David Robson looks at the career of Geoffrey Bawa, who combined a modern sensibility with traditional influences to create many of Sri Lanka's most celebrated buildings
After a brief career as a reluctant lawyer and rootless dilettante, Geoffrey Bawa seems to have stumbled by chance upon his final vocation. Once aroused, however, his passion for the art of making buildings and gardens was all-consuming.
Bawa was born in 1919 in Colombo, the capital of what was then the British colony of Ceylon. In 1938, he came to Britain to read English at Cambridge and later studied law in London. After the Second World War, he joined a Colombo law firm but he soon tired of the profession and in 1946 set off on two years of aimless travel through the Far East, across the United States and finally to Europe, returning to Ceylon in 1948 where he bought an abandoned rubber estate at Lunuganga on the southwest coast.
His ambition was to create an Italian Renaissance garden out of a tropical wilderness, but he found his ideas compromised by a lack of technical knowledge. In 1951, he worked for a short time as a trainee architect with HH Reid, the sole surviving partner of the firm Edwards Reid and Begg. When Reid died in 1952, Bawa went to England and enrolled at the Architectural Association where he qualified in 1957, aged 38.
He returned to Ceylon and took over what was left of Reid's practice, gathering around him talented young designers. The practice established itself as the most respected and prolific in Sri Lanka with a portfolio of work which included religious, social, cultural, educational, governmental, commercial and residential buildings and in each of these areas succeeded in establishing a canon of Sri Lankan prototypes.
In 1979, Bawa was invited to design Sri Lanka's new Parliament at Kotte, which opened in 1982. During the 1980s, he built the new campus for Ruhuna University near Matara, a project which enabled him to demonstrate his mastery of external space and the integration of buildings in a landscape. At the end of the 1980s, when Bawa finally withdrew from his practice, it was widely assumed he would retire to Lunuganga and contemplate his garden. However, the break seemed to signal a fresh round of creative activity and after 1990 he worked from his home in Colombo's Bagatelle Road with a small group of young architects to produce a steady stream of fresh designs. These included the Kandalama Hotel which was built in 1995 around a rocky outcrop on the edge of an ancient jungle, and the recently completed Jayawardene House, a Minimalist pavilion on a cliff overlooking the southern ocean.
Throughout its history Sri Lanka has been subjected to strong outside influences from its Indian neighbours, Arab traders and European colonists, but these have always been absorbed and translated into something intrinsically Sri Lankan. Bawa continued in this tradition. His architecture is a subtle blend of modern and traditional, of east and west, of formal and picturesque: he broke down the artificial segregation of inside from outside, of building from landscape; he drew on tradition to create an architecture which was fitting to its place but used his vast knowledge of the modern world to create an architecture of its time.
Two projects hold the key to an understanding of Bawa's work: the rubber estate at Lunuganga, which he has continued to fashion for almost 50 years; and his own house in Colombo's Bagatelle Road.
Lunuganga is a distant retreat, a civilised garden within the larger wilderness of Sri Lanka which reduces the ancient rubber estate to a series of outdoor rooms invoking memories of Sacro Bosco and Stourhead.
The town house, in contrast, is an introspective assemblage of courtyards, verandahs and loggias created by knocking together a row of four tiny bungalows and adding a white Corbusian tower which peers like a periscope across neighbouring rooftops towards the distant ocean. It is a haven of peace locked away within a busy and increasingly hostile city. After a long final illness, Bawa died at the heart of his labyrinth in Bagatelle Road and was cremated on the Cinnamon Hill in his garden at Lunuganga.