Memories of a monsoon architect
Heritance Kandalama's clifftop location. Photo: Getty Images
Helen Anderson admires the legacy of Geoffrey Bawa, whose 'tropical modernist' homes and chic hotels are island landmarks.
'I have a very strong conviction that it is impossible to explain architecture in words," legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa believed. "Architecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced."
There are few places in the world where his advice can be followed more literally or joyously than in Sri Lanka. Though Bawa, a relentless traveller, didn't start his architectural practice until the age of 38, he worked prolifically for 40 years, until he was paralysed by a stroke in 1998 and died five years later. The island is littered with his works, and many are boutique hotels and public buildings: accessible, easy to explore and, as the architect urged, to be experienced.
Villa Bentota. Photo: Alamy
Bawa's influence and reputation as the "father" of Asian architecture is enough to draw travellers with a keen interest in design to see his key works at home. Though his buildings are full of ideas and character, they can be enjoyed just for their beauty and glorious settings. The landscapes that shaped Bawa are seductive on any itinerary: jungles, kilometres of beaches, the ruins of ancient cities in the Cultural Triangle, Buddhist temples and framed views from wide Bawa verandahs sheltered from tropical heat and monsoonal downpours.
Anyone who has stayed at Asian resorts will be familiar with the courtyards, pavilions, water features and fusion of indoor and outdoor space inherent in a style dubbed "tropical modernism", though they may not know most of these now-ubiquitous features originated in Bawa's work. Sri Lanka remains the best place to glimpse the purity of his style, which links modernist expression and the island's ancient architectural traditions, largely forgotten before he drew inspiration from the island's ruined royal cities.
Bawa was born in Colombo in 1919 to wealthy parents of mixed heritage. He studied law and literature in England, travelled widely and thought he would settle in a villa in Italy, but returned to Ceylon in 1948 and trained as an architect. A powerhouse of ideas but with few practical skills, he surrounded himself with talented associates and assistants, and feverishly developed his ideas about form, function and the relationship between built and natural environments.
He designed about 70 private houses, of which about 50 were built, and 35 hotels, of which 20 were built, along with schools, religious buildings, industrial complexes and public buildings, including Sri Lanka's Parliament House.
Perhaps the most striking of Bawa's hotels is the Heritance Kandalama, remarkable for its stark and bold design, its eco-principles achieved long before sustainability was demanded, and for its remarkable location hanging from a cliff above a 3rd-century tank (water reservoir) in the central Cultural Triangle, close to two tourist landmarks: the sacred Buddhist caves at Dambulla and the rock fortress of Sigiriya.
In 1991, Aitken Spence Hotels chose Bawa, then 72, to design a five-star property in the dry zone. The architect imagined Kandalama as an "austere jungle palace" and the entrance is characteristically dramatic: there's no sign of it as guests climb a ridge, almost no sign until reaching a cave-mouth entrance at the top. From the lobby and swimming pool, which seem to hang mid-cliff, there are two guest wings of 152 rooms below, spanning a kilometre from end to end. From a distance, it's hard to pick the hotel's terraces draped in greenery and connected by wide corridors backed by cliff-face rock and open to the elements; a wrought-iron chair in one of the bars is occupied by a nesting bulbul when I settle in, and monkeys climb the pillars.
The interiors are simple and masculine - Bawa is known for eschewing ornament and decoration, and for his minimalist palette of black and white - and the effect at Kandalama is to draw the view outside in, from bedrooms, bathrooms, restaurants and bars. Perhaps the best view is from an open terrace where I find a simple wooden desk with turned legs and a chair used by the architect while designing the hotel.
On the coast halfway between Colombo and Galle is Paradise Road The Villa Bentota, converted in the 1970s by Bawa from a neglected walawwa (family mansion) into Sri Lanka's first boutique hotel. In 2007, the place was bought, extended and remodelled by Sri Lanka's style guru Shanth Fernando, best known for his Paradise Road hotels and shops, and reopened in 2009. It remains recognisably Bawa but strikingly contemporary, with covetable interiors more opulent than Bawa would have imagined.
The architect's former office in Colombo is another Paradise Road outpost. The Gallery Cafe is as fine a place as any to appreciate Bawa's seamless sequencing of outdoor and indoor space between pavilions and two courtyards. It's best viewed with a chilli tamarind martini in hand or over a meal of black pork curry and jaggery creme brulee.
The highlight of any Bawa tour, and one of the loveliest spots on the island, is Lunuganga, the architect's 10-hectare retreat near Bentota. In 1948, he bought a rubber plantation and an undistinguished bungalow on a lake promontory, and for the next 50 years he built, nurtured and drew inspiration from the estate. He moved hills, planted and transplanted woods, cut terraces, remodelled the bungalow and experimented with ways of crafting landscapes.
Travellers approach Lunuganga on an unmarked dirt road that winds through paddies and jungle, only three kilometres from the hotels of Bentota but easily missed. The main bungalow and assorted cottages bear Bawa's trademark black-and-white interiors and are filled with Bawa's art and blueprints. But the heart of the estate is outdoors in a series of landscaped "rooms" linked by clever sight lines to the lake or a statue, over a ha-ha (a road concealed from view) to lawn terraces and from groves of cinnamon and rubber trees to pavilions and ponds. The architect's favourite spots have seats and a bell, each with a different ring, to indicate where he wished papers or drinks to be delivered.
The antithesis of a celebrity artist, Bawa kept his thoughts much to himself, expecting his work to speak for itself. And it's here, in his jungle-meets-Italian Renaissance estate, that the man's ideas and energy speak most clearly to me. I stroll for several hours between gardens, each leading to another framed view, another intellectual exercise. A few years after his stroke, the architect had recovered sufficiently to return to Lunuganga. Each morning he was wheeled to one of the terraces, from where he would plan the day's pruning or planting with staff, communicating as best he could with his good left hand and, years later, with those of us who gaze upon his life's work.
Heritance Kandalama, positioned on a cliff face near Sigiriya in the central Cultural triangle, is Bawa's most acclaimed hotel. He also designed two other hotels for Aitken Spence: Heritance Ahungalla and Heritance Ayurveda Maha Gedara, both on the south-west coast. See heritancehotels.com.
In 1979, Bawa was commissioned to design the Sri Lanka Parliament complex on the outskirts of Colombo, an impressive series of copper-roof pavilions rising from a lake.
Paradise Road Gallery Cafe in Bawa's former Colombo office has changing exhibitions and a tropical chic bar and restaurant. See paradiseroad.lk.
The Last House, wedged between a lagoon and idyllic Tangalle Beach on the south coast, was Bawa's swansong. The stylish beach house-hotel can be booked per room or for up to 14 people. See the-last-house-tangalle-sri-lanka.lakpura.com.
Lunuganga, pictured, a short drive from the beach of Bentota, is run as a country hotel with six guest rooms and cottages. The gardens are open 9am-5pm daily, and guided garden tours can be booked in advance. See lunuganga.com. Nearby is another Bawa-designed hotel, Paradise Road The Villa Bentota. See paradiseroad.lk.
Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Colombo from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1120 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Colombo (3hr 40min). See singaporeair.com. Australians must apply for online travel authorisation before arrival. See eta.gov.lk.
Touring there Stays at the Bawa-designed hotels Heritance Kandalama and Heritance Ahungalla are included in a range of Sri Lanka itineraries arranged by Perth-based Wildlife Safari. A 12-day Sri Lanka in Style tour includes visits to Bentota, Sigiriya, Kandy, Thirappane and Ceylon Tea Trails, from $3795 a person, twin share. This includes a chauffeur guide and private vehicle, luxury accommodation, all entrance fees, breakfast daily and all meals while at Tea Trails. An eight-day Cultural Sojourn includes time in Colombo, Kandy and the Cultural triangle, from $1495 a person. Phone 1800 998 558; see www.wildlifesafari.com.au.
Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Wildlife Safari.