Sunday, April 20, 2014

In Search for Bawa

Can the identity of a country be tied to one individual? 
For me Sri Lanka was always about the architect Geoffrey Bawa. He started his practice as an architect at the age of 38 after spending two years at the AA London. He was a lawyer prior to that but decided to study architecture after he acquired ancestral land in Lunuganga. I was always amazed at his understanding of context, material, landscape and his ability to create a simple sense of poetry. His work is serene and calm and at the same time dramatic with foliage and trees and water bodies and animals and changing seasons.  His buildings are never about the built form but about wanderings and discovery. His buildings are never revealed to us fully but are to be slowly realised many a times one can forget where they started and can enjoy getting lost in each vignette so carefully designed by this master craftsman of spaces. Water is an important element for this island country and is never far from any of his buildings many a times drawn into the spaces, becoming part of architecture itself. His work is mesmerizing and for me it is la raison d'être to explore Sri Lanka.

I had the opportunity to visit many of Bawa's buildings in Sri lanka. It was a pilgrimage for me to explore his work and to finally understand the simplicity and beauty of his architecture. Winner of the prestigious Aga Khan award, Bawa was truly a legendary architect of the South Asian countries bringing to life the idea of a contemporary vernacular- building a monsoon architecture. 


The most enchanting place I have ever been to. Lunuganga is Bawa's country estate south of Colombo near Bentota. This charming sprawling home and gardens is more about the outdoor space and the gorgeous views of the lake. The property is on a hillock that dramatically overlooks a large lake. The buildings on the property unfold as the garden house, the study. the upper gallery, the lower gallery, the cinnamon house and the main house. In between all these little buildings are pause points and moments of contemplation around the lake, benches, sculptures, frangipani trees, cinnamon trees, a well, Italian sculptures, Pan sculptures, massive Chinese pots, checkered stone floor, black and white interiors, English gardens, walkways flanked with trees, murals by the famous artist Laki Senanayake and the most memorable were the bells to call out to the staff around the house. Each of the bells has a different sound and indicates the time of the day, location where he is seated and the meal/ snack/ juice/ beverage that Bawa would need. This peaceful oasis, a work ever in progress, is where Bawa spent his final years. 


Sitting at the lunch bell

garden reading room

The panther by the lake

Mythical creatures- Pan and Nataraj

The gin and tonic area

Cinnamon House

The Chinese pot bringing a sense of scale to the rolling English gardens
Mural by Laki Senanayake


The sweet tour guide who had been in service of Bawa for over 10 years

Now maintained by the Geoffrey Bawa foundation- this beautiful townhouse was his home and office in his later years. Its white interiors and pockets of light entering through tiny courtyards and plants give the house a feeling of a country house. The art collection in this house is brilliant- several drawings from Bawa's projects including Lunuganga (a masterpiece), sculptures by Laki, the front door designed by Laki as well. Ancient columns and painted doorways punctuate the all white space. A slight trickling sound of water permeates the sitting room next to which is a very modern fountain of water. Upstairs has been converted into a bed and breakfast and above that the terrace from which you get fantastic views of Colombo. 

The all white interiors sprinkled with antiquies

The courtyards

The Gallery Cafe
Very close to the Colombo house is Geoffrey Bawa's office, which has now been converted into The Gallery Cafe. His love for black and white is highlighted in the selection of furniture and upholstery. Enter the Gallery Cafe through a drive up courtyard and walk through a narrow hallway to an inner courtyard that has a narrow pool of water leading further in to the main house, which further opens to back courtyard with beautiful temple trees. Back in the day, this is where Bawa would meet potential clients in the in-between space with courtyards on either side. Attached to the cafe is Paradise Road - probably one of the best design store I have visited. Chic, modern and very desirable. It gave me insight how far ahead Sri Lanka is design wise than us. 
Love for Chinese pots

Heritance Kandalama:

This brilliant hotel building along the edge of a mountain facing the majestic Kandalam lake. Not for a moment can you take your eyes off the amazing views. The hotel has several pools one of which is an infinity pool extending out as if into the Kandalama lake. At some point in the day a herd of elephants wade through the lake. The facade of the building is covered with creepers and trees camouflaging this building into the jungle cliff. In the distance, one can see beautiful Sigiriya- the Lion Rock. I highly recommend the spa. Each room is facing the lake, and the showers are set right up to the edge of the cliff wildly clad with creepers hence giving a sense of privacy and a sense of bathing out in the open. 
Elephant wading through the lake Kandalama viewed from the infinity pool

One with its surrounding

The Bentota Beach Resort
The beauty of Sri Lanka is that the tiny island offers everything from mountains, beaches, archeological sites, hill stations, large cities all in very close proximity to each other. Bawa built in all these changing landscapes and responded beautifully to the site and context. His beach property of Bentota brings you into a dramatic art space and slowly leads you towards the water. The building itself follows a beautiful proportioning system which gradually becomes narrower to the top and helps create an overhang.
Dramatic art entry

The well proportioned overhanging building

The Parliament House:
The new Parliament house perched in the middle of the lake Diyawanna Oya in true Bawa style gives homage to this island country. I did not get a chance to take a tour from inside but the structure from outside is stunning- exemplifying Monsoon Architecture. The steep pagoda like roofs of varying sizes interspersed with pools of water and groves of trees gives a sense of sharp symmetry in its very organic setting.  This was like no other Parliament building I have seen. 

Seema Malaka Temple:
This gorgeous temple complex built yet again in the middle of the lake is a beautiful meditative space. The architecture is a complex wooden lattice structure of three pavilions inspired from Japanese temple architecture. The central pavilion is the finely detailed lattice woodwork, interlocking creating a beautiful substructure. The other two pavilions connected with little bridges allow for circumambulation around the Bodhi tree and some larger meditating Buddhas. Clearly the rows of Buddhas on the outside enjoy looking at this detailing of the central pavilion structure.

The beautiful detailing in wood

My search for Bawa would have been incomplete without the help of some of the people who have worked with him. 

Mr. C Anjalendram kindly invited me to his beautiful home and office and helped me set up an itinerary of all the Bawa buildings. Mr. Anjalendram has successfully built a practice designing residential, townships, resorts around Sri Lanka infusing his own style and continuing Bawa's legacy. Below are photos of his home/office a wonderful place where classical music is resounding in the rooms as interns work on drawings. 

Finally I was lucky to meet Mr. Laki Senanayake- artist, sculptor, musician, landcape architect, designer, furniture designer. He is the artist behind several murals in Bawa's buildings that bring to life stories and myths and animals and cultural references. One of the most famous works is in the Sri Lankan Parliament House. While at Dambulla, I spent a morning at his forest retreat Diyababulla, a magical water garden tucked away deep in the dry zone in Central Sri Lanka. The gurgling of the water formed the backdrop to our conversations. His unconventional home on stilts is filled with metal owls, cheetahs, giant horse. The entire property is an experiment in sustainability creating water bodies in the dry zone of Sri Lanka and making buildings with the  living areca palm trees. He worked with Bawa for 6 years in Colombo before moving into the forest from where he has made art. Since, he collaborated with Bawa and now with some of the younger architects on several projects over the years. Apart from the sculptures in the Parliament House, he has made a mural walls in Lunuganga and the Bentota, his metal owl soars in Kandalama, his glass work drawing forms the front door to Bawa's Colombo house, 

The drawings that Laki made for Bawa are rich in their linework, a whimsical north arrow with peacocks, tigers and trees of the region. The rendering of the water almost seems be flowing on the paper and the detail of his drawings are stunning bringing to life every detail of Bawa's design. He explained to me that he drew with a chiselled porcupine quill which held the ink long enough and gave each line varying thickness as it moves along the paper a characteristic that a simple pen would not ever produce. His ouevre is varied from currency notes to sculptures and little drawings that he manipulates  on the computer. He is interested in interjecting technology in his work. His work is as playful as his warm persona. It was truly a pleasure to meet him.
The wonderful Laki in his water gardens in Dambulla

Beautiful linework of water moving across the paper to the land with contours and groves of trees and in its midst emerges a built form. 

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