Geoffrey Bawa’s Sri Lanka

Kalyani Prasher | Updated on January 08, 2018

Open plan: Geoffrey Bawa is considered the father of tropical modernism, an architectural style of which the most prominent examples can be seen in Sri Lanka. Seen here is Anantara Kalutara.

The architect’s creative genius resonates everywhere you go in the island nation

In 2001, two years before he passed away, Geoffrey Bawa was conferred the Chairman’s Award in the eighth cycle of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, putting an official stamp on his genius. This was the culmination of a great journey, a celebration of a lifetime of work that earned Bawa international repute and admiration like few others had in his field. He was only the third architect to win the Chairman’s Award since its inception in 1977, a special award given for lifetime achievement.

Bawa was also the first non-Muslim winner, which is a huge feat, considering the award was established to decorate design and architecture in Islamic societies.

But even before this, Bawa was already an icon, something of a demigod for architects around the world, especially in the subcontinent. Practising for over 40 years (he was a lawyer at first and became an architect in his thirties), he is considered the father of tropical modernism, an architectural style of which the most prominent examples can be seen in Sri Lanka.

Tropical modernism keeps the tropical climate at its core. These are constructions with good ventilation systems to reduce humidity and circulate air, angled roofs to accommodate excessive rain, a long overhang, and a design that blends smoothly with the environment.

Bawa created a new identity of architecture that factored in both the good and bad realities of living on an island: the humidity, the termites, the mould, but also the beautiful sea views, the trees, the rain… relevant in tropical climates across the world. This made him the centre of attention and something of a design sensation. His work earned him the title of Deshmanya, given by the government of Sri Lanka to those who make a significant contribution to society.

Sri Lanka is a destination close at hand and favoured for its beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine and an easy vibe.

Next time you visit, you can spend time exploring Bawa’s works, by building them right into your itinerary.

See: The Parliament

At the peak of his career, Bawa designed the New Sri Lanka Parliament building in Kotte, near Colombo, between 1979 and 1982. He was commissioned by the then President JR Jayawardene, who gave him a free hand and pots of money — the two best friends of any genius. The result stands today for the whole world to admire, this being among the most iconic works of Bawa. The Parliament looks like a floating building atop an island on an artificial lake, with the central pavilion housing the debating chamber under an expansive and striking copper roof. The symmetrical design of the debating chamber is in contrast with the asymmetrical colonnaded pavilions, and this building is regarded as one of the finest examples of tropical modernism.

Your hotel or tour operator can arrange a visit to the Parliament

Do & Eat: Lunuganga

One of the most beautiful properties in the world, Lunuganga in Bentota was a weekend home for Bawa and something of a pet project. It is what sent him to study architecture in the first place. In 1947, he bought this abandoned rubber plantation and set about to build a dream home… except he lacked expertise, which he acquired when he went to read architecture in England. Over the course of his life, Bawa kept adding to and building the Lunuganga Estate, and you can take a tour of the various places he sat and read at, had drinks, had his breakfast and admired the sea-facing scenery. Stay back for lunch at the restaurant and enjoy authentic local dishes such as hoppers and crab curry.

Book in advance by emailing lunuganga@sltnet.lk

Stay: Anantara Kalutara

A newly-opened resort in Kalutara, about an hour from Bentota, this is a haven for those looking to escape the noise and clutter. Located close to some of the most popular destinations in Sri Lanka — Bentota, Galle and Colombo — this will be an ideal base to explore all three while staying at a quieter, less-known town. Sitting between the banks of an estuary of the Kalu Ganga river and the Indian Ocean, this hotel was first commissioned to Bawa in 1995. Though it remained unfinished due to his illness, you can see the original Bawa touch in the main structure of the building, which is now the hotel’s lobby and main restaurant. The rest of it was finished in line with Bawa’s original design, and the hotel eventually opened only a year ago. Stay here for fine luxury, food, a great spa, but, most of all, to be close to Bawa’s memories.


Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on January 05, 2018

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