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Essential record

review

Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works By David Robson. Thames and Hudson, 2002. 278 pp. £45

Hailed by Ken Yeang as the 'first hero and guru' of Asian architects, Geoffrey Bawa became a 'critical regionalist' and practitioner of 'bioclimatic design' long before the terms were invented. Born in 1919, he was the son of a wealthy barrister and read English at Cambridge, before being called to the Bar - and acquiring his first Rolls-Royce - at the age of 25.

En route to England, he had met Braque and Léger at avant-garde parties in Paris and spent the summer touring Italy; 15 years later he returned to study at the AA where, having dabbled in building back home, he managed to slip straight into third year.

With his connections and AA diploma, work proved easy to come by - even though, David Robson assures us, Bawa could hardly draw and had only an 'intuitive grasp' of construction. What he did have, in spades, was the ability to make places and the knack offinding able collaborators.With Sri Lanka opening up to international tourism, and ready access to the country's elite, resort hotels and private houses became the core of Bawa's practice. He would go on to design his country's Parliament, as well as assorted other buildings, but he excelled in the creation of living environments.

Bawa wrote next to nothing and cared little for record-keeping. Many drawings were lost to mould, rodents and bonfires, and much real design happened on site, not on the drawing board. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lifelong projects to create his own urban and rural paradises, featured at length as fitting conclusions to the book.

The latter - his 'magic kingdom' at Lunuganga - must rank as one of last century's great made landscapes.

The magic of intuitive, place-specific work like Bawa's frequently eludes analysis. The plan of the 1962 De Silva House, for example, suggests a deft but unremarkable interweaving of rooms and courts. Look at the photographs, however, and it is revealed as utterly enchanting. Much the same can be said of the best hotels, from the early - and arguably unsurpassed - Bentota Beach Resort (pictured), to the built landscape of the recent Kandalam Hotel. And it is even more true of the Polontola Estate Bungalow. Built without drawings among massive, naturally occurring boulders, it was there that the roof emerged as an autonomous element - a leitmotif of Bawa's work that reaches its apotheosis in the majestic Jayawardene House of 1997-98.

Robson, a long-standing friend of Bawa, is good at sketching biographical details, relating the political and cultural context, and at providing essential information concisely and fluently. But he is less successful at getting under his subject's skin, or at offering detailed, evocative descriptions and appraisals of key projects.

Bawa does not wear his inspirations on his sleeve, but his work is not as sui generis as it might appear, and its subtleties ought to be amenable to the kind of precise, phenomenological description demonstrated by the minutely detailed drawings perfected by Vernon Nonis for the first book on Bawa's work.

As in archaeological records, seemingly every feature is recorded, from the leaves on the exuberant and instantly recognisable trees and plants to the 'Spirit of Ecstasy' figurines on the 'Rollers' in Bawa's double garage.

Like their buildings, the Bawa studio's drawing style has been imitated throughout Asia and it is a pity, therefore, that some fine examples are reproduced eye-strainingly small. This is, happily, a minor lapse in a comprehensive and superbly produced volume. The photographs, many by the author, are numerous and good, while the generous format and varied papers recall Thames and Hudson's classic books of the 1960s. Robson's fine monograph will long remain the essential record of a significant body of work.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University The cover of this new paperback guide, Architecture in Vienna 1850-1930: Historicism, Jugendstil, New Realism (Springer-Verlag, £18) promises 'five delectable architectural tours'of 'Vienna's 100 most beautiful buildings'- unfair perhaps on anything outside that period, and 'beauty'not the most obvious attribute of Karl Ehn's 1,300-unit Karl-Marx-Hof. Each building gets a page with a colour photo and a couple of basic descriptive paragraphs; there are no plans.They are strung together in Viennese versions of Pevsner's 'perambulations' but his itineraries are not kept within period confines.

Given that few visitors will be uninterested in what lies outside the 80-year span of this book, a better investment must be SpringerVerlag's earlier Architecture in Vienna (AJ 8.10.98), which includes 500 buildings with plans and detailed maps.Pictured right is Olbrich's Secession building,1897.

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