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Real Lead

Few architects from South Asia have captured the attention of the world like Sri Lanka’s Geoffrey Bawa. Given that Earth Day will be celebrated tomorrow, it would be pertinent to look at some of Bawa’s most masterful works in his pursuit of ‘tropical modernism’.

Bawa initially studied law in London, and became a barrister in 1944. After returning to Sri Lanka, he worked at a law firm in Colombo, and purchased an abandoned estate in Lunuganga, on the outskirts of Bentota, planning to create an Italian garden there. After realising that he lacked the expertise to achieve this, he became an apprentice at an architectural firm in Colombo, and then went to Cambridge to study architecture.

In I957, at the age of 38, he returned to Sri Lanka as a trained architect and began rediscovering the forgotten heritage of Sri Lanka. In his mind, the architecture prevalent at the time did nothing to incorporate the island’s natural tropical beauty into its designs.

Bawa set out to breakdown the segregation between the “inside and outside” (buildings and landscape), and worked on projects that ranged from houses and hotels to government offices and recreational centres. He remarked to one of his clients, that once completed, his building would be “invisible to the naked eye” because it would be cloaked in foliage.

As Bawa’s popularity grew, he received commissions from across the world, from Japan to India and even Pakistan (although the 200-room Galadari Hotel in Islamabad was never built). His designs gained him the acclaim of contemporaries such as Ken Yeang who described Bawa’s design for the State Mortgage Bank as “probably the best example of a bio-climatically-responsive tall building… in the world”.

Bawa’s masterpiece remains Lunuganga, which took him five decades to complete, has now been turned into a hotel. Bawa meticulously converted it into a civilised wilderness; where a secluded terrace built on pavilions reaching into the branches of the jungle is preceded by a garden which seems like it is about to be invaded by dense, indigenous flora.

As Bawa said, “You must ‘run’ with the site; after all, you don’t want to push nature out with the building.”

– Shayan Shakeel

First published in the Real Estate Section of The DAWN National Weekend Advertiser on April 21, 2013.