Certain personalities exude charisma and magnetism, long after their demise. Geoffrey Bawa is one such – his architectural style and sense of design empowering a strong following. Indeed, the term ‘Bawaesque’ would not be wrong, to describe his profound effect on succeeding architects, and their work. Bawa plodded through a law degree and the legal world, tiring of it very soon. Off he went to see the world, loving the gardens of Italy. He came back to Lanka, and bought up an abandoned rubber estate at Lunuganga, about 2 hours away from the city—a property that has become synonymous with Bawa. He wanted to landscape the grounds, but lacked the money, and the knowledge to do so. He decided to study architecture in London, in 1953, qualifying in 1957. Bawa soon set up on his own. Tropical modernism was his mantra, keeping climate, landscape, culture and site in mind-old Ceylon charmed him no end. The now over-touted term ‘eco-friendly’ was followed religiously by Bawa as a matter of sensible rule, shunning plate glass and air-conditioning. Instead, the Kandyan merits of private inner courtyards were brought into small buildings, blending in and out aesthetically, thus cooling the buildings in the hot tropics. It is no wonder that he was awarded the ‘Deshamanya’—Pride of the nation—in 1993.

Many of Bawa’s buildings have been destroyed, or altered drastically, in Sri Lanka. Those that remain are treasures to be seen, lingering on in memory, many taking the keen on guided tours. Bawa’s house at 33 Lane, in Kollupitiya, Colombo, is open to the public, as a guided tour. Four adjoining row houses, dating to the fifties, were gradually bought up by Bawa, the end result in this small lane epitomizing the term 'bricolage'—'structuring space' — re-arranging the existing through the placement of objects, creating a space from time as an extra-cultural surprise, keeping alive the Burgher element of local Sinhala and Tamil mix with the Dutch occupants of Ceylon. Bawa used his home as his experimental base, to carry out his various design combinations.

Antiques were sourced from Ceylon’s Dutch and British periods, as also recreated from the originals, using local materials and labour. Almirahs and Lankan storage chests, called ‘pettagam’ are displayed in usage all over the house, along with chairs based on 18 century design. Bawa liked American and Mexican influences too, especially Knoll furniture from the fifties. The Knoll-style 'tulip' chairs designed by the Finn Saaron find place in the living room, and dining room, white plastic adding an outlandish element in keeping with the times, to the local scene. Colourful inflatable plastic seating of the sixties, Scandinavian coloured glass—Bawa seemed guided by Mexican architect Luis Barragan, who mixed the modern west, with the vernacular. Barragan’s famous 'butaca', the leather upholsterd boutique chair was modified by Bawa, with cane.

Local Ceylonese, S. Indian, and S. Asian art objects filled Bawa’s interiors—sculpture, salvaged building material, wood, and textiles. Horse heads in old terracotta were fond finds, exuding power and grace, proudly placed in the pavilion edges—the old painted horse head from the coastal town of Chilaw contrasts beautifully with the dull gleam of the terracotta-tiled floor of the long passage, seemingly cooling off after a spirited canter, at the edge of the small pebbled water body. An instant play of light and shade is played upon by Bawa, the dim interiors straight off the road broken up by recessed light pouring in through the inner green courtyards, and pools. A sense of openness within the confines is inevitably thus created unobtrusively by Bawa, masterfully bringing the car porch within the home, to house his Rolls and Benz. Wood panels, local masks, textiles all draw the eye, especially Donald Friend’s painted door. Sadly, much of this Australian artist’s works in this building are now not to be seen. Bawa collaborated happily with a chosen few artists, including their works in his works. Ismeth Rehman, Ena de Silva, Laki Senanayake and Barbara Sansoni all became part of the Bawa magic.

The ‘sunburst’ batik in the car porch by Ena, and Friend’s aluminium beaten and gilded bird motif door are both tremendously impactful on the interior. Senanayake’s famous Bo leaf metal sculpture, so symbolic of Buddhist Lanka gleams green alongside the colourful ‘House of cards’ by Ray and Charles, in the upstairs living room, the big wall covered by a textile mural, perhaps from Indonesia.

Location

Colombo

Owner/ architect

Geoffrey Bawa

Highlights

Salvaged building material

Interiors lit by courtyards and pools

Knoll-style tulip chairs in living room