The genius of Geoffrey Bawa
The influence of Asia's ultimate guru of modern architecture, the late
Geoffrey Bawa, is evident in the way hotels, resorts, villas and even
ordinary homes are built, particularly in South-East Asia. JOHNNI WONG
travels to Colombo in search of Bawa's legacy and learns first-hand about
his achievements from his confidant.
THE demise of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa at the age of 83 last year
ended the world's greatest talent in tropical modern architecture.
Fortunately, his ideas continue to flourish throughout Asia, including
In his lifetime, Bawa designed some 70 houses (of which 50 were built), and
35 hotels of which 20 were realised. His grand monuments include the
Parliament House at Kotte and other public institutions commissioned by the
Sri Lankan Government under different leaders.
Bawa's portfolio of work also encompasses industrial buildings, places of
worship, educational institutions and even public housing. In recognition of
his work, Bawa was bestowed the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture
in 2001. This award is usually given in recognition of outstanding buildings
and Bawa is only among three individuals given this rare honour.
Bawa died on May 23 last year, exactly two months short of his birthday, at
his home and office referred to as "33rd Lane" in Colombo. He had been
mainly confined to his home after he suffered a second stroke in 1998.
But he made occasional visits to his famous country estate, Lunuganga. Like
his late brother, Bawa was a bachelor and thus left no surviving heirs.
He was born Geoffrey Manning Bawa, the younger of two boys in a Burgher
family, in Colombo on July 23, 1919. His father and grandfather were lawyers
and he also took up law at Cambridge University in London.
However, the young Geoffrey had no real love for law and later returned to
London to study architecture at the Architectural Association School. He
graduated and returned to his own country in 1957 to begin his career as an
architect at age 38.
Bawa's influence has been so profound that many of today's leading
architects in Asia unabashedly point to him as their guru when they build
modern structures with traditional features.
Certainly, even international talents like Jean-Michel Gathy, Kerry Hill and
Made Wijaya are influenced by Bawa.
Among Malaysian architects who are inspired by Bawa are Ken Yeang, Jimmy Lim
and Chen Voon Fee. Bawa himself took in many assistants and had many
collaborators in Sri Lanka who are now established talents in their own
Bawa didn't have many close friends and towards the end of his life, he
depended greatly on his principal assistant, Channa Daswatte, 38, to care
for him. Daswatte also implemented his ideas on the remaining commissioned
work undertaken by his firm, Geoffrey Bawa Associates.
Daswatte joined Bawa in 1991 and became a friend and confidant as well. As a
member of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, Daswatte represented him in his affairs.
When Prince Charles represented Britain at the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka
's independence in February 1998, he made a side trip to Lunuganga to meet
Bawa, whom he admired.
It was Daswatte who showed the prince around the grounds as Bawa was in a
wheelchair. Soon after the prince's visit, Bawa suffered a second and
massive stroke on March 1 that left him paralysed.
It was also Daswatte who accepted the Aga Khan Award for Architecture on
Bawa's behalf in Syria.
With Bawa's death, the Trust has yet to decide what to do with the home and
office of Bawa at 33rd Lane, off Bagatalle Road.
The labyrinthine house actually comprises four small bungalows converted
into one property.
To people who may have only heard of Bawa's Lunuganga (see accompanying
story), it may seem that the country estate was his greatest claim to fame.
But Bawa was much, much more than that. His name is rightly mentioned in the
same breath as modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright.
"Lunuganga is certainly a great modern Asian garden. I don't think there is
anything that compares to it," says Daswatte, when I meet him in Colombo.
He has his own architectural practice that he opened in 1999 together with
Murad Ismail. It was an accepted arrangement with Bawa for his assistants to
open their own private practice while still working under him.
What established Bawa's reputation in the field of architecture?
"His experimentation with local materials and skills to build modern
buildings. Obviously that's the tropical Asian style that started with
Geoffrey way back in the 1950s."
When Bawa built the ground-breaking Ena de Silva House in Sri Lanka in 1962,
there were no other such houses, perhaps in all of Asia, says Daswatte, who
studied architecture at the University of Moratuwa and University College,
"I don't think there were any house like that in tropical Asia, when
everybody else was building Corbusian blocks and so on.
"Geoffrey went round and said, 'Look, I want a modern house but I don't want
to build it like this.' And he began to use local materials and local skills
to build a very modern house but one that looked very much like part of the
culture and history of Sri Lanka.
"And that is what really made him famous. To a lot of Asian architects, he
has been a great inspiration so you could say that all the tiled roofs, use
of timber, use of local vernacular traditions of building and so on, I
think, came from him."
Not surprisingly then when Bawa's works were first published in the
Architectural Review in 1966, it was a sensation because nobody had done
tropical buildings like that before.
"The Bentota Beach Hotel in south-west Sri Lanka for instance - which is now
unfortunately ruined with a steel roof and stuff like that - was a kind of
essay on tropical modernism that looked at local conditions and local
"You see in a lot of that in hotel developments. Some are virtual copies,
which is fine as it is a form of flattery."
Interestingly, according to Daswatte, Bawa's decision to use local materials
was due to import restrictions and the scarcity of imported building
materials in the 60s and 70s.
One of Bawa's significant innovations in construction techniques was to use
half-round Portuguese tiles placed on top of corrugated cement sheets.
"It is almost now taken for granted that some of his pioneering ideas are
part of the vocabulary in Sri Lankan architecture. No one would think twice
about using corrugated cement sheets with tiles on top. Geoffrey started
doing it in early 1960s and I suppose when you have half-round tiles, it
gets moved about causing leaks. Adding corrugated cement sheets stops that
and the tiles keep the building cool. Little things like that are now
standard specifications in Sri Lankan houses."
When the asked to describe whether Bawa had any eccentric habits, Daswatte
bursts out laughing.
"Difficult to pinpoint. I had known him for so long that I wouldn't have
recognised the eccentricities. He was a proper gentleman who lived pretty
simply in his own way."
Daswatte believes that Bawa's philosophy that an architect should re-examine
his own culture and society's traditions, is what has influenced people the
"Unfortunately, sometimes this 'Geoffrey Bawa Style' is misconstrued to be
the idea that you build old-looking buildings.
"For instance, lots of hotels with pavilions are simply reproductions of
vernacular housing (meaning the local architectural style), whereas that's
not what Geoffrey did. He did modern buildings, very contemporary buildings
for contemporary purposes, using old materials, traditional materials as
well as using the vernacular - and in doing that, he was really a pioneer."
Speaking of "using the vernacular", doesn't Sri Lanka's Parliament House
designed by Bawa in 1979 have more in common with the old Kyoto buildings in
Japan, rather than Singhalese or Kandyan architecture, I ask.
"He probably was inspired by that (Japanese design), a kind of stripped-down
vernacular, because if you look at most Sri Lankan buildings, they have a
tradition of heavy bases going up into something that's light. It's actually
an Asian tradition.
"And that's basically what he was inspired by, and given the political
conditions in which he built it, I think he was being absolutely careful not
to make any references to any of our particular cultures.
"For a long time people probably thought it was a Japanese architect (who
designed it) but when you walk into the interior, it becomes very, very Sri
Lankan as well as a mix of Western designs because at the end of the day, it
is a Western building."
Visitors who walk into Parliament House today can't believe it was
conceptualised in the 1970s as it still looks very modern. (See story on
"Yes, absolutely, and even if you walk into the Ena de Silva House you can't
believe it was built in 1963, because it is an extremely modern house. Big
sort of span, large spaces flowing from one to another and so on, quite
unlike a traditional house. And that, I think, is the key to Geoffrey's
attitude, where it is not about reproducing something that's old and making
it habitable by contemporary people but building a contemporary house that
refers to the traditions, climate and culture of a particular place."
Bawa received many honours in his lifetime, particularly in his own country.
In 1985, President J.R. Jayewardene conferred on him the title Vidja Jothi
or "Light of Science" and in 1993, President Ranasinghe Premadasa awarded
him the Deshamanya or "Pride of the Nation".
University of Brighton professor of architecture David Robson in his book
Bawa, geoffrey bawa: the complete works points out, however, that, "Britain,
the country in which he received his education" and the "Royal Institute of
British Architects, of which he had been a member for 40 years" never paid
recognition to Bawa's achievements.
But to the many tourists and travellers who have stayed in a Geoffrey
Bawa-designed resort in Sri Lanka such as the Kandalama or the Blue Water,
enjoying the sheer delight of experiencing the wonderful spaces he created
is recognition of a universal and unique kind, even if they might not have
heard of Geoffrey Bawa.
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