During the course of his career he designed houses for the Marxist minister Pieter Keuneman, for President Kumaratunga and two other members of her family, for the grandson of President Jayawardene and for the daughter of President Premadasa. For the Senanayake government he designed the Steel Corporation offices and housing at Oruwela, for the Bandaranaike Government he designed the State Mortgage Bank, later hailed as the world’s first bioclimatic skyscraper, for the Jayawardene government he designed the new National Parliament and the Ruhunu University campus.

The Sri Lanka Parliament (1979-83)

In 1979 Geoffrey Bawa was commissioned by newly elected President Jayawardene to design a new parliament building close to the site of the ancient city of Kotte, some eight kilometres east of Colombo.  The site lay beyond the confines of the city and had not figured in any previous development plan. Bawa was given a relatively free hand with the sole proviso that the building should be completed within three years. He proposed draining an area of marshland to create a lake with an island at its centre and produced a design which placed the main debating chamber in a symmetrical central pavilion surrounded by an asymmetric constellation of lesser pavilions, all under sweeping double-pitched copper roofs. The lesser pavilions included an MPs dining room and an open-sided hall for staging public meetings. With a total area of around fifty thousand square meters, this was the biggest project that Bawa had tackled and it was managed with great skill by his partner Dr. Poologasundram. The contractor was Mitsui from Japan.

Interestingly, the British-built parliament, which dated from the 1920s, had contained a hemicyclic chamber. Bawa’s design, however, proposed a symmetrical chamber which resembled that of the Palace of Westminster, though it was said to have been inspired by the Royal Audience Hall in Polonnaruwa. A ceremonial route led across a causeway to a piazza from which a cascade of steps led to a long loggia. At the opening of Parliament, the President enters through a pair of ceremonial doors and ascends a staircase that leads directly up to the floor of the debating chamber. The chamber is panelled in dark calamander wood under a tent-like ceiling of linked aluminium bars from which hangs a large silver chandelier made by artist Laki Senanayake. The building makes a contemporary statement which contains subtle allusions to the past. It is characterised by a restrained monumentality which is defined by a trabeated structure of aggregate-faced concrete whose proportions are modified from floor to floor. The monumentality is tempered, however, by the scale of the lesser pavilions and by the landscaped garden courts that sit between them.

The Ruhunu University Campus (1980-86)

Soon after starting work on the Parliament, Bawa received another big commission from the Jayawardene government: to plan and design the main campus of the new University of Ruhunu. The site lay a few kilometres to the west of Matara and faced the Southern Ocean and the full blast of the monsoon. It straddled three steep hills. The western hill was next to the sea and was separated from the other two by a main road.

Bawa’s strategy was to locate the Science Faculty on the northern hill and the Arts Faculty on the eastern hill and to place the shared facilities between the two. He then created a lake as a buffer between the campus and the main road and located the staff housing beyond the road on the western hill.

The brief identified a total of fifty buildings with a combined area of 40,000 square meters and stipulated rapid completion within a tight budget. Bawa conceived of the campus as a series of rectangular pavilions connected by covered links in a sequence that ran around the contours of the two hills. He created a library of standard details which were ordered on a structural grid of 3 meters, a planning grid of 30 metres and a vertical grid of 1.5 meters. The buildings had to be fairly straightforward and Bawa used a simple palette of materials – plastered brickwork, rubble stone and overhanging pitched roofs of half-round clay tile laid on corrugated cement sheeting.  The budget allowed only a minimal use of air-conditioning and the buildings had to be self-cooling. Repetitiveness and monotony were avoided in part by subtly changing details and altering proportions. However, Bawa’s main ploy was to make the buildings interact with the topography and the vegetation. Throughout the campus the individual pavilions form unique semi-enclosed spaces both between one another and with the landscape. Given the extreme exposure of the site and the political turmoil of the past thirty-five years, the buildings are still in good shape. A few inappropriate buildings were added during the early years, but recent additions have been designed carefully to accord with Bawa’s design philosophy.

1 Felsenfestung im Zentrum von Sri Lanka
2 Michael Brawne, ‘The Work of Geoffrey Bawa’, Architectural Review, April 1978, ‘The University of Ruhunu’, Architectural Review, November 1986.
3 Brian Brace Taylor et al, ‘Geoffrey Bawa’, Singapore: Concept Media, 1986.
4 Geoffrey Bawa, Christoph Bon and Dominic Sansoni, ‘Lunuganga’, Singapore: Times Editions, 1990
5 David Robson, ‘Bawa The Complete Works’, London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
6 Minnette de Silva. ‘A House in Kandy’. Bombay: Marg, Vol 6 No. 3, June 1953.
7 Geoffrey Bawa. ‘A Way of Building’.  Colombo: Times of Ceylon Annual, 1968.
8 Andrea Palladio. ‘Quattro Libri dell’Archtettura’. 1738. vol. 2, ch. 12.
9 Alexander Pope. ‘Epistle to Lord Burlington – On the Use of Riches’, 1731

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