‘He was Geoffrey Bawa’

‘He was a phenomenon, he was witty and kind, he loved music and life......’

By Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne
The final farewell to a legendary Sri Lankan, one who changed the face of architecture in this country was at his beloved Lunuganga, at Dedduwa, Bentota. The walk up to the main house, through the famous gardens he so lovingly tended itself was an experience.

The lush tropical forest suddenly gave way to the most breathtaking view. Suddenly, but not obtrusively, the walkway split in two. On one side, atop a hill lay the main bungalow. On the other, a temporary white structure. Many walked before us, their eyes downcast to pay their last respects to a Great Master.

Geoffrey Bawa, how does one begin to write about him? His life's work evoked such a multitude of emotions. He was, as a close associate said, "A phenomenon." He changed the way in which the ordinary Sri Lankan looked at architecture, from the laying of the foundation of a simple structure to the embodiment of life itself.

"I met Geoffrey for the very first time as a student way back in 1986," says architect Channa Daswatte, a close associate of Geoffrey Bawa over the past ten years. His eyes drift away and he smiles reminiscently. "Meeting him was a revelation. This house was a revelation." Channa had been a part of many a plantation. But the wildness and informality of the bungalow at Lunuganga left him in awe. "It was profound."

"It was only during the last ten years that I got to know Geoffrey, the person. Every morning we'd have breakfast on the terrace. Time and space seemed endless. Lunch would follow on a square table at another end of the plantation." The luncheon table is encircled by a haze of bamboo on one side and a simple almost natural lake on the other. "Dinner would be served overlooking the river, under the shade of the frangipani tree."

During all those years that Channa had been in Bentota he had not had a meal inside the house on more than ten occasions. "The dining table was a mere formality, and I remember one occasion when it was pouring outside, Geoffrey turned to me and said almost sadly, 'Oh, Channa we'll have to retreat inside today'."

Geoffrey Bawa was not a public person. He was shy. And he was never one to rest on his laurels. "Architecture was a personal commitment. He was in harmony with buildings but he never stopped experimenting. His work evolved, it never reached a standpoint. Kerry Hill, an Australian architect called me up just today and said that Geoffrey's legacy will live on as he was the person who changed the Asian attitude toward architecture."

Living and the whole concept of living was an adventure in itself. "He never raised his voice. On the few occasions that he got mad, he'd simply leave for a long walk and come back refreshed full of apologies." Channa's voice fades away as sounds of Bach waft through the air. "He loved music, loved to travel. He was kind. Even during the last few days of his life he was chirpy, though very ill."

"The beauty of Geoffrey Bawa lay in the fact that he didn't only develop architecture, he developed every single supporting craft. There were times where the two of us would sit down with the mason baases and teach them their craft. But above all, he was a civilized person. We complimented each other," says Dr. K. Poologasundram, the engineer who was closely related to Bawa's work for thirty long years. "He could hold people together and that was a real feat."

He also brought out the best in his students. "He was never a teacher," says well-known artist Laki Senanayake, Bawa's assistant in architecture for nine years and his close friend since 1959. "We learnt from him, yet we were not taught in the conventional sense by him. With him there never were problems, just small complications that were quickly remedied. He used to tell me that you enjoy yourself most when you are out of the house and not within its walls. It was he who encouraged me. He loved art and beauty."

The bungalow at Lunuganga echoes the work of Geoffrey Bawa. "This is him all along," says a group of his juniors. "We looked up to him in every way, literally and figuratively." He was 6'3". "He was witty. Humour invaded every conversation. He was always one jump ahead. I remember travelling to Colombo with him some time ago and chatting about holograms, a relatively new development. He suddenly turned to me and said very seriously, 'I wish we could change car horns into holograms of charging elephants. We might be able to rid the road of all the trucks then'," one of his juniors recalls.

"He was of a different vintage. His energy was endless. He'd come in to work at around ten in the morning and he'd still be around at ten in the night. There was no pressure. Everything was about love for the building, love for the project. There were times when we'd think that we'd have come up with the greatest of work but later we'd look at it and realize that it was all him all along. We'd only removed that wall because he'd said that it might be wrong not to do so. We'd only added that piece there because he said that it might be right to do so."

"Everything was done then and there. There was not a moment in which to cancel, to postpone - he hated that. He loved vehicles. Loved anything mechanical in general.Except," they laugh and their smiles speak volumes, "the computer." He questioned everything. The fact that he was always surrounded by youngsters in the field may have helped in that respect. Even when they broke away and started up other partnerships he'd still call them up.

Ena de Silva knew Geoffrey Bawa for forty-three years. "He was a wonderful brain, a wonderful wit and wonderful, wonderful companion. He was disciplined. He'd even tell me how trees should be pruned - he was just remarkable." They worked together initially on her own home at No: 5 Alfred Place, Colombo 3. It was then on to the Parliament and the Ruhunu Campus. "I cannot explain him. Everything was such fun with him… everything."

Belgian artist Saskia Pringiers now lives at No: 5 Alfred Place. "It was around five years ago when I was living at the Cinnamon Hill House, directly across from the Lunuganga Estate that I came to know Geoffrey. The evenings would see him riding up to the house in his Bajaj for a drink. He was so humorous." All those who had the pleasure and privilege of knowing the real Geoffrey Bawa echo that sentiment.

"Geoffrey was remarkable," says architect Milroy Perera, who knew Geoffrey from the 1960s. "He was the beginning of life, unrepetitive. His lifestyle, his breeding. You'd never form a relationship with Geoffrey. You'd relate to him. You'd think that you were the greatest being on earth when you were with him. He could bring out the best in you. He was a powerful personality at the same time that he wasn't. Even today other architects look at their work and sit back and think, "Would Geoffrey have done it like this? Would he have put up that column there?"

Travels with Geoffrey were always memorable. “In 1983 he was asked to get a picture of his Rolls Royce for the company, as the car would be celebrating 50 years of existence. We were working on the Parliament at that time and he suddenly asked me to get into the car, as he wanted to take a picture of it by the side of the Parliament. There was a small hitch. Something would happen to the car unless the headlamps were kept on at all times, and his tiny mechanic had to chaperone us. We were speeding down Independence Square with the roof down and I had a ridiculous grin on my face. Pedestrians jumped aside and screamed at us. I turned to Geoffrey and said, ‘Geoffrey, this is ridiculous’ and he grinned and replied, ‘Nonsense, it's a way of life.’

"He ate very well and always ended up with the best deal in town. We had just booked into a hotel when he discovered another more interesting one, which was situated above a railway station. Our bookings were cancelled and we checked in. Geoffrey was shown into his room and joined me a few minutes later as someone was already occupying it. We went up to the manager to complain and he ended up in the best suite."

Geoffrey Bawa was an individual. He was a gift to life in itself. I ask those who have known him for the better part of their lives to give me one word to engulf his very essence. Milroy Perera smiles. "I'll give you two words - he was Geoffrey Bawa."


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