Bawa power! | Daily News

Bawa power!

New way at looking at Sri Lankan architecture
New way at looking at Sri Lankan architecture

Bawa, the Sri Lankan born and British-trained lawyer turned architect, in his late 30s, built an impressive number of houses, hotels, schools, religious and government buildings across the island and was eventually commissioned to build the stunning new Houses of Parliament in 1979, which he finished in 1982. The magnificent building project in Kotte, on the outskirts of Colombo City, was seen as the cornerstone of the visionary idea to build Colombo as a garden city that reconnected the urban industrialised busy city with nature. Parliament sits as an island surrounded by water and greenery with people jogging past it daily, before heading off to work in the busy city. The inside, which you can visit with a special tour permit, is beyond spectacular and a reminder of Sri Lanka’s powerful past.

Bawa created a hugely exciting body of architectural projects across the island, which continue to capture the imagination of the world, with the unique ways in which he incorporated the natural environment, such as with trees, where, if they stood in the way of construction, he would merely build around them so they became a feature of the property; even rocks were left, as seen at the Jetwing Lighthouse hotel pool, where they are randomly scattered features of this stunning space. So, without moving or destroying nature, he always used his imagination to make them part of his grand and poetic designs that incorporated the artistic works of some of Sri Lanka's most talented and creative minds. Bawa was not just about the building and what it would look like from the outside, but also the interiors and the art bought or created for each building. He would commission Lucki or one of his amazing team, to give a building its character and distinctive purpose.

Within a decade of Bawa returning to Sri Lanka, he revolutionised the island’s designs and became a formative influence on others in the profession, who in turn redesigned many other Sri Lankan buildings and landmarks. His immense range of projects offered the architectural blueprint for radical new ways to live in a tropical city that blended Eastern and Western styles like the Roman Villa and Palace styles of antiquities, breaking down the barriers of the traditional use of inside and outside spaces.

Bawa’s rich portfolio of building projects attract tourists from all over the world, who travel all over the island to see his work or stay in one of his award winning hotels, like Heritance Kandalama, which enable one to get right to the heart of his visionary ideas. To find out more about his life and work, head to a quiet suburb of Colombo, where you can visit his city house. You can start your exploration with the fascinating home/laboratory for architectural ideas, now a museum, at No. 11, 33rd Lane, Bagatelle Road, in the quiet and pretty suburb of Colombo 3. As you approach the end of the lane, notice the decorated glass door and semi-circular moonstone, marking the entrance to Bawa’s town house, the rather plain building on the left. Visitors are only allowed in on tours, which are usually run at 10.00, 12.00, 14.00 and 16.00, but it is always best, in the current situation, to check first and make sure you book in advance, as space is limited with social distancing. And, if you want to immerse yourself in his thought processes, the Bawa trust now rents the room out in the white Corbusier-style tower attached to the house.

True to Bawa’s style and philosophy, the unassuming exterior of No 11 hides a plethora of treasures and surprises inside the four houses he bought and joined together, creating something new and original with interconnecting corridors, courtyards, loggias and verandas. A walk through his home, adorned with rooms without roofs and roofs without walls, is an aesthetic journey, and an insight into his unique ideas and innovative style that incorporates pools and fountains. As Lanka’s architectural genius, Bawa created this oasis of space, light and art by taking a small lane, and then covering it to form the entrance corridor, itself a remarkable feature of the house. As you walk along it, the drama of the inside outside use of space with masterpieces, is brought to life, highlighting the importance of not only how a building is designed, but also the thinking behind it from the architects choices in commissioned art works.

Be sure to ask if you can watch the documentaries on Bawa’s life and work, at the end of the tour, which you can see whilst sitting at Bawa’s very own dining table. You can then retrace your steps out of the house, and begin your leisurely stroll through the suburb that was home to Bawa for many years until he died in 2003. At the end of the lane, a left turn will take you past the breezy white homes on either side, while another left turn at the end of the street will bring you to Queen’s Road. A right and left turn here will lead you to Alfred House Road, which in turn will take you to Gallery Café, inside a dynamic open courtyard with water features and colonnades. This building was Bawa’s architectural office, and his influence, if not his artifacts, can still be appreciated inside. The café and gallery has been transformed by Shanth Fernando, now owner of this fabulous property that was once the muse for so many original architectural works done by the genius and his team. Shanth has retained the quaint and quirky charm coupled with the elegance and open space fashioned on an Italian villa. He has regular art exhibitions and is famous for his amazing desserts and cakes.

Enter through the narrow corridor, experience the rustic features of the building, and proceed on to the Gallery café, noting the art pieces displayed along the walls. Emerge into the unexpectedly expansive and bright space, complete with lounging areas, formal tables, and a tranquil open courtyard around the bar serving cocktail creations such as the popular chilli tamarind martini. Enjoy a refreshing coffee, cocktail, or even the famous black pork curry, part of the extensive gourmet list of dishes served on the Café’s Sri Lankan menu, before jumping in a taxi to see Bawa’s greatest masterpiece of all: the Parliament buildings in Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte. This magnificent structure is most imposing as it appears to be floating on its own island, with minimal design features outside but a stunning golden interior.

Construction of this architectural gem, the brainchild of Bawa, began in 1979 after the then-prime minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, obtained approval for it. It was declared open in 1982 by J.R. Jayewardene, who became the first Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Standing outside on the parliament grounds and looking back at Bawa’s creation is a somewhat simple summation of the country’s magic; the serene lakes representing the natural beauty upon which stands a structural example of the brilliance that individuals can produce. On the right hand side is the war memorial and, in the grounds across the road from Parliament, you will find young people playing cricket and generally enjoying themselves, exuding a spirit of fun and warmth, all of which are truly Sri Lankan. The building is so amazing and spectacularly lit up at night. Before Bawa died in 2003, he was already a legend as a visionary architect, who lives on with all that worked under him. The parliament can be visited, but special permission must be obtained to gain access.

David Robson, the writer on Geoffrey Bawa’s work, puts it succinctly when he describes the essence of great architecture, quintessentially the Bawa trademark, “It should play to all the senses – the smell of vegetation after rain, the sound of birds and the wind in the trees, the texture of clay floor tiles and rough plaster.” By removing the concept of indoor and outdoor, Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most inspiring architect, captured all the senses, when creating his buildings that range from opulent hotels to extravagant homes, to the iconic Parliament building with all its golden grandeur inside, and the wonderful people-focused projects like his spiritually beautiful Buddhist temple in Colombo.

Each one was drawn and produced with master craftsman and talented builders who were passionate about creating buildings that not only last, but speak to the world about the island’s immense creativity.

As another writer, Colin Bisset succinctly put it, “It's no exaggeration to say that Geoffrey Bawa transformed the look of South-East Asia. And yet, what he did is so subtle that we almost take it for granted today. In short, Bawa tailored modern buildings to a specific environment. It hardly seems revolutionary and yet no one else had done anything like it in the region.”