Bawa: The Sri Lanka Gardens

Posted on 21 Feb 2017

Getting even: How Geoffrey Bawa – architect to the world – was inspired by envy of his brother’s garden.

Steps up to the Western Terraces: 'The garden had grown gradually into a place of many moods, the result of many imaginings' (Geoffrey Bawa, 1990)

The effects of sibling rivalry on the life of an individual can be positive or negative, occasionally both. But there can rarely have been such benefits for both modernist architecture and the art of garden design as in the case of Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), the younger of two half-Sri Lankan brothers.

In 1989, when Bevis Bawa was dictating his memoirs, he wrote to the great Sri Lankan architect C. Anjalendran as follows:

“Though Geoffrey and I are dearly fond of each other, we are strangers and therefore, to avoid upsetting each other, communicate through third parties. I don’t know much about Geoffrey’s brilliant career, but I remember seeing a book in which Geoffrey was described as one of the best architects in the world …”

That brilliant career might never have begun had it not been for a temporary truce between the brothers in 1948. The 30-year-old Geoffrey had been through Cambridge and qualified as a lawyer, but hated the profession. On the death of his mother, he gave up his job in the UK, sold the property he inherited in what was then Ceylon, and took off around the world – a gap year from which he had no intention of returning. After extended stays in the US, England and France, in Italy he conceived a wild plan to buy a house by Lake Garda and transform it into a classical villa surrounded by gardens. His plans foundered on the bureaucratic snags that attend buying property in Italy, and after a year of wrangling with Italian lawyers he boarded a ship back to Ceylon.

The country had by then regained its independence, and Geoffrey Bawa’s return could be seen as that of a prodigal son. But he lacked a sense of purpose. He was conscious of his Asian origins, but having spent a third of his life abroad, had a European outlook. Homeless, he was forced to fall back on his brother’s hospitality, and it was during his stay at Brief, the rubber estate where Bevis had created a remarkable tropical garden, that he was spurred into making something similar, only better.

His eye fell on a dilapidated bungalow on a small rubber estate bordering a lagoon. Abandoning his plans for further travel, Geoffrey named his new home Lunuganga, or Salt River, and set about creating his own version of Paradise.

View across the Black Pavilion Pool towards the Broad Walk: 'Consult the Genius of the Place in all' (Alexander Pope, 1735)

He never had a master plan for the garden. He simply responded, over time, to the “spirit of the place”. He quickly found, however, that he lacked the technical skills to bring his ideas about. So in 1954 he returned to London to study at the Architectural Association, qualifying at the age of 38. Back in Colombo, he joined an established local firm, launching a career that would span four decades and make him one of the most influential architects in Asia and beyond.

A proponent of Tropical Modernism, he led a design movement in which sensitivity to local context meshed with the form-making principles of modernism. His vision for his garden at Lunuganga developed apace on similar principles, and barely a weekend went by that he did not spend working on it.

The result was not simply a tropical version of the garden he had hoped to create beside Lake Garda. The 18th century landscape gardens of England (such as Stourhead and Stowe) were part of his inspiration. But Lunuganga also speaks to a long tradition of Sri Lankan garden-making: the boulder gardens of the first Buddhist ascetics; the pleasure gardens of the Sinhalese kings; the secret retreats of forest hermits; the vivid green mosaics of the rice paddies.

Local tradition also influenced his prize-winning designs for hotels, of which he completed 35, 11 of them in Sri Lanka. Each is distinct and location-specific, which at the time was a dramatic departure from the fashion for designing hotels to fit anywhere in the world. Most monumental of his larger projects is his new building for the Sri Lankan Parliament at Kotte, a magnificent complex built on high land that he fashioned into an island in the centre of a flooded valley. At the other end of the scale is his own bungalow at Lunuganga, now open to the public: discreet, elegant and flooded with light.

Sri Lanka is imprinted with the work of Geoffrey Bawa, yet his legacy is not so much personal as one that captures the character of a nation.

Jenny Gilbert

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