An exhibition on the renowned Sri Lankan architect at the NGMA marks the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Sri Lanka.
“Each project is a very particular response to a culture it’s in—particularly in respect to the materials…. Design encompasses a cultural sensitivity. I respond to it through the site. Any other response is bogus to me.” — Geoffrey Bawa
Intense conversations with clients and colleagues, detailed site plans and sectional drawings, reflections for hours at the work site prior to design, and photographs of the finished project from various angles characterised Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural practice.
Of British, Moor and Burgher ancestry, Sri Lanka’s leading architect was, not unexpectedly, deeply sensitive to cultural specificities and individual requirements as well as responsive to local ambience, materials and building practices. His projects spanned luxury hotels, individual houses, schools and universities, factories, offices, numerous public buildings as well as the new Sri Lankan Parliament. “Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There” is the title of the exhibition (March 17-May 7) hosted at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), New Delhi, and archival and contemporary photographs of projects, together with site plans, elevations, and drawings, are part of the display.
A few panels with extensive (albeit unreferenced) quotes from him provide insights into Bawa’s vision. Drawings are the “graphic language” architects rely on and the site is the basis for design. On the role of the site, Bawa is evocative: “The site gives the most powerful push to a design along with the brief. Without seeing the site, I cannot work. It is essential to be there. After two hours on the site, I have a mental picture of what will be there and how the site will change, and the picture does not change.”
The drawings, some of them works of art, and the sepia-tinted photographs ensured that the exhibition appealed to more than just architects and designers. However, on occasion, the inadequate and somewhat unimaginative lighting at NGMA’s rather labyrinthine basement gallery made viewing a bit of a challenge. This was particularly true in the case of some archival photographs.
A number of books have been written on Bawa, who is among Asia’s most influential and prolific architects, and whose extensive practice extended over 40 years. It seemed appropriate, therefore, for India and Sri Lanka to celebrate 75 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations with this exhibition. The focus of the exhibition was on the archive maintained by the Colombo-based Geoffrey Bawa Trust, the first such event. Presented by the trust in collaboration with the NGMA and the High Commission of Sri Lanka, it is also the first retrospective of Bawa’s work to be shown internationally since 2004. The rich archival holdings showcase Bawa’s practice—site plans and drawings of buildings, photographs, letters, and a video with those who knew him revealed a somewhat enigmatic genius and his oeuvre.
Born in 1919 to a successful lawyer and his Dutch Burgher wife, in what was then the British Crown Colony of Ceylon, Bawa’s career straddled the last years of the empire and evolved rapidly in the exciting years of a newly independent country. His journey into architecture was serendipitous—with an English degree under his belt from Cambridge and having studied for the Bar at the Middle Temple, he returned to Colombo to join a law firm. The legal practice, however, did not seem to inspire Bawa. He still earned enough to buy his first Rolls-Royce, and others would soon follow.
In 1948, he bought an abandoned rubber and cinnamon estate that he would transform into his much-loved garden, Lunuganga. Then came a game-changing moment: A visit from Georgette, his Paris-based cousin, to the garden that occupied so much of Bawa’s time and energy. She advised him to become an architect “so that you can use other people’s money to do what you like doing best” (p. 14 of David Robson’s In Search of Bawa). He soon became an unpaid intern with the architect H.H. Reid, and by 1952, was on his way to the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London accompanied by his third Rolls-Royce.
Back in Sri Lanka in 1958, he met the Danish architect Ulrik Plesner a year after he had joined the architectural firm of Edwards, Reid and Begg. Bawa requested to be a freelance consultant on one of the projects that Plesner had been assigned. Subsequently, the two were to work very closely together for several decades.
“It is Essential to be There” showcases several individual homes as well as hotels and educational institutions. In 1960, Bawa designed a home for Ena de Silva that memorialised the inner courtyard, so integral to traditional South Asian homes. Working closely with his artist client who wanted a modern home that incorporated traditional features as well as a space with an office and an atelier, Bawa designed a deep veranda that ran along all four sides and housed the dining table and chairs, a bench and an old chest of drawers. It opened onto the courtyard where appropriate planting was combined with the placement of four massive grinding stones at the corners. Laki Senanayake’s sectional drawing did not miss palm fronds, delicate traceries of leaves and a traditional brass lamp in a carefully positioned wall niche. De Silva was to set up a batik workshop with Senanayake in her home that she would be forced to sell in 2010. As Robson notes, it was “one of the most important Asian houses of the 20th century” but it was demolished to build a car park! The exhibition did not mention that unfortunate fact nor that the trust managed to salvage key elements of the house and has rebuilt it on the edge of the Lunuganga estate.
- Renowned Sri Lankan Geoffrey Bawa, is among Asia’s most influential and prolific architects. It seemed appropriate, therefore, for India and Sri Lanka to celebrate 75 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations with an exhibition of his works.
- The focus of the exhibition was on the archive maintained by the Colombo-based Geoffrey Bawa Trust, the first such event. Site plans and drawings of buildings, photographs, letters, and a video with those who knew him revealed a somewhat enigmatic genius and his oeuvre.
- In 1960, Bawa designed a home for Ena de Silva that memorialised the inner courtyard, so integral to traditional South Asian homes.
- Bawa’s verandas, loggias, courtyards, and generous windows seamlessly blended inner spaces with the outdoors, acknowledging that a meaningful built environment is based on an adjustment between the two.
Bawa’s design and execution involved not only architects like Plesner and the brilliant structural engineer K. Poologasundram (“Poologs”) but also a range of creative people, some of whom had been his clients. De Silva’s work was represented in the impressive batik ceiling at Bentota Beach Hotel, while the brass peacock sculpture was created by Senanayake. Barbara Sansoni, designer and textile expert known for the stylish textile store Barefoot, designed another sunset-hued ceiling with textiles, and artist Ishmeth Raheem, the hand-drawn panels.
By the end of the 1960s, the Bentota Beach Hotel (100 km south of Colombo), “one of the earliest and most influential buildings in Asia”, opened its doors to a discerning and wealthy clientele. Bawa’s vision and genius effectively garnered the collective synergy of a group with varying talents, overseen perhaps by Poologs. Reinforced steel and glass that were integral to contemporary architectural practices were in short supply in those days of austerity and import restrictions. Though the architect had to rely considerably on locally available materials to construct the luxury venue, such usage had perforce also become intrinsic to his style, based as it was on a deep study of indigenous forms and constructions.
For instance, an exhibition panel that quoted his brief exegesis on the Sinhala roof tile is fascinating: For him, a building had to be first rational, as this “gave presence to both function and form, to admit beauty and pleasure as well as purpose”. Accordingly, tiles used by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the plains and the structure and size of their roofs were very different from those in the hills of Kandy. In the latter, meeting halls were only roofs on columns, no walls. These were “an answer to a way of life—a great roof to give shade and shelter, open to the drift of air and the encompassing view”.
In 1970, Bawa established a bolthole for himself and his newly acquired aluminium-clad Rolls-Royce in Madras. With his formidable reputation preceding him, it was not long before he was designing the Madurai Club. It reflected his philosophy of using available materials, in this case, limiting himself to a 10-kilometre radius. In addition, he scouted around the city and found additional elements from buildings being demolished elsewhere. He experimented working with stone—a new experience for him—and spoke admiringly of the skill and craftsmanship of the local stone masons.
While he was away, work on the low-budget Yahapath Endera Farm School at Hanwella in Colombo district was completed. Some of Bawa’s work involved educational institutions, often on limited resources. The farm school was “an ambitious project for orphaned girls to learn agricultural and craft skills, negotiated a hilly landscape to keep deep connections to the surroundings, allowing the girls to feel connected to a familiar environment”. Using the existing structure of the farm, the “low-cost construction was complemented with vivid mosaics, designed by Barbara Sansoni and executed by Laki Senanayake”. Together with facsimiles of the site plan and elevation, digital colour prints of the school by photographer Dominic Sansoni and reproductions of Bawa’s archival gelatin silver prints are on display at the exhibition. Apart from a selection of Bawa’s extensive and varied practice in Sri Lanka, also on display are panels on a few buildings that he designed in India, including Sarabhai House in Ahmedabad.
Typically, Bawa’s structures, built in an unrelenting tropical climate, welcomed the sea as well as hot winds laden with the perfume of frangipanis and the endless torrents of the monsoons. His verandas, loggias, courtyards, and generous windows seamlessly blended inner spaces with the outdoors, acknowledging that a meaningful built environment is based on an adjustment between the two.
Eroding a legacy
What the exhibition does not mention is that this impressive legacy of design, imaginative use of material, and collaboration between stellar personalities has been whittled away by mindless development. As mentioned earlier, Ena de Silva’s house was razed to accommodate a car park and as Robson commented, the new owners of Bentota Beach Hotel remodelled it so that it “now bears only a vestigial resemblance to the original”. Nor, for that matter, does “It is Essential to be There” tell you much about the protagonist—that with the death of his father when he was only three, Bawa and his older brother Bevin were raised by his mother and two maiden aunts or that he was a desultory practitioner of law before retraining himself so that he could follow his passion.
The trust’s rich archive of photographs could have been used more creatively—and in fact, there was not a single photograph, portrait or otherwise, of Bawa who was not only at ease behind the camera but also its willing subject. An early photograph of the young Bawa with his much older brother, or of him at Cambridge, looking distinctly Oscar Wildean, later at Lunuganga or surveying one of his many projects would have added to an empathetic understanding of this man of several cultures. While his flippant claim that he was “a sort of Christian Moslem Burgher” earned him a caning at school, it also underscored the many traditions that he was to later draw on.
Given the number of architectural and design schools and institutions in and around Delhi, it was heartening to see many young people thronging the exhibition. Some more serious viewers were assiduously taking notes. As visual imagery is par for the course today, particularly for the younger generation, an introductory section on his background embellished with photographs would have provided a readily accessible context, a better feel of who Geoffrey Manning Bawa really was. Much more so than the final section of a rather random and out-of-place collection of photographs of places abroad that he had visited.
Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies. She is also Editor of Women and Photography, an online newsletter of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.