Life & Style

Remembering Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa on his birth centenary


The legendary Sri Lankan architect’s centenary year is replete with tributes, exhibitions and more. Some of India’s top architects and interior designers weigh in on his genius

Today marks the centenary of Geoffrey Bawa’s birth. The next 12 months will see a plethora of events, exhibitions, installations and talks unfolding across Sri Lanka to celebrate the legendary architect’s life and work.

My introduction to Bawa was over a decade ago, at Number 11 in Colombo, a gnarly plumeria standing guard outside. Inside, stark white walls, illuminated by skylights and courtyards, drew the eye, as did the painted door by Australian artist Donald Friend, the mix of antique and contemporary furniture, and the textures of the ceilings and red oxide floors.

Rejecting ornamentation, embracing minimalism, and drawing from the environment around him, the father of Tropical Modernism — born on July 23, 1919 — showed generations of Southeast Asian designers how to stay local, indigenous and yet be international. “He helped us build a sense of pride in tradition-inspired modern architecture,” says Goa-based architect Raya Shankhwalker, who is most impressed by Lunuganga, the 25-acre country estate created over 40 years where Bawa tinkered and tried out his architectural ideas until his death in 2003. Did you know he had 14 bells scattered throughout the property, each with a different sound, to summon meals and beverages to specific spots?

The prolific Bawa ventured into architecture quite late. He’d studied and practised law in England and Colombo, but quit after his mother died in 1946. Two years of travel later, he returned to Sri Lanka and bought a derelict rubber estate near Bentota, where he planned to create an Italian garden, the likes of which he had seen on his travels. But his lack of technical knowledge hampered him. So he took on an architectural apprenticeship with HH Reid in Colombo and later enrolled at the Architectural Association, London, qualifying as an architect at the age of 38.

Till his death at age 83 (on May 27, 2003), he created a vast portfolio of work across the island nation, and also internationally, in India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji, Egypt and Singapore. This included residential, commercial, religious, social, cultural, educational and governmental buildings, in a style that blended modern and traditional, and broke the rigid boundaries of inside and outside, building and landscape. We revisit his legacy, and speak with some of India’s top architects and interior designers on why his works still matter and the lessons we can draw from his designs.

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