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Geoffrey Bawa – The Tropical Architect

Geoffrey Bawa was one of the more interesting Sri Lankan characters we learnt about on our trip. He was eccentric architect who got around in a vintage rolls-royce, loved a gin and tonic in the garden and was openly homosexual in a time when that was considered scandalous. He was also a leading proponent of ‘tropical modernism’, a beautiful blend of nature and construction.

I’ve spent more than three years living or travelling in the tropics and in that time stayed in hundreds of hotels, resorts, guest houses, B&B’s, bungalows, huts and tents. Things grow fast in the tropics, and when you’re living here it feels somewhat transient. You might have hacked a little refuge out of the jungle but you always sense nature encroaching relentlessly in a never-ending campaign to claim back the land. Whether this manifests in geckos, mould or monkeys, it’s something you constantly contend with.

The Heritance Kandalama buried in the vines

Some choose to wage this impossible battle by trying to build hermetically sealed, high-tech, climate controlled cool boxes, which always end up feeling stale, damp and musty. The very best however go the opposite route, taking their cues from traditional design and embracing the jungle. This style of architecture blends the indoors and outdoors, coopts fresh breezes to regulate heat, makes clever use of sun and shade – my favourite example is the extraordinary La Loma Jungle Lodge in Bocas del Toro, Panama. As soon as I walked into Bawa’s residence I instantly knew that it had been designed with the same principles in mind.

“When you look at the better examples of what remains to us of these earlier buildings, you will find that they all look at life in Ceylon squarely in the face. They look at the rain, at the termites, at the social needs, at the view to be had from verandahs and windows, at the needs of life at the time…” – Geoffrey Bawa, 1968.

Geoffrey Bawa was born into a wealthy Sri Lankan family in July 1919. His parents wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps and at their behest he studied law at Cambridge. He wandered the globe for a few years before returning home and finding inspiration in an abandoned rubber estate near Galle. He completed an apprenticeship, went back to study and finally became an architect at the age of 38. An inspiration to those still finding their path, he then went on to construct a remarkable career and tremendous legacy.

Cliff-cut pool at the Heritance Kandalama

I hadn’t heard of Bawa prior to visiting Sri Lanka and my first encounter with him was accidental when we wandered into the Gallery Café on Paradise Road, Colombo. I was immediately enchanted by the gorgeous hardwood-framed courtyard, cool polished concrete and wide shady verandahs.

Tropical courtyards are one of my favourite architectural features. I love wandering the cobblestone streets of old colonial towns like Antigua, Leon and Galle. From the street each house seems like a small, analogous building but when you enter you are transported into a sprawling, unique oasis, inevitably centered on a magical courtyard all completely invisible from the humble facade.

We soon discovered that the Gallery Café was formerly the office of Geoffrey Bawa and that there were many other great examples of his work that we could visit while in Sri Lanka! A leisurely stroll from the Gallery Café is ‘Number 11’, Bawa’s personal residence. It is managed by the trust set up in his named after he passed away in 2003. The house includes a number of the ‘topical modernist’ features that I love – garden courtyards and rooftops, natural light wells, minimalist white colour scheme accented with dark hard wood and languid, cooling breezes. The home is open for public viewing twice a day.

At the other end of the scale is the breathtaking Kandalama Hotel. Designed towards the end of his career in 1991, the hotel is built into the side of a cliff overlooking the ancient rock fortress Sigiriya, the Kandalama tank (a large lake) and its surrounds. The building looks like it has grown out of the jungle; camouflaged into the cliff and covered in vines and plant life. Monkeys climb the hotel walls and live in the surrounding trees, swifts flit through the corridors. It features infinity pools carved out of the rock and stunning vistas over the water. It’s an amazing spot to stay or just to visit for a drink.

Steps to the roof terrace at Bawas personal residence, now open for viewing in Colombo

Bawa’s influence can be felt all around the island and beyond. Some of his notable projects include the iconic Sri Lankan Parliament buildings, his garden estate Lunuganga and the Seema Malaka temple built in Beira Lake, Colombo. Admirers of his work include Prince Charles, who ducked away from official engagements in Sri Lanka to make a special visit to the architect in his home.

For me tropical modernism is the perfect blend of traditional knowledge and materials with modern comfort. The cool hard concrete on your feet, the relaxed open plan layout, the refreshing breezes and the minimal style that highlights a connection to the jungle and outside world all blend together to form the perfect tropical retreat. Bawa was a pioneer of this style and hopefully his work will continue to influence the next generation of eco-friendly architects who obfuscate the line between our built and natural environment.

Read more at the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.

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