Renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa not only lived in Sri Lanka for much of his life, he also left an indelible mark on the country’s hotels. Andrea Black explores his unique and innovative style.
I’m perched on a cliff in the six-hectare Lunuganga Estate, located on the west coast of Sri Lanka. A table and chairs are set up under a nearby jackfruit tree, and a giant bell – once used to summon staff to deliver gin and tonics – is suspended from one of its branches. This is where, from 1948 until his death in 2003, architect Geoffrey Bawa would sit, looking over a lake shaped like a butterfly.
Depending on the time of day, Bawa’s vantage point would shift. Mornings might be spent on the southern terrace, looking across the vista toward the beautiful Dedduwa Lake. Come sunset he might wander over to another seat beneath a giant frangipani tree. Word is that Bawa never dined indoors, rather insisting that “meals should be taken outside, under the shade”.
It’s right here, on this former cinnamon and rubber estate, that the former lawyer would experiment with landscaping and architectural structures. It’s also where he drew up several of the plans that would not only transform the architecture of Sri Lanka, but change the way we all experience hotels and resorts in South-East Asia – and indeed many other tropical, beach-side destinations. It’s what made him decide to abandon his law career and go back to the UK to study architecture. At Lunuganga, Geoffrey Bawa became the father of Tropical Modernism.
Bawa designed in a Modernist architectural style (less ornamental, more functional) but employed local materials and techniques that were better suited to the environment in Sri Lanka. Think open spaces with overhanging pitched roofs, which allowed the breeze to flow through while still offering protection from tropical rain. Designs would often feature reflecting pools and interior courtyards, and good use of location was paramount. Landscaping using the verdant tropical foliage, with lake and forest vistas, was of equal importance. As a result, the outdoor would merge with the indoor, and the buildings would sit in harmony with the surrounding landscape.
In addition to the impressive gardens and structures at Lunuganga – which can be found off a winding road through Bentota, about two hours south of Colombo – you can see (and stay in) one of the five suites Bawa created on site. Unfortunately I am just on a garden tour, not staying the night, so I have to be content with a gaze through the windows.
Across from the jackfruit tree, a house is built into the hillside – and through the giant windows, you can spy the architect’s interior design. Amongst the vaulted ceilings and skylights, it’s evident he loved black and white – and he also made use of antique Sri Lankan wood carvings.
On the other side of Lunuganga is Cinnamon Hill House, the last major construction to happen on the estate. It has a sitting area, entrance hall, two bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, and a separate pantry and staff area.
Dotted in the gardens are giant Ming Dynasty period jars, as well as statues of ancient Greek and Roman gods. It was Bawa’s wish for his ashes to be scattered in the gardens so he could eternally enjoy the view across Cinnamon Hill. Maintained by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, there are two tours daily – one at 9.30am and one at 2pm, each lasting for an hour.
I’m one of eight on my particular tour. The others are staying onsite at Lunuganga, or close by at the Bawa- designed Paradise Road The Villa. It is clear that Bawa was prolific in this country, and fans can discover his works right across Sri Lanka – from homes and hotels to schools and office towers. He even designed government buildings, including the Sri Lankan Parliament Complex – a collection of copper-roofed pavilions in the administrative capital of Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, located to the south-east of Colombo.
After touring Lunuganga to see where Bawa began his architectural career, we stop in Bentota to have lunch at Paradise Road The Villa – and to take a little look at our fellow tour-goers’ accommodation. It’s a 15- room beachside hotel housed in the ‘Mohotti Walauwa’ – Sri Lanka’s first boutique hotel, which Bawa converted in the 1970s. The impressive property boasts courtyards, lush greenery and Bawa’s favoured black-and-white motif. Their Villa Café is housed in a newly built pavilion, and serves a delicious range of signature dishes, such as crab curries and fresh seafood platters.
After lunch we venture inland to Geoffrey Bawa’s brother Bevis’ house, known as Brief Garden. It immediately becomes obvious that both brothers were trying to outdo each other with their garden designs. A tamed jungle, Brief Garden features long, winding pathways opening onto incredible vistas, and an abundance of nude sculptures amongst the foliage.
If the Bawa gardens represent the brothers’ personalities, Bevis, who was a landscape designer, might be said to be the more hedonistic