In Search of Bawa


15 September 2016

“How was it that a man who had shown almost no interest in architecture during the first three decades of his life should suddenly transform himself in his mid-thirties from failed lawyer and feckless dilettante to committed architect?” Though David Robson declares that this conundrum has no answer, the life and work of Geoffrey Bawa is the evidence that it is possible.

Bawa was one the most prolific and influential Sri Lankan architect of his generation. More than 15 years after his death, Robson – an architect and a personal friend of Bawa’s – followed the suggestion of the German photographer Sebastian Posingis to gather and organise a monograph of his works. In Search of Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka is dedicated to Bawa’s still-extant projects.

The monograph contains more than 40 of Bawa’s built works, cataloged by district of Sri Lanka and ordered along imagined routes. For example, the projects in the city of Colombo are ordered in a clockwise circuit, starting from Bawa’s former office. Robson states that the book can be used as a traveller’s handbook, though this is not its primary intention. The last part of the book incorporates an appendix with a list of Bawa’s buildings that have been either demolished or compromised by alterations.

In Search of Bawa aims to be inclusive, avoiding jargon and arcane theorising. A plethora of imagery by Sebastian Posingis invites the reader in, reflecting the major characteristic of Bawa’s work: landscape and building becoming one. Even the interior images offer glimpses of the scenery outside, their large open doors and glass windows letting sunlight fill the space. Posingis’ photographs are accompanied by short explanatory texts or stories, hand-drawings, and quick sketches of the built works.

Robson characterises Bawa as more of a literary person than a visual person. As a child he showed no interest or talent to drawing or crafting. After finishing school he read law at the University of Cambridge, returning to Sri Lanka afterwards to practice. The first step in Bawa’s shift towards architecture occurred during a year out travelling, where he came to admire Italian Renaissance gardens. Deciding that he would like to create something similar in Sri Lanka, he purchased an abandoned rubber estate near the coastal town of Bentota and tried to transform it. Though enthusiastically engaged in the project, he was hamstrung by his lack of technical knowledge.

Soon after, he was commissioned by the affluent to design and build her house. Plagued again by the lack of his technical skills, Bawa suggested that she find another architect, but Deraniyagala convinced him to study architecture, equip himself with the right knowledge, and return to her. Bawa travelled abroad again, enrolling at London’s Architectural Association. Returning at the age of 38, he realised Deraniyagala’s dream house and the Lunuganga, his Italian garden at the rubber estate. Both feature in the book, captured by Posingis and accompanied by short insightful texts that unfold the stories that led to their implementation.

Bawa’s career took off as the newly independent nation of Sri Lanka was asserting itself through institutional buildings. Consequently a number of projects that appear in the book are the result of government commissions, such as the Sri Lanka Parliament and the Ruhuna University Campus. At a time when architecture was a means to represent democracy, Bawa managed to symbolise transparency through monumentality. The contrived asymmetries of the parliament building, for instance, soften the edges and subsequently the ambience of austerity that often emanates from governmental buildings. An early sketch of the parliament by Bawa uncovers his intentions: the building would become one with the landscape, surrounded by gardens and pavilions that invite the visitor in to meet with the elected representatives.

Bawa’s projects are inextricable from the Sri Lankan landscape, something repeatedly pointed out by the imagery displayed in the book. Freed from colonial rule, many in Sri Lanka tried to revitalise dormant traditions. For Bawa, this was manifested through Tropical Modernism, which aimed to combine international modernism with local culture. This was both an aesthetic choice and a necessary adaption, the pure white forms favoured in the West quickly deteriorated in the Sri Lankan humidity.

Bawa reached for a more phenomenological approach, which treated the roof as the predominant element of the building. In The Jayawardene House, his last completed work, the walls almost disappear and the roof appears to be floating within the landscape. As Robson notes: “It was as if Bawa had worked for 40 years to distil the tropical house to its bare essentials – an umbrella roof floating in a copse of casuarinas and coconut palms.”

Bawa’s vernacular approach also incited him to experiment with other spatial components related to the tropical climate of Sri Lanka. During the colonial period, the British had established the enclosed and detached bungalow as the common housing typology. Bawa resurrected the traditional courtyard by connecting a series of enclosed and detached pavilions and verandas to comprise a central courtyard. The Ena de Silva House, one of Bawa’s exemplary works, is featured in the book through photographs that depict views of the interior space opened to the courtyard.

The orchestration of textures, colours, and materials to reflect the tradition of Sri Lanka was one of Bawa’s major preoccupations, a concern reflected throughout the monograph. Pursuing a national style, the images of the Neptune and the Serendib Hotel share identical elements such as material palettes light in tone and muted in colour, cross-ventilated rooms, and large garden courts with palm trees.

“In my personal search,” said Bawa, as quoted by Robson, “I have looked into the past for the help that previous answers can give and at the pointers of previous mistakes. By that I mean all the past from Anuradhapura to the latest building in Colombo – the whole range of effort, the peaks of beauty, and simplicity and the deep valleys of pretension. And it seems to me that mistakes have been made when these rules are ignored.” Bawa believed that contemporary architecture should be rooted in the past and that lasting beauty can only come by keeping history continuously in one’s eye. The projects featured in In Search of Bawa reveal precisely this: how the lessons of tradition, if harmoniously blend with the modern, can linger incitement to the future.