For many, Geoffrey Bawa is considered to be the most influential architect to originate from Sri Lanka. As one architect described his work, “his lyrical understanding of space and climate is distilled in the essence of all his works, which are profoundly evocative of tradition.” Born in 1919 in what was known then as British Ceylon, Bawa was raised in a wealthy home, spending his youth on large family properties and plantations in the countryside. In 1938 he went to Cambridge to study English and Law, and was accepted to the Bar in 1944. However, after a short career as a lawyer he tired of the profession and after a year or traveling returned to Ceylon where be bought an abandoned rubber estate, and began to convert it into a tropical garden inspired by the gardens of Italy. Lacking the technical skills one requires for architectural design, Bawa apprenticed with a local architectural practice in Colombo for a year, before returning to England to study at the Architectural Association of London. Upon graduating in 1957, Bawa returned to Ceylon where he joined with other like minded designers and artists “who shared his growing interest in Ceylon’s forgotten architectural heritage” and as a group they embarked on developing new ways of making and building. In the initial stages of Bawa’s work, he was influenced greatly by the tropical modernist ideals of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry – simple functionalism, cubic architecture and sharp edged forms. Whilst his own designs changed over time in response to varying landscapes and ideals, the tropical modernist theory would serve as the basis for the majority of his works over the remainder of his career. David Robson summarises Bawa’s career with the following passage; Architecture for Bawa was not a means of personal expression: he enjoyed the process of causing buildings to be made. Good buildings gave him pleasure and he took pleasure from making buildings that gave others pleasure. He was concerned to make buildings that satisfied the aspirations of their users, which were appropriate to their setting and function, which optimised levels of comfort and which responded to historical and cultural context.

Unlike other architects who rejected colonial architectures in the wake of post-independence, Bawa took on a far more adaptive approach, sourcing design features that were simply appropriate to Sri Lankan lifestyles, not necessarily choosing one style over another

Beginning his career Bawa drew on his professional training in London and his experiences of international modernism and brutalism in Europe when producing his buildings. Soon thereafter, he directed his attention to the village level vernacular of Sri Lanka as he understood the traditions to possess an authenticity that was both timeless and modern. Unlike other architects who rejected colonial architectures in the wake of post-independence, Bawa took on a far more adaptive approach, sourcing design features that were simply appropriate to Sri Lankan lifestyles, not necessarily choosing one style over another. As Bawa himself stated: “I prefer to consider all past good architecture in Ceylon as just that – as good Ceylon architecture, for that is what it is, not Dutch or Portugese or Indian, or early Sinhalese or Kandyan or British colonial, for all examples of these periods have taken Ceylon into first account.” Drawing from all of these stages in Sri Lankan history, Bawa’s structures incorporated sloped roofing, overhanging eaves, verandahs, internal courtyards, ponds and glassless windows – each implemented to create high levels of openness, ventilation, natural lighting and privacy. In fact some of Bawa’s design elements, such as the enclosed open to sky courtyard, double skin tile and sheet roof and latticed bay windows, were so successful that they have been absorbed into the everyday life of Sri Lankan residences even in the present day. An additional aspect of Bawa’s work which was integral to his designs, was the use of locally sourced materials and locally trained craftspeople, a factor that allowed for the building to harmoniously blend with the local landscape, both aesthetically and socially. As one author stated, this decision “also implies the importance that is made to climate in the work… the material used and the forms that the craftsmen are capable of making have in them an intrinsic respect for the climate that they are in.” Ultimately it is this combination of ideals that underlies the contemporary concept of tropical modernism, a process driven by the need to adapt, translate and utilise the tropical nature at hand. Bawa’s ability to successfully implement such a concept has provided inspiration for many architects presently working in tropical climates.

Bawa’s buildings were designed with the intention that they would settle into their natural surroundings and grow from the site – rather than keep nature out or control it, the space was designed to embrace its environmental context, to age with its tropical surrounds and reject pristine facades for heat and rain weathered exteriors. For this reason alone, Bawa strived to minismise the barrier of indoors and outdoors, and in its place allow the building and landscape to merge as one. As Robson quotes, for Bawa “architecture 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, this senses based experience was possible. Elements such as courtyards, verandahs and eave roofs, allowed for this immersive experience to take place, even in times of extreme heat and monsoon rains. Bawa recreated this ideal on a larger scale in the form of holiday resorts, allowing the landscape to be the focus and the building, minimalist in its form, to submerge within it. Building within Sri Lanka, Bali and India, he used features such as long open corridors that face the outdoors and encourage natural ventilation, private courtyards attached to bungalows, pools surrounded by tropical plants and even an outdoor dining room beneath a hanging boulder – all created in response to the local environment and climatic context. For Bawa, the premise was to produce a spatial experience rather than a visually prominent and symbolic structure – the architecture was about building experiences through space foremost. In 2001 The Aga Khan Foundation recognised Bawa for his architectural achievements, stating “he has broken down the artificial segregation of inside and outside, building and landscape; he has drawn on tradition to create an architecture that is fitting to its place, and he has also used his vast knowledge of the modern world to create an architecture that is of its time.” Bawa’s concepts and ideals continue to influence contemporary architects, most importantly in the Asian region, encouraging them to respond to the local context at hand and embrace tropical climate as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.

Kandalama Hotel

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The Kandalama Hotel was built in 1994 in the jungles of Sri Lanka, located between two world heritage listed sites and overlooking the Kandalama Tank, a reservoir that serves as a very popular tourist destination. Continuing Bawa’s love for immersive architecture within the local environment, the hotel is “literally carved into the rock face: a hotel designed to merge with the jungle, for the vegetation to engulf the structure such that site and context merge.” A space to be experienced, Bawa designed the hotel with the intention of creating a spatial and visual sequence to each aspect of the building – visitors arrive at the property via a long driveway that opens to reveal the submerged green hotel. Entering the hotel under a huge slanted canopy that angles down towards the entrance to a compressed, enclosed walkway, the visitor winds through the boulder lined passageway before entering the open-air lobby with its panoramic views of the Kandalama Tank and the monument of Sigiriya in the distance. Marked as an early example of eco-resort style design, the Kandalama Hotel features a number of sustainable elements and as a result was the first hotel in the world to be recognised with LEED accreditation. The building itself is built on stilts to allow for natural rainwater flow, is partially built around a large rock formation, consists of a series of open corridors to allow for natural ventilation and up to 80% of the roofs are planted with indigenous flora – each of these factors contributes to the passive cooling of the building, reducing the need for air conditioning and providing relief to visitors from the tropical climate. Located so close to the Kandalama Tank, it was integral that used water from the hotel was not drained into the reservoir, thus all water is sourced from deep wells on the site, treated and circulated to the building before being recycled and re-used. Effluent is passed through two treatment plants and subsequently used for landscaping, whilst any surplus water is returned to the aquifer – an achievement that has meant the hotel is not connected to an external water utility. The inclusion of passive design measures exemplifies Bawa’s commitment to environmentally responsive design, drawing on the structures surrounds for its functionality as opposed to enforcing active systems to provide comfort. For some, the Kandalama Hotel appeared to lack the influence of vernacularism – flat roofs instead of sloped, minimalistic instead of decorative – a staple of Bawa’s previous designs. However, in the true sense of tropical modernism, Bawa designed the hotel for the central dry zone of Sri Lanka, an area that is less humid and receives less rain, thus the use of flat roofs and living green facades provides passive cooling measures and responds innately to the climate of the space. While some of the design elements are purely aesthetics, the use of local materials, such as concrete, wood, iron and millwork all contribute to Bawa’s ideal of utilising appropriate regional methods and materials. The Kandalama Hotel demonstrates Bawa’s concern to consult the genius of the place and his ability to integrate architecture and landscape, blur the lines of indoor and outdoor, respond proactively to environment and climate, and ultimately manipulate space for immersive experiences.


Image References


Geoffrey Bawa: The most influential Sri Lankan architect of his generation - 1883 Magazine

Eco Hotel: Heritance Kandalama - Wild Asia