Working with a Master

In 1989, Geoffrey Bawa turned 70. The work at the firm that he had been the partner of for 30 years, Edwards Reid and Begg, was at low ebb.

Fame though, was already very much his lot, with the culminating event being an exhibition of his work at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1985 and the publication of a monograph of his work. Bawa seemed to have done it all and there didn't seem to be anything left to say.

Many thought that he would retire to his beloved Lunuganga, to contemplate the garden he had nurtured over the past 40 years. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For almost ten more years, until his working life was called to an abrupt halt due to two successive strokes that left him paralysed and speechless, Geoffrey Bawa embarked on a solo career, working from the annexe to his house in Colombo with a group of young assistants.

It started as a series of requests from people who had seen the published work in books and wanted Bawa to be involved in projects for the tourist industry that was seeing a boom in the Asian economy of the time. During the first two years of this period none of the projects except for three houses were built under his supervision, but they left a superb collection of unbuilt drawings that record a rich collection of thoughts for leisure architecture.

Two projects from these stand out. In an extension to the Bali Hyatt, Bawa places a series of three types of villas in what would have been a bucolic setting of formalised rice paddy fields. Bawa is a master of contrasting the geometric with the natural.For a project on the Indonesian island of Bintan, Bawa created a layout and masterplan that incorporates umpteen types of villas, rooms and public areas that almost form a catalogue of ideas on leisure space design. But this idea was later dropped.

An unusual project was a request by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board for a design for a green house in the Singapore Botanic Gardens to accommodate a tropical cloud forest. Futuristic glass pyramids glittering above the treetops enclosed beautifully choreographed walks through a series of grottoes, paths and vistas. Unfortunately for Bawa here was a classic case of misunderstanding his oeuvre. Where Bawa was thought to be a 'vernacularist', the client expected a traditional colonial style greenhouse akin to the 19th century ones at Kew Gardens. The contemporary glass pyramids must have been a great surprise.

In 1989, Bawa was invited by the Currimjee family in Mauritius to design a house in Curepipe, a town in the hills in the centre of the island. The house is a series of solid flat roofed blocks that interlock to form a series of courts and partially enclosed garden spaces arranged on the slope of a hill. Central to the whole composition is a corridor that passes through the main rooms disposed on the slope.

Although it took some eight years to build, the house in Curepipe was typical of the relationship that Bawa built up with many of his clients for whom he has designed houses. A deep attachment, affection and respect for each other that allows the architecture to mature with them.

Bawa with Asker Moosajee, for whom he had built the Serendib in 1970, had developed another such long-term relationship with the client. In 1990 Bawa visited an old hotel that Moosajee had bought. In spite of repeated warnings by friends, as to the dangers of taking such a thing on, Bawa took stick and string and threw himself wholeheartedly into the renovation of the public areas. Many a wall was built in the absence of the client with the assurance that he would never have it torn down!

With his old mason, and the connivance of the then manager of the hotel, another long standing friend, Bawa made a complete turn around to an otherwise dull and uninteresting building, opening up views into the hidden lagoon, creating a lagoon-side deck and adding the entrance pavilion thatmakes this small three star hotel second to none that Bawa has designed. Arising from this commission, The Sindbad Garden Hotel was designed in 1994. After many trial designs, none of which pleased him, Bawa came out with a unique possibility.

"The Sindbad occupies a relatively flat site and incorporates the original resort that sits at the end of the promontory controlled and claimed by the new complex. In order to establish a new arrival space at the scale of the site the new hotel encloses an existing grove of palms with a grand walled entry court. The corridors of the hotel are marshalled into a super-scaled spine or armature that provides the wall for

the palm court and defines the principal spatial divisions within the public spaces of the hotel. The simple planning strategy is matched by great planes of the over sailing pitched red tiled roofs that stand as the principal form in the landscape. As a counter point the suites are grouped into free standing villas that slip between the screens of pandanus and palms to further stitch the hotel into its idyllic setting."

Michael Kinneger, Bawa - Recent Projects 1987-1995: Royal Australian Institute of Architecture

Initially this design seemed an improbable idea to sell to a client. A three-storied eight-foot wide corridor laid as a cross in the middle of the land seemed an outlandish proposal for a hotel. But the idea was sold and the construction commenced in 1994.
In 1990, the Aitken Spence Group for whom he had already built two highly successful hotels, the Neptune (1974 ) and the Triton (1982) came to Bawa for advice on building a hotel in the interior of the island, in the area now known as the Cultural Triangle.

The original site offered to the company was at the base of the huge rock of Sigiriya. Bawa was taken to a site allotted to the company which he later described as devoid of any charm as all the significant trees had been cut beforehand. He remembered from his various journeys across the country, a beautiful reservoir, the banks of which would make a good site. A drive cross country to the tank bund of the 3rd century Kandalama tank, and a later helicopter ride helped identify the site of the Kandalama Hotel.

The early sketches show a conceptual idea not dissimilar to the nearby cave temples at Dambulla. But as it developed later, there arose a hotel that put all preconceptions of hotel design aside and in its place is a unique view of what a tropical jungle hotel should be. Bawa wanted here in the jungle, a belvedere and a 'hide' from which to view the magnificent landscape.

Conceptually the hotel is extremely simple. A huge man-made ramp takes the visitor almost forty feet above the bed of the ancient tank to a rock ledge that is the reception. From here a tunnel cut in the living rock takes the visitor to another ledge from which to view the landscape with the rock of Sigiriya some ten kilometres away. A swimming pool in the middle distance appears to merge with the water of the tank bringing the landscape into the building.

"Throughout the building it is the experience of the landscape that dominates and its drama is amplified by the approach through the cave like entry that leads to the mirror of the pool aligned to be visually one with the lake beyond. Bawa has responded to the majesty of the setting in a magnificent way."

Michael Kinneger, Bawa - Recent Projects 1987-1995, Royal Australian Institute of Architecture

During the trying times of the Kandalama project, Bawa always retreated to his beloved Lunuganga to contemplate his lot and come back rejuvenated to face the next challenge. However this contemplation had nothing to do with just sitting around looking at the magnificent vistas and terraces he had created. He built another building. Weekend after weekend after a week of challenges, Bawa went to Lunuganga and created what was later called the Cinnamon Hill House on the cinnamon hill of his garden.

Cinnamon Hill House started as an idea to populate the southern extremity of Lunuganga which up to then was occupied only by a lonely windmill and its accompanying water tank. About the same time Bawa also acquired two beautiful windows from an 18th Century house that was being demolished for road widening. He needed something to hold them up! The intention was to resurrect a pavilion on the foundations of an original workshop that stood there in the 1970s, and then attach to it two bedrooms that might then become a guesthouse for occasional artists and friends. The windows and an earlier client gift of a door would be made to stand in this new construction. From the beginnings of a pavilion, the plan grew around the dense grove of trees that was the site. Strings were drawn and sticks placed on the floor to make the final plan so that all the trees on the site except one would be saved. The one that was cut became the base for a table that adorns the pavilion. The top is a discarded cement top with leaf impressions designed by Bawa for the Bentota Beach Hotel in 1969. The house evolved through the process of surveying the site while designing, simultaneously. Whilst Bawa imposes or makes marks on the site with his buildings he is also sensitive to the changes that those marks make on the site and begins responding to the changed site. The sticks and strings are a mere guide to view the whole construction in three dimensions on the site and with the site, before it is built.

"Design for Bawa is an improvisation on the site rather than a premeditated execution that privileges abstract conceptualisation over an intuitive and natural connection with the 'place'."

Robert Powell

A+U: Architecture and Urbanism, November 1996 No. 314

Another house built at the same time as the Cinnamon Hill House, but in a totally different setting is the Rohan Jayakody house in Colombo. Here on a site with an awkward configuration that had put off many buyers before the present owners, Bawa has made a house of immense tranquillity. A veritable oasis, in the middle of this otherwise very busy part of the inner city.

The choreography of space and the immense calm of the Jayakody House are carried onto a windswept promontory, on the southwestern coast about a mile before that ancient port city of Galle. At the Lighthouse Hotel, Bawa uses his mastery of promenade to negotiate a difficult site. The site placed tightly between the sea and the main road to Galle from Colombo is also high above road level. Here a protracted entrance sequence is created to take the visitor up to the main level. The dark cool entrance veranda draws the visitor into the base of the hotel at road level. From there one is drawn into a cylindrical space, in which is a life-sized sculpture by Laki Senanayake of a battle between the Portuguese invaders and the islanders. This draws one up to the first level to be confronted by the glaring light of the veranda and the ceaseless crashing of waves on the rocks below.

The client's requirement of a period hotel is met only in spirit. The austere character of Dutch buildings is evoked in the spaces and through colour, along with the choice of heavy simply constructed furniture. "The Lighthouse presents a picture of repose. There is a sense of ease in its presence, which makes design seem easy."

Ravin Gunaratne, Lighthouse: Fired earth on aquamarine, Sri Lanka Architect Vol. 101 No. 20

The Blue Water Hotel was the last hotel project Bawa was involved in and was completed soon after he fell ill in 1998.

On a rectangular site with no special features, Bawa responds like at the Sindbad by creating his own context. Here an extensive use of water and endless colonnades that disappear into the distance evokes a feeling of infinity and peace. The very restrained furnishing of the hotel heightens the feeling of space, lightness and quiet disturbed only by the sound of running water, the rustling of palms and the ceaseless roar of the Indian Ocean in the background.

In 1996, with his solo practice at a peak, three hotels on site with two other houses finishing, Bawa was called upon to design the state residence and secretariat for the head of government of Sri Lanka. For a site across from the houses of Parliament, which he completed in 1982, Bawa designed a series of pavilions that will be reflected in the lake surrounding the parliament and complementing it.

The scale here though is quite different and has a more intimate spatial arrangement as befits a residence. The secretariat was designed as an immense gatehouse to the high security complex and entered on a bridge across a canal.

The House on the Red Cliffs is perhaps Bawa's last completed work. Built on a spectacular site overlooking the Indian Ocean, the house appears merely as a line in the landscape. A huge metal roof on slender columns shelters the main living areas of the house on the summit of the site and the sleeping areas are tucked partly underground to shelter from the sweeping monsoon winds and open onto a shaded terrace on a more sheltered slope of the hill. A wind-scoop like entrance gives access to these spaces. Here architecture has been pared down to a minimum.

It has been said that a truly great work of art is never as rich as the person that created it. This most certainly applies to Geoffrey Bawa and his work. In person he is urbane, witty, and above all, very humane. This made working with him an even more enriching experience. The office in his annexe never had more than six assistants at a time, and officially took on architectural work only up to the schematic phase of design. The truth however, is that the office is always involved in every aspect of the finished product. Bawa advises on everything from the design of tables and chairs for his houses and hotels to the ash trays and uniforms.

The intimate atmosphere in the small space means that there is a lot of contact time between Bawa and the assistants who virtually work on top of each other. One moment there would be discussion of a particular aspect of the functioning of a dining room, and the next a large discarded blueprint would be spread on the ground to explain the finer points of the shape of a chair in full scale to a craftsman.

Throughout his career Bawa worked with his trusted friends who provided their artistic skills to adorn his buildings and many of his early associates continued to work with him. All thorough this time a cavalcade of humanity, artists, architects, craftsmen and engineers, suppliers and contractors - passed through the office not only providing the various services that were required of them, but enriching it with their personalities and experience. Bawa presided over all this from the round table over which he designed on his characteristic blue squared pad.

However, like his buildings he never imposes on anybody. Even the youngest and most recent of the assistants has equally direct access to him, and any mistake was corrected with a characteristic "Wouldn't it be better if we did it this way". Again, like his architecture, Bawa stepped back and allowed for the youthful enthusiasm and life of the office. However his is the final word, said gently but firmly to rein in the excesses of youth with his wisdom and experience. Again like his architecture, which celebrated above all else human engagement with it, working for Bawa is a constant celebration of the possibilities for life that could be made through the architecture the office produces.

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