Geoffrey Bawa’s impact on Sri Lanka’s visual landscape is as great as the Dutch and British colonialists of the past.
By pioneering the Tropical Modernism style, which is evident throughout his boutique hotels and public buildings scattered across the island, he singly changed the face of Sri Lankan architecture.
Born in Colombo in 1919, Bawa began his working life as a lawyer having studied at Cambridge, but soon tired of the profession after coming back to Sri Lanka. Following the death of his parents, he travelled widely across the Far East, the United States and Europe until, resisting the option of settling down in an Italian villa, he instead again returned home and began to train as an architect.
Bawa’s appreciation of natural elements – tropical sun, lush greenery, flowing water – was incorporated into his designs in an effort to bring the outside inside. His passion for Sri Lanka’s varied natural landscapes and beautiful vistas was combined with references to the island’s cultural heritage, from Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa’s ancient kingdoms to the later Dutch and British influences. In doing so, he dragged Sri Lankan design into the present while retaining a clear link to the past.
Bawa passed away in 2003, but his legacy endures throughout his home country and beyond. That graceful use of courtyards, pavilions and water features, and the fusion of indoor and outdoor space, both now so commonly emulated by modern resorts, originated in Bawa’s work.
In the visionary’s own words, “architecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced.”
We couldn’t agree more. Here are 5 of Bawa's greatest works:
1. Heritance Kandalama, Dambulla
Perhaps his crowning glory, the Heritance Kandalama in Dambulla (pictured above) was designed by Bawa as an ‘austere jungle palace’. Draped in vines and set dramatically on rocks beside an ancient reservoir, the hotel cleverly blends so well into its natural surroundings that it’s almost invisible from afar.
2. The Last House, Tangalle
Set between a lagoon and idyllic Tangalle Beach on Sri Lanka’s south coast, this aptly named and understated beach house turned out to be Bawa’s swansong. It’s laid out in a horseshoe shape around the central swimming pool, allowing space to flow freely between indoor and outdoor areas.
3. Lunuganga, Bentota
No Bawa acolyte can overlook Lunuganga, a ten-hectare retreat close to Bentota which he converted from dilapidated rubber plantation into a beautiful house and artfully landscaped gardens. The exquisite gardens are the main draw, with guided tours run by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
4. Paradise Road Gallery Café, Colombo
Bawa’s former offices were converted into an elegantly rustic art space and restaurant set in a tranquil open courtyard. Rotating displays of local paintings and sculptures showcase, appropriately, the best of contemporary Sri Lankan design, and are best enjoyed with chili tamarind Martinis, black pork curry and lemon meringue cake.
5. Club Villa, Bentota
This former Dutch villa is now a glorious hotel just south of Bentota along a long, golden stretch of sandy beach. Brightly-coloured walls and colonial antiques create a tranquil atmosphere in league with tropical greenery, and its a perfect base from which to visit both Lunuganga and Brief Gardens – a tropical sanctuary created by Geoffrey’s older brother, Bevis.
Explore Sri Lanka from £2,695 per person, 12 nights, B&B including some Bawa hotels, flights, guides and transfers. Call 0207 359 3938 and ask for Sophie.