ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 2, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 40

Can Robson be Bawa’s sole defender?

In his latest book on Geoffrey Bawa, David Robson takes issue with aspects of Sri Lankan architectural historian Shanti Jayewardene's writings on Bawa. She seeks to place his work in a more academic context.

The cover of the recent book Beyond Bawa: modern masterworks of monsoon asia by David Robson, Thames and Hudson, 2007 identifies him as ‘the authority on Geoffrey Bawa’. The comments made here seek to clarify two overlapping problems in the limited analytical literature on Bawa: (i) David Robson’s curious effort to present himself as the ‘Sri Lankan’ champion and defender of Bawa; and (ii) the relationship between such efforts and my own work as a Sri Lankan scholar.

The first book on Bawa, Geoffrey Bawa (1986; Concept Media, Singapore) was written by the French/American historian Brian Taylor. This was a picture book containing three short essays by Bawa, the Sri Lankan artist Barbara Sansoni and Taylor himself. The next book on Bawa was Robson’s purportedly definitive work Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works (2002; Thames and Hudson). The 2007 text repeats material from 2002. (Robson’s two books will be identified by date hereafter). Between 1986 and 2002 Bawa’s work has featured in a few articles, and books published in the 1990s.

Nineteenth century colonial ideologues propounded the myth that Sri Lanka had no living architecture worthy of its classical past. This myth stipulated that we could not adequately train our own designers. In line with such views, architectural leaders of the post-independence era embraced the notion that to achieve international (Western?) recognition, it was necessary to affiliate the new Sri Lankan institute of architects (and the new school of architecture) to British establishments. The reasons why novice graduate Britons like David Robson came out to teach Sri Lankans architecture in the 1960s (just imagine the reverse?), and why Bawa was confronted with the historical problem of a possible ‘revival’ of a living architecture are buried deep in the history of empire. The nineteenth century colonial debates on ‘revivalist’ architecture are the more exciting but missing backdrop to the ‘regionalist’ ones of today.

My association with Bawa began in my student days in Colombo. I was sent to the Architectural Association, in London on Bawa’s advice. My writing on Bawa comprises a MSc dissertation, ‘The Work of Geoffrey Bawa: Towards an Historical Understanding’, University College London, in 1984; and an article. The former, written with Bawa’s approval, remains the only academic exploration of the subject to date. In the early 1980s architectural history was a new discipline.

Innovative historical research methods evolving at the recently established architectural history programme at UCL were now available to researchers and underscored the theoretical framework of the dissertation. The data examined, the methods used to interrogate the data and the subsequent analysis were ‘new’. Until then, the literature on Bawa consisted of 14 descriptive articles. The study outlined the wider socio-political circumstances of the day; traced the relationship between Sri Lankan architectural historiography and its application in architecture and discussed the architectural milieu Bawa inherited. It investigated around 40 of his buildings. In London, in 1986, Bawa read a copy of the dissertation. The follow up article was a summary critique without references, published in 1986 as: ‘Jewel of the Orient’, Building Design and ‘Bawa: A Contribution to Cultural Regeneration’, Mimar. My book Imperial Conversations, 2007, is a study of Indo-British architecture in south India in the nineteenth century. It was researched with a view to further understanding the historical dimension of Bawa’s work.

Undeniably, Robson’s architectural biography covers the wider sources that inspired Bawa and usefully embellishes and updates the archive. His declared aim in writing the 2002 book was to ‘shed more light on Bawa’s complex personality…’, (2002, p. 12). It suggests a method that uses architecture to explain personality reversing the more familiar (if old-fashioned) architect as ‘hero’ mode of descriptive critical writing underpinned by a belief that a study of the architect’s mind helps understand his work. He provides little other information on his theoretical approach or methods. Perhaps coincidentally the framework and chronological ordering of Robson’s first book, very different from the disjointed later one, and his historical and architectural analyses (and illustrations) resonate with the dissertation. In the 1970s, Bawa rarely mentioned his design sources. The research sought to unveil the sources of the Sri Lankan traditions emerging in Bawa’s designs. I cite below a few instances where Robson once again perhaps unwittingly shares my research although his writing post-dates mine by 18 or more years.

(a) Andrew Boyd, Minette de Silva and the connection between Bawa, Plesner, Senanayake, Raheem, and Sansoni, and their recording of traditional buildings on their travels around the island (1984, pp. 74, 75; 2007, p. 48,)

(b) tracing the line of scholarship from Smither to Hocart that linked the classical tradition to that of medieval Kandy, which merged in Senake Bandaranayake’s book, Sinhalese Monastic Architecture, (1974), and the debt the parliament design owed to his theses (1984, pp.88, 89, 219; 2002, p. 148);

(d) the impact of the colonial construct ‘tropical architecture’ on practice in the colonies (Jayewardene,1986; 2007, pp. 33,97).
The dissertation is not discussed by Robson. His silence in this respect is strange especially as it appears in the 2002 bibliography. It is impossible therefore to explain his accusations of my shortcomings “ [s]he [also] argued that Bawa’s reading of classical Sri Lankan architecture had failed to take into account recent historiography...... Jayawardene ignored the fact that Bawa’s associates Ulrik Plesner, with his colleagues Laki Senanayake and Ismeth Raheem led the way in recording the building traditions of the medieval Sinhalese. Bawa was very much aware of recent research on Sri Lankan classical architecture and held detailed discussions with archaeologist Senake Bandaranayake.” (2007, p. 91). To date this intimacy has been a largely one-sided affair with Robson apparently failing to acknowledge those areas where his work overlaps mine.

In 1986 Taylor stated that as a ‘non-Sri Lankan and a historian who had not sufficiently seen, analysed and reflected upon the rich cultural heritage of ancient Ceylon’ it was presumptuous of him to ‘put words next to the reality’. Taylor’s attitude revealed a degree of sensitivity to Sri Lankan views, as he merely ventured to ‘offer a few guide posts’, based on his first impression from printed images and brief first-hand encounters… to help the reader understand the significance of Bawa’s work. (1986, p. 9).” In contrast to Taylor, Robson is curiously reticent towards certain ‘Sri Lankan’ views on Bawa.

Though Robson praised Taylor’s ‘brave attempt’ to ‘establish a critical framework with which to view the projects’ (2007, p. 89), his failure to mention the earlier theoretical framework established in the dissertation immediately raises the question of partiality and Robson’s (perhaps unconscious) dismissive attitude toward Sri Lankan appreciation of Bawa. Robson makes the extraordinary accusation that I denied Bawa had an ‘impact on the Sri Lankan milieu’, (2007, p. 91) when it was precisely Bawa’s impact on the Sri Lankan milieu that kindled my interest in the first place. It is possible that Bawa’s work was inspirational to me as a Sri Lankan in a manner different to the appeal such work might hold for the foreigner. As Barbara Sansoni has observed: “Arguably, Geoffrey Bawa’s architecture has a meaning to a Sri Lankan far and beyond any it might have to a foreigner.”(1986, p. 172)).

Robson’s response to Sansoni’s neutral observation is instructive. He first reduces her nuanced comment to a claim that “Bawa’s work could really be appreciated only by Sri Lankans”.(2007, p.90) and then dismisses the domestic Sri Lankan view, asserting that Sansoni herself ignored the fact that “Bawa first gained recognition outside of Sri Lanka and that Sri Lankans, never quick to celebrate the achievements of their own, had been very slow to take Bawa to their hearts.” This is a surprising comment in view of Bawa’s many domestic clients and the many Sri Lankans who have long appreciated Bawa’s work. Appreciation of architecture is not after all confined to the authors and readers of architectural journals and books.

Robson’s comment also ignored my appreciation of Bawa’s work in 1984 : “[t]here is no gainsaying Bawa’s seminal contribution to Sri Lankan architecture. Founded on a personal methodology of analysis and synthesis, it has possessed the catholicity to override all ethnic and political prejudices, in the freedom with which it has drawn upon, and assimilated from any source, be it occidental or oriental, but taking ‘ Sri Lanka into first account’ (1984, pp. 254,257)… The lessons offered by history were to find their most convincing and integrated contemporary expression…..…in the work of Bawa thereafter.” (1984, p. 82).

Both Sansoni’s and my own views upheld an early indigenous appreciation of Bawa. Robson has inexplicably sought to downplay both in favour of promoting his own admiration for Bawa’s work through praise for Bawa’s “catholic and impartial” interests and a “wide ranging” view of history that had been informed by Bawa’s extensive reading and travels, though his view of history was “neither scientific nor comprehensive”.(2007,p.19). ‘[n]ot sufficiently sustained or scientific’ (Jayewardene,1986). In doing so he fails to acknowledge that his words merely echo my own sentiments from over 20 years ago.

In his 2007 book Robson also assumes a surprisingly personal vituperative tone towards my work alleging that Jayewardene ‘overlooked her own privileged background’ and that in a “mean-spirited article” on Bawa (2002, p. 143) she made a “bitter, unsubstantiated criticism of Bawa’s credential as an architect repeating the old saw that he had built only for the wealthy, asserting that his work had no impact on the “Sri Lankan Milieu” ’ and that he had ‘avoided any confrontation with issues of urban and rural planning …’ (2007, p. 91).

It is worth responding to the somewhat limited academic thrust of Robson’s claim only by highlighting that the aim of the article was to shift the discourse to more serious issues engaging several of his peers in Sri Lanka and India by breaking with art-historical style architectural analysis. Its purpose was to give a balanced account of the choices open to Bawa in a wider social context rather than to judge. Once again, Robson selectively ignores the fact that at the outset the article complimented Bawa’s “seminal” and “historical contribution to the progress of Sri Lankan architecture and that of the region”. Given this, one assumes that the ‘bitter criticism’ Robson refers to is the conclusion that despite the praise due to Bawa, his work may yet be accused of being ‘revivalist’ and ‘eclectic’ and that it should be remembered ‘he chose the urban middle classes as his chief client, at a historical juncture in which rural planning and resettlement, urbanisation and mass shelter are the most urgent of human concerns as they are of national policy. However one may choose to assess this neglect, it should not deter us from acknowledging his singular contribution …’. Robson forgets - there was no ‘old saw’ to repeat - this was ‘new’ ground in 1986.

It is precisely this requirement that indigenous architects in the developing world “engage” with socio-economic reality that recently provoked Anoma Pieris to ask in her book, Imagining Modernity: The Architecture of Valentine Gunasekera, 2007, (p.1), whether architects in our part of the world can ‘afford to ignore social agendas, i.e., is art for art’s sake permissible?’

It is curious therefore, that while Robson assumes his self-appointed role as defender of beleaguered architects in the developing world against ‘western critics who attack them for not engaging in low-cost housing’, (2007, p. 91) he wishes the reader to unthinkingly accept at face value Bawa’s explanation that he did not engage in low-cost housing because he ‘lacked the skill and experience’ (2007, p.91). Robson refuses to go beyond this limited explanation. He is also guilty of confusing two concepts: (i) the right to question and (ii) criticism for its own sake. Such confusion is the natural consequence of the school of writing which elevates the architect to ‘hero’. It maybe the case that the Sri Lankan architectural discourse in its present state of development is unable to accommodate a debate beyond the confines of hagiography?

Given the foregoing it is unsurprising that Robson chooses to portray me as a ‘London based architect’ (2007, p. 91) tacitly denying me a Sri Lankan identity and voice by including me in the same camp as ‘western critics’ at the same time that he crafts for himself the ambiguous role of ‘non-western, non-critic’. This may be an innocent agenda but it still serves to discourage western writers (Sri Lankans are hardly in contention) from encroaching on his exclusive turf.

The fact that Robson has two more books on Sri Lanka in the pipeline urges scrutiny of his sources - the key to his blossoming reputation as the ‘expert’ on architecture in ‘monsoon Asia’. Robson’s self-defined role is disarming: being a non-critical confidante of architects of the region clears access to the bigger cache of sources required to write the sumptuously illustrated populist books that publishers demand. Robson’s Bawa books are evidence enough that the modern historical account of Bawa’s work is yet to appear.

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