Even beneath the grey and rather overcast skies, architect Geoffrey Bawa's masterpiece — Kandalama hotel — stands out like a jewel in the wilderness of Dambulla, Sri Lanka.

The entry sequence, like the design of the entire hotel, is spectacularly choreographed by Geoffrey Bawa. A visitor to Kandalama in Sri Lanka has a long and adventurous drive through the densely vegetated forest and along the Kandalama tank, up a ramp and then is unexpectedly confronted by the sweeping roof of the entrance and a grotto-like reception with a stunning boulder backdrop.

The Kandalama hotel is located in the cultural triangle close to the Dambulla caves and the marvellous fifth century landscape citadel of Sigiriya; it is also in proximity to the ancient capital Polonnaruwa and the sacred city of Anuradhapura. The hotel lies at the marvellous intersection of water, rock outcroppings and jungle.

Interesting history

Built in the early 90s by the Aitken Spence group, the hotel has an interesting history. The conceptualisation reflects Bawa's architectural brilliance. David Robson, author of the monograph on Geoffrey Bawa (Geoffrey Bawa Complete Works), writes that Bawa rejected sites shown in close vicinity to Sigiriya; he contemplated an area between an island and a ridge set deep within the jungles, which had views of the Kandalama tank and Sigiriya, and finally chose a site close to the ridge.

Kandalama was amongst the last few projects of Bawa's prolific architectural career and certainly amongst his best. Architect Milroy Perera and engineer Deepal Wickramasinghe helped in the execution of his design.

Sri Lanka has had a tradition of boulder-and-water gardens that continue to be prevalent in the landscape vocabulary of the region. Some of the best examples of these gardens are visible in Sigiriya and in Kaludiya Pokuna, a garden of exquisite beauty which displays a fascinating boulder and water interplay. The seclusion and meditative beauty of the built is exemplified by caves nested in the jungles as seen in the monasteries of Arankele and Ritigala. Bawa's Kandalama seems inspired by these proximal references.

Fine balance

The hotel is built along the ridge; the building is a concrete frame structure on stilts that negotiates marvellously the ridge and the water. Visitors almost never perceive the massive scale of this 253,000 sq. ft hotel building which blends harmoniously with the terrain.

The boulder outcroppings are dramatically integrated into the hotel, as corridor walls or as backdrops and are integral to the experience of the space while creating a stunning interplay between the built and natural throughout the project.

The boulder corridor that leads from the entry ends in the lounge. The lounge opens out onto the semi-covered dining area, wild gardens amidst the rock outcroppings, and a swimming pool whose edge is suspended dramatically over the Kandalama reservoir, forming a vast expanse of reflective surface, a mirror to the horizon.

Distinctive of Bawa's architecture, Kandalama is a building to view from, rather than to look at, and accordingly the sense of enclosure dilutes in most of the common spaces and the visitor gets drawn into the view. During my visit, the clouds were thick and hung low over the surrounding hillocks, resembling a dense mysterious mist. On a clear day the Sigiriya rock face is visible from across the Kandalama tank.

The transition spaces such as corridors and staircases too are un-delineated from the magic of the landscape. Artist designer Laki Senanayake's sculptural owl soars over the stairwell, augmenting the effect of being in the landscape when within the building.

At dusk, the hotel transforms into a glowing beacon filled with music. Bawa architecture was always rooted in sustainability even before ‘green design' became fashionable. Kandalama's architecture celebrates this ideal. The hotel is a model of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

LEED certification

It is the first hotel in the world to be LEED Certified (LEED Version 1) by the U.S. Green Building Council in 2000 (rated bronze). It has won the Green Globe Commendation Award over a number of years.

Water is managed with great sensitivity in the project. Deep wells on site provide potable water. The flat roofs that are an appropriate response to the dry zone are intensive green roofs; vertical gardens that form a façade over the buildings have resulted in increased biodiversity due to the valuable habitat provided.

They also help in stormwater management, and reduce the heat island effect, leading to a cooler microclimate. Biologically-treated wastewater is used for irrigation. The microclimate is also manipulated by the integration of the rocky ridge into the built, which aids in passive cooling.

Solar heating has been adopted extensively and the transition spaces through the hotel are open to view and thus use natural light during the daytime, minimising energy consumption. Waste generated by the hotel is recycled.

Most of the materials that were used in the construction of the hotel were manufactured within 500 miles from the hotel. Hundreds of trees were replanted during the construction process. Laki Senanayake's garden retreat in Dambulla acted as a tree nursery that supplied wood during the hotel's construction.

Guests are encouraged to adopt green modes of transport such as bicycles in the vicinity of the hotel and take buses to commute to the city.