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.