On a small island, a gigantic talent grew
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Geoffrey Bawa, by any standard, was one of the most important architects of the 20th century. He built scores of private homes, 12 spectacular hotels, and a university campus. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Bawa had legions of disciples who spread his style from Miami to Melbourne. His influence was so powerful that in many parts of the world it’s hard to imagine how buildings were designed before him.
Yet Bawa, who died in 2003 at 84, is virtually unknown in the West. In part this is because Bawa, the son of a Muslim father and a Dutch Burgher mother, was born and did most of his work in Sri Lanka, a tropical island of 20 million people off the southern tip of India.
Because of disasters both natural and man-made, Sri Lanka has been off-limits to most tourists for the past quarter century. Dec. 26 marks the sixth anniversary of the massive tsunami that killed 30,000 people on the island and destroyed many beachfront resorts. And for the past 26 years, Sri Lanka has been convulsed by a bloody and protracted civil war. In May the country celebrated the first anniversary of its victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a fanatical terrorist group that had been fighting the government since 1983.
With the LTTE gone and the tsunami fading from memory, vacationers are returning to the beaches, jungles, and mountains that give Sri Lanka the well-deserved reputation of a paradise on earth. There’s no better way to see Sri Lanka than tour ing the works of the island’s most famous architect. Following in Bawa’s footsteps will take you from a 17th-century Dutch fort on the island’s southern coast to the modern capital of Colombo, where you can see Bawa’s home and office, to the country’s unspoiled west coast, where you can stay in one of his luxurious hotels. Touring the work of this architectural master combines the experience of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty with the opportunity to see artistic genius up close. As Bawa once wrote, “architecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced.’’
To experience why Bawa was so original, it’s best to start at his first big project, the Bentota Beach Hotel, which was completed in 1969. The hotel sits on a narrow neck of land extending from the shore, commanding a view of both the Indian Ocean and the nearby Bentota River. The visitor enters through a wide tunnel in the hotel’s imposing stone base, ascends to the cavernous reception area, and finally emerges into the central courtyard, where stately frangipani trees are mirrored in the reflecting pool.
Before Bawa, most grand hotels in South Asia were built in the British colonial style. The Bentota Beach Hotel, on the other hand, was influenced by traditional Sri Lankan architecture and built with Sri Lankan materials — quarried stone for the podium, local timber for the walls, red clay tiles for the roof. All of the furniture was designed by Bawa’s architectural office and built by local craftsmen, and Bawa’s artist friends contributed paintings, sculptures, and fabrics.
Although Bawa had been trained in modernism at architecture school in London, he adapted that modernism to reflect Sri Lanka’s environment and history, much the way Frank Lloyd Wright embodied his radical ideas in a distinctly American idiom. The Bentota Beach Hotel quickly became a magnet for international tourists, establishing Bawa’s reputation and inspiring scores of imitations across the region.
From the hotel, it’s a short journey by auto-rickshaw to Bawa’s Italian-style garden, Lunuganga. In 1948, Bawa purchased a 25-acre former rubber estate overlooking Dedduwa Lake. Like the equally imperious Kubla Khan, Bawa here decreed a stately pleasure-dome, with “gardens bright with sinuous rills / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.’’ Over the next 50 years, Bawa slowly transformed his land into one of the world’s strangest and most beautiful gardens. Working without a master plan, he began clearing trees, moving earth, erecting buildings, and installing statuary, all in a spirit of whimsical freedom. (Actually, Bawa’s assistants did all the labor. He would sit in a chair and shout orders in their direction.)
Today, Lunuganga is maintained by a team of gardeners, who keep it as it was when Bawa died. When a tree dies, they replace it. And although it isn’t obvious at first glance, the estate requires constant maintenance to keep the jungle from swallowing it up. Visitors can either tour the garden by day or stay in one of the five luxurious, Bawa-designed villas spread out across the property. Meals are overseen by Bawa’s cook and can be served at any time, anywhere in the garden.
If you long for the comforts of civilization, there’s always Colombo, a metropolis of nearly 6 million people on the island’s west coast. This is where Bawa lived and worked, and where the greatest concentration of his private houses can be found. The most easily-accessible Bawa work in the city is the architect’s former office, which has been sensitively converted into a restaurant called The Gallery Café. Here, amid polished coconut-trunk columns and covered verandahs, you can enjoy some of the best meals in Sri Lanka: grilled seer fish with coconut risotto, black pork curry, lemongrass and ginger chicken. While you’re waiting for a table, enjoy the local art on exhibit in the restaurant’s al fresco gallery, or shop for handicrafts at the Paradise Road boutique.
Bawa made his home in one of Colombo’s most elegant neighborhoods, and the building is every bit as idiosyncratic as his garden. Like Lunuganga, the house grew slowly, by annexation and addition. Beginning in 1959 with a small bungalow, Bawa eventually bought all of the adjacent homes on his street, remodeled them, and linked them together by covered walkways. The result is a labyrinthine two-story complex broken up by small inner courtyards and unexpected glimpses of the sky.
You enter the house through a set of wooden doors painted by the Australian artist Donald Friend, and immediately find yourself in Bawa’s garage, where the architect’s beloved Rolls-Royces are still kept. From here you can climb to the roof for a view of Colombo, or you can thread your way through narrow hallways toward Bawa’s bedroom, home office, and dining room. Every wall in the house is covered by works from Bawa’s extensive art collection, which makes it feel more like a museum than a residence.
One of Bawa’s last major projects is also one of his greatest. The Lighthouse Hotel, completed in 1997, is located just north of the Galle fort, a well-preserved 17th-century Dutch military garrison. Like the fort, the Lighthouse looks down on the ocean from atop an imposing promontory. The enormous boulders lining the beach make swimming unsafe, but, as if in compensation, the rocks provide a dazzling show each night as the waves crash against them, sending up dramatic sprays of foam.
Bawa made these boulders the focus of the entire hotel, framing views of them from the air-conditioned dining room and the open-air lounge. A spiral staircase leading to the upper floors is adorned with sculptures by artist Laki Senanayake and topped by a blue-tiled Moorish dome. But the rooms are perhaps the greatest attraction, featuring teak floors, hand-carved furniture, and original paintings.
Sri Lanka is a complex country with a complicated past and an uncertain future. For now, though, it is enjoying its first taste of peace in decades. Prices are still low and resorts haven’t yet filled up with Lonely Planet-toting tourists. And although your hotel may recommend that you hire someone to show you around, for my money there’s no better guide than Bawa.
Michael Hardy can be reached at email@example.com.