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Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003)

Sir Geoffrey Bawa was born into a wealthy, multicultural family in British Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1919. His grandfather was a well-known Muslim lawyer who had been educated in London. His father was also a very successful lawyer, while his mother, Bertha Schrader, came from an elite Burgher family, a mix of Dutch, Scots, and Sinhalese. As a youth, Bawa followed his father’s footsteps and trained as a lawyer in England (Robson, 2001). He then practised in Sri Lanka until 1950 at which point, highly dissatisfied with what he was doing, he decided that the profession of law was not for him. He then set off on a series of restless travels, visiting a number of countries in Europe and North America. He was particularly enamoured with the art and architecture of Italy and especially its gardens. Two years later, on his return to Sri Lanka, he bought a large colonial estate, the Lunu- ganga estate; it was this place that set free his imagination and provoked his interest in architecture and landscaping, and it later became a laboratory for his architectural designs and vision of creating a tropical Italianate garden.

Bawa made a late entry to the field of architecture when he was in his thirties, yet he soon became Sri Lanka’s most prolific architect. In order to train as a professional architect (Robson, 2001), he enrolled in the Architectural Association School in London. By 1957, he was a qualified architect and, at the age of thirty-eight, returned to Sri Lanka. He started working for the architectural firm of Edwards, Reid and Begg in Colombo as a junior partner. After Reid’s death, Bawa became a principal partner in the firm, together with Dr K. Poologasundram, where he stayed until 1989. At the firm, Bawa embarked on an intense collaboration with the exuberant Danish expatriate Ulrik Plesner (Richards, 1986) who had joined the firm in 1959. Working with Plesner gave him an appreciation for the simplicity yet functionality of Scandinavian architecture. Until they eventually fell out in 1967 and Plesner moved to Israel, Bawa and Plesner created some stunning designs and pioneered a signature fusion architecture which combined sustainable traditional Asian cultural elements with functional and practical aspects of Western colonial design features. Bawa later set up his own firm with a team of young artists, such as Ena da Silva, architects, and craftspeople; together they embarked on a quest to establish a new vital and cogently

Sri Lankan type of architecture; well-suited to the environment and using local materials, these were transformational designs which were a blending of modern and traditional, both picturesque yet formal.

Through the years Bawa’s distinctive style was characterised by his incorporation of outdoor and indoor environments, quite typical of traditional Asian structures, with elements of modernist architecture. His practical innovative designs gained him recognition from various institutes and institutions; for example, he received an honorary membership to AIA (1983) as well as important awards such as the 1982 Gold Medal of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects (Jayawardence, 1986). In 1986, the Royal Institute of British Architects organised an exhibition, “Bawa in Arcadia,” highlighting his work. Because of Bawa’s unique influential style combining the Sri Lankan vernacular with elements of Western modernism, in 2001 he received the Chairman’s Award at the eighth edition of the Aga Khan Award. He was the third architect and the first non-Muslim to receive this prestigious recognition (Geoffrey Bawa Trust, 2018). The Award acknowledged his major contributions, at both a national and an international level, in designing beautiful yet functional structures that combined the best of Asian architectural practices with those of Western modernism. His designs have served as architectural ideals for generations of young architects.

Contextual inspirations

Sri Lanka - the background and context of Bawa’s work - is an island nation whose politics and landscape are complicated by the sectarianism discontent of three major ethnic groups: Sinhala, Tamil, and Burgher, and various religious sects such as Sinhala-Buddhist, Sinhala-Christian, Tamil- Hindu, Tamil-Christian, Burgher, and Muslim. These groups form various political factions but are united by the extraordinary beauty and diversity of their environment, an idyllic landscape where the Sri Lankan nature articulates its beauty through the fauna and flora and a unique variety of environmental formations. Given these problematic variables, reaching a collective national and representative architectural identity was a major challenge that helped formulate Bawa’s designs.

Bawa’s professional career began shortly after Ceylon’s independence after four centuries of first Portuguese, then Dutch, and later British colonial rule. The new government, composed of a Western-educated elitist minority, renamed the new nation Sri Lanka (Robson, 2001). In this context, cultural ambivalences between modernism and nationalism took place within the bourgeois group that remained adjacent to, and participated in, the new political scene. Bawa himself was part of this moneyed elite and was easily able to develop his career and practice during this volatile period characterised by social transformation and fashioned by both globalisation and nationalist sentiments.

The nascent country was already a cultural composite of Eastern and Western sentiments, which together helped shaped the new political context and social environment. This dichotomy influenced the development of Bawa’s ideas that referenced a blurring between traditional and modern, inside and outside, and formal buildings and picturesque landscapes. This combination of trajectories inspired Bawa to offer and construct a new architectural vision for living in a tropical city, the so-called tropical modernism.

Throughout his career, Bawa endeavoured to reinforce the historical and cultural dimension of his homeland’s roots, unlike most of his contemporaries who looked to Western ideals for inspiration. His studies in England and travels abroad influenced his use of picturesque landscapes and historical traditions in combination with European technological and modern elements. His understanding of space as a place where history and modernity coalesce helped him appreciate colonial architecture, vernacular traditions, and modernist theory, together these helped shape a recognisable architectural style singularly his own, that of modern tropical architecture. Finding inspiration in all historical periods and bringing to life traditions from the past in his designs, Bawa was sometimes considered an eclectic revivalist (Jayawardence, 1986).

A profound respect for and sensitivity to the local context resulted in his restaging critical aspects of cultural and traditional landscapes while at the same time responding to the needs and requirements of modern life. This characteristic fusion approach resulted in a new architectural aesthetic and identity in what is now termed regional modernism or modern vernacular. Using Sri Lankan peasant vernacular such as traditional roofing construction methods, he adapted features to large-scale contemporary buildings and projects, thus reinterpreting them in a very contemporary and functional way. For example, Bawa used the native cadjan thatch from coconut palms leaves and half-round clay roofing-tiles first brought to Sri Lanka in the 16th century by the Portuguese (Richards, 1986). However, his buildings were usually made of reinforced concrete, eschewing materials such as steel that could not be found locally and would have to be imported from overseas.

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