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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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."
Bawa - Recent Projects 1987-1995: Royal Australian Institute of
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.
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.
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.
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."
Bawa - Recent Projects 1987-1995, Royal Australian Institute of
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
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.
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'."
and Urbanism, November 1996 No. 314
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.
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.