When I was an architecture student in 1980s Vienna, I stumbled into an experience so profound that it has guided my career and professional outlook to this day. I spent a summer working with Geoffrey Bawa, the great Sri Lankan architect. Today I think of him as the best architect I ever shook hands with.
I don’t say this flippantly. I’ve enjoyed a global career that has exposed me to many large firms and famous names. I was part of Frank Gehry’s office at the peak of its fame. But Western architects know little about Bawa. He is well-known in Southeast Asia and hailed as the founder of Tropical Modernism. I discovered his level of esteem once when I worked in Hong Kong and told people there that I had worked for him. The proclamation earned me immediate reverence. “You knew Bawa?” they would say. “How fantastic!”
I did not have a big plan to work with him. I had overbearing parents whom I’d rather not have been near for the summer and a girlfriend whose best friend was a stewardess on charter flights to Sri Lanka. She connected me with a businessman who “definitely would get me a job once I was there.” So I purchased the cheapest flight available, gathered all the money I could find (not much), and jetted off.
I remember getting off the plane in Colombo. Being from coldish Central Europe, I had never experienced tropical heat. It felt like a wall, and I wanted to slice out a tunnel I could walk through. I had a place to live, arranged through my home connections, with an Austrian lady who worked locally. She let me stay in her house just to have some familiar company around.
The promised “job” turned out to have been a sham. Nobody knew that I was coming, and they did not have employment for me. And the money I had was going to last me for about a couple of weeks, not for the three months I had planned to stay.
So I called around to see if anybody there had some use for a European architecture student, and a company called Edwards Reid and Begg asked me to come in for an interview. At this point, I had no idea yet about Geoffrey Bawa, nor did I understand the considerable fame his work held in Southern India and Sri Lanka.
I arrived at 2 Alfred House Road and walked through one of the most impressive arrival sequences I have experienced since. There was a vehicular forecourt with a bunch of fancy cars: a historic Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes. (Later I learned that Bawa kept these cars to visit special clients.) The staff led me into the reception area. It was a small courtyard with a reflecting pool in the middle and a colonnade of oiled columns made from palm trees, flanked by lush garden vegetation, and a front office. Several ceiling fans were rotating lazily and circulating air over the reflecting pool which provided a sort of natural air conditioning. The impact was overwhelming.
I got the job. Bawa treated me like one of his local architects, which meant that I needed to live not as a tourist, but like they did. I started by taking public transport to his office. I went out with my new Indian colleagues for lunch and spent time with them in the evenings, too. Meanwhile, I befriended the family in the neighbor’s house and spent a lot of time with them after work. It was their reaction to my hire that gave me the first glimpse that I might have landed in something special. They were very impressed with my new job.
It was a fabulous life. Bawa had three major commissions at the time, and he had created individual offices for each of them. My job was a major hotel. There was also a new university in Ruhunu, in the south of the island, and, of course, the new Parliament building for the recently independent nation. All of the design offices were accommodated in Bawa-designed residences, which he then purchased back to use for business.
Since I had studied in Vienna, I was familiar with opulent palaces bursting with imperial splendor. Still, the grandeur, elegance and simultaneous simplicity of Bawa’s buildings were overwhelming. A close connection to place and nature was ever-present. Being in a Bawa building made you feel as if you were not in a building at all, but rather in a beautiful garden.
Bawa’s houses started with tall walls surrounding each property. There was no setback to neighbors or the street—every square inch of available land was captured. Inside this enclosure, the design loosely arranges an assembly of structures that are certainly a “house” by function, but one that could never be seen from the outside. The houses were more of a compound that related to all the garden spaces on the property in different and magical ways. There rarely were tight insect screens or glazed windows, and no AC, as the climate is tropical and constant airflow, in addition to shade, was a necessity for comfort. Pools and fountains were placed such that their evaporative cooling was then channeled through the homes. It all felt timeless and modest, although comparing them by size to traditional Western manor homes, they could certainly stack up.
Bawa merged timeless vernacular aesthetics with the formal qualities of European Modernism in a low-key technical approach guided by maximum sensitivity to context and climate. This style later became known as Tropical Modernism. It was first realized in several private residences, and they were the vehicle through which modernism came to Sri Lanka.
Bawa included local artists in his creations. In the Bentota Beach Hotel, a visitor ascends into the entry hall toward a large ceiling entirely made from local batik fabric. He carefully placed sculptures and ceramics throughout, hung large, bold paintings on the walls, and imprinted local leaves in custom-made tabletops. Bawa left little to circumstance—he carefully selected furniture and artwork, and often created parts of the interiors, too, from local materials. The result was an ambiance I later on recognized in southern California residences. Materials were raw, but bold, light was ample, nature was always close, and interior space was generous. Art was ever-present throughout.
To capture a genius loci, Bawa integrated trees, boulders, watercourses, and views into the forming of his architecture. Thus, his designs were as much amplifications of the natural places as they were the making of new places. Bawa was focused on the experience of moving through his designs. Arrivals were important, and so was the revealing of hidden vistas and the controlled encounters with natural elements that were left on site. Bawa did not merely occupy a site that was already great, but through his architectural design made the natural site better.
Bawa designed on-site, at full scale. At the Heritance Hotel in Ahungalla, we designed a pedestrian approach between the main road and the hotel entrance. I remember being moved around at his direction to define the corner points of a reflecting pool at the entry court. He shaped vistas and sceneries, determined where colonnades would go, and the shops behind. He talked, gestured with his hands, scratched simple drawings into the dirt, and used his staff to mark locations. We then measured it all up after the fact and put it into drawings.
I learned later, in Gehry’s office, to design with large-scale models. Frank maintained that architecture is a spatial art, not a graphic art focused on designing renderings, like so many architects do today. Still, I have not seen anybody design at full scale as Bawa did. It must have been like the cathedral builders of old, who could only proceed with a building by standing on the spot where the building would be built. It’s the only way to experience the “genius loci.”
Even this method had imperfections. One time, I saw contractors demolish a colonnade they had just built a few weeks earlier. “It was in the way of a view,” Bawa said. It was amazing to work with an architect whose clients have that much trust.
On the way back from our construction sites, we got to stop at Bawa’s masterpiece: Lunuganga. In 1948, Bawa returned from a two-year grand tour through Europe, the U.S., and parts of Asia, and he purchased 25 acres of an abandoned rubber estate near Bentota. This was to be Lununganga, the place where he could experiment and design to his heart’s content.
This is how the Sri Lankan writer Rishani Lamanayake describes her experience with Lunuganga:
Before his mother’s illness brought him down to Sri Lanka, the British-educated Bawa had contemplated buying and settling down in a villa overlooking Lake Garda in Italy. It is this particular longing, this nod to the possibility of other homes on other shores, that Lunuganga so cleverly evokes.
Lunuganga certainly feels like a self-portrait. To explore its meticulously designed landscape is to understand what Bawa paid attention to and, by extension, what he might have loved. Signs of his bold, maverick personality are everywhere: I came across a small, shuttered window located halfway down an otherwise blank wall. It turned out to be a window situated at eye height for someone sitting on the commode, in the event they should want to enjoy the rambling vistas of the garden while on the toilet. Elsewhere, in front of the main house, is a massive frangipani tree. I learn that this is the result of two trees being grafted together, one weighed down to train the branches to curve gently downwards, hovering just inches above the manicured lawn. As the curator of The Bawa Trust, Shayari de Silva, said in an interview, Bawa “literally moved mountains to create the slopes and views that he wanted.”
The mood at the office was usually lighthearted but dedicated. People worked long hours and enjoyed it. I had good hand-drawing skills and sketched overdressed, out-of-place European visitors into the sections, plans, and renderings. This amused Bawa. We spent long afternoons discussing the direction of a project with him, and evenings committing it to paper.
I learned about amazing local craftsmen’s skills. While working on the hotel, Bawa disappeared for a few days. I was told he went to Burma to purchase teak trees, which then arrived in the next weeks on the construction site, cut into 4-inch-thick slabs. There were few power tools on the site, and I went back to the office and immediately proceeded to detail the hotel with my central European knowledge, and central European materials. Bawa laughed, and asked me to wait until we got back on site. When we did, we found amazing products which local teams had made out of the teak slabs, with hand tools. There were balustrades, windows, doors, and furniture, with wicker woven seats. “Your details would not last a season here in our climate,” he said to me. “We have traditional methods that will.” And so I stood in awe at technical assemblies that included plasters with animal hair reinforcements and connectors that used no metal, as the salty tropical air would make short shrift of them.
Since I was attempting to live like a local, on a local salary, I needed not be taken advantage of by merchants who just saw me as another tourist. One day, I had just purchased fruit and vegetables at a local market. I had negotiated the lowest price. I went home and proudly shared my experience with my newly found second family next door. “How much did you pay for this?” the mother of the house asked me. When I told her, she said, “Get in the car, we are going back there!” At the market, she asked me to point out which merchants I bought from, and then she proceeded to loudly berate him in the middle of a busy afternoon shopping time. I was embarrassed, but also thankful. I had overpaid by a factor of at least 10 times, and after this experience, I never again paid high prices in this market.
On the weekends I would travel around the country by public transport. It turned out that Sri Lankans traveled quite a lot all over their island. Trains and buses were crowded, but people were enormously friendly and would often share their travel snacks with me. I experienced rural refreshment stops which were little more than a man with a machete and a heap of king coconuts on the side of the road. He would open one for one rupee and hand it to people to drink. It was amazingly tasty and refreshing at the same time. There were similar rest stops on other routes, with people selling whole bunches of sweet honey bananas or rambutans.
While waiting for a bus, I was often approached by locals. They wanted to know where I came from, and what I was doing there, never with any bad intentions, only curiosity. I learned about the high educational standards in Sri Lanka, as several people told me more about Austria than I knew myself. On one trip, a young fellow invited me to visit him in his village. I checked this with my adopted family, and they declared it legit. So I went to visit him. He lived in a village that had no running water and no electricity. But the hospitality of the people there was beautiful. I was the honored guest in many of their activities. They took me on hikes through the jungle and held a village feast in my honor.
Another trip led me to tea plantations. It was a train trip that started in hot and steamy Colombo and ended in the central mountains. It got colder and colder along the way, with stunning landscapes passing by. I went on a plantation tour and learned that they could not offer me tastings of their best teas because, in a legacy contract with their English partners, the best tea grades were to be shipped immediately to the UK.
In August I visited Kandy for their Perahera, a religious procession with many decorated elephants to celebrate a relic from Lord Buddha. Staying there at a hotel, I met the Nepalese Tibetan volleyball team, and they graciously took me into their group for a few days. Elephants were everywhere … I met them just walking on the street to the royal botanical garden, where we had to negotiate who would pass and who would step aside a giant at least 10 feet tall. I saw elephants next to a lunch spot, too, where the elephants were chained up and enjoying their lunch.
Leaving felt sad, but I was eager to continue my education and begin my own architectural journey into Western architecture. Bawa left a huge impression on me, and I fully expected that my future experience would build on what I had started in Sri Lanka. I found other masters who also showed sensitivity to site and climate and employed appropriate technologies: Josip Plecnik in Slovenia, Hassan Fathy in Egypt, Charles Correa or Balkrishna Doshi in India. I enjoyed finding similarities between Bawa’s open-plan typologies and Chinese hutong houses as well as Middle Eastern courtyard houses surrounding traditional bazaars. To this day, I am enamored with vernacular design/construction and admire the elegance and design skill with which traditional low-tech buildings can still solve modern problems, often better than their contemporary counterparts. I become excited when I see young architects embrace vernacular design in modern ways, benefiting from ancient knowledge and modern sensibilities.
Mostly, though, I was enamored with Bawa’s placemaking skills and design methods, and I was eager to employ them in my own work. And just like Bawa, I wanted to practice design not through renderings, but as a spatial art form, through models and built form.
My reality was very different. The Western world has little appreciation for the goals and qualities I experienced in Sri Lanka. Bawa’s spirit loomed large in me, and only in Gehry’s office did I get the impression that Frank was as serious about pursuing the spatial qualities of design as Bawa was. But in general, little lived up to the professional standard I had come to expect. This has often been difficult and led to a restless existence where I had so often looked for the metaphorical greener grass on the other side of the professional fence.
After completing my studies and emigrating to the U.S., it still took me about 10 years to realize that maybe I lucked into a practice that was as good as it will ever get, and that Bawa was a mentor to me I did not know I had. I wrote him a heartfelt letter. One of my best friends took his own trip to Sri Lanka and visited him. Bawa was old and weak, handicapped by a recent stroke, and thus unable to reply to my letter. But I hope that he enjoyed it. A life like his deserves to be applauded. And accomplishments like his deserve to be known by the world. I am delighted to hear that there is now a film celebrating Mr. Bawa’s Genius of the Place.
Bawa gave me the best introduction to the design profession I could have ever hoped for. He opened my eyes to the world. Talent and ingenuity exist in every culture, and we would all be well advised to open our minds to learn from each other and to find ways to reuse timeless knowledge in our own paths forward. That is what Bawa has shown me. I am grateful that he let me join his journey, even just for a little while.
Featured image: Lunuganga, Bentota. All photos courtesy of the (c) Geoffrey Bawa and Lunuganga Trusts.