From the Archive: Geoffrey Bawa’s Tropical Modernism

Travel virtually with us across the Pacific to explore one of the region's most influential architects.

03.8.2018

Geoffrey Bawa (1919 – 2003) was born of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic, colonial heritage, with Arab and British paternal lineage, and Dutch Burgher and Sinhalese maternal lineage. Geoffrey traveled to Britain for a prestigious university education, and, following the family tradition, qualified as a lawyer in 1944. He returned to Colombo to work briefly at a law firm, but soon tired of the profession and, having lost both his parents at a tragically young age, used his inheritance to travel across the Far East, the United States and Europe.

Although almost seduced by the prospect of settling down in an Italian lakeside villa, he instead returned to Ceylon. In 1948, Bawa purchased the Lunuganga rubber plantation, and developed an interest in gardening and architectural design. He threw himself into a new initiative – turning the Lunuganga Estate into a tropical paradise that would evoke the Mediterranean attitude with which he felt such affinity. This personal project, combined with Bawa’s perpetual feeling of being torn between his Asian and European cultural identity, ultimately gave rise to Sri Lanka’s unique style of modern architecture, of which Bawa was the pioneer.

After a short architectural apprenticeship in Colombo, Bawa qualified as an architect at age 38. He started his career emulating Le Corbusier but quickly adapted his international style to the climate and culture of his native country, combining clean lines with elements of Ceylonese—that is, colonial—tradition. He soon had become known as a leader of the “tropical modernist” movement. The ‘tropical modernist’ style would become a fundamental part of the evolving identity of a newly independent Sri Lanka. Bawa was instrumental in presenting innovative ways to use light, space and materials to create dynamic designs that worked with, not against, challenging environments.

By 1960, Bawa, who had always been a member of an elite class in Sri Lanka, was moving in a social circle of artists, and his work was highly sought-after by influential cultural figures, from hoteliers to the Catholic Church. The celebrated batik artist, Ena de Silva, asked him to create an airy and modern suburban house where Bawa combined the Modernist tendencies for open floor plans and stark decoration with iconic elements of Colombo manor houses.

A year later, the architect built a new office for himself on Alfred House Road in Colombo, an unexpectedly expansive and bright space, where lounging areas and striking sculptures frame a tranquil open courtyard, which, by Bawa’s masterful trickery, somehow captures the essence of an Italian summer. For his home, Bawa combined four individual bungalows into a personal oasis of innovation and comfort. True to his style and philosophy, the unassuming exterior hides a plethora of treasures and surprises inside the house - a labyrinth of corridors, water features, enclosed courtyards – to create an unexpected sense of spaciousness.

In the early 1970s, Sri Lanka was already coming into its own as a tourist destination, and Bawa’s impact on the burgeoning luxury travel scene was unprecedented, and has since been unrivaled: he designed 35 hotels between 1965 and 1997, of which 13 were built in Sri Lanka. Bawa’s imprint can best be felt in Colombo city, which has become the archetypal ‘tropical metropolis’. Though the unstable political environment nearly compelled Bawa to permanently relocate to India, his most enduring landmarks are the political and ideological symbols in the capital (the Seema Malaka Buddhist Temple on Beira Lake as well as a new Parliament building at Kotte).