Geoffrey Bawa's 'tropical modernism' sweeps the island's hotel sector

The father of "tropical modernism" -- a school of architecture that can only be fully understood by seeing the maestro's buildings -- died in 2003, aged 83. By then, he had bequeathed to Sri Lanka a design legacy that has been widely recognized as the island state's hottest architectural genre.

The beauty and tropical romance of the Bawa style has become the standard for many architects and designers in Sri Lanka -- most notably in the construction of the boutique hotels that are popping up around the island to cater for its burgeoning tourist trade.

Bawa's architectural vocabulary and palette of materials have become so accepted, according to the British architect and critic David Robson, an authority on his work, that Sri Lankans have forgotten just how radical they were when he started work in the country in 1957, at the age of 38.

But stepping into Bawa's shoes is a tall order, not just because he was 2.13 meters (7 feet) tall. Seen in context, complete with decor, the tropical simplicity and sensuousness of his designs have a way of surprising and astonishing visitors.


But the most controversial of Bawa's hotels belongs to Aitken Spence, a Sri Lankan conglomerate with a substantial hotels division.

The Heritance Kandalama, constructed in the early 1990s, is built into a rocky outcrop in Dambulla, covered by verdant tropical forests that make it almost invisible except at very close quarters, reflecting the impact of public protests about its proximity to ancient temple sites.

As Archtech magazine noted in a review, Bawa was able to subdue the outcry with a subtle design that highlights the drama of the cliff-side location and its breathtaking views. The monks and others who had protested were surprised that a five-star hotel could blend so seamlessly with its surroundings that it effectively became invisible.

Many Sri Lankan architects have sought to keep Bawa's vision of tropical modernism alive, either through new buildings or by converting Bawa's houses into boutique hotels -- The Last House in Tangalle, on the southeastern coast, and Claughton House, in Dikwella, are two good examples.