Questions on Bawa – Part I

The first part of two questions on Bawa we did for the Travel and Architecture module at uni.

Bawa created his own distinctive use of space by “opening the house out into the garden, and bringing the garden into the house.” Discuss ways in which he achieved this in his work. You may also choose to comment on non-residential projects.

Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) is the most renowned Sri Lankan architect, and is considered to have revolutionised Sri Lankan architecture after World War II. Throughout his career, he has taken discarded or oft-forgotten architectural elements both from the Sri Lankan vernacular, and from Western architecture – for example, half-round ridge tiles from the former, and extended loggias from the latter – developed and used them in modern Sri Lankan architecture. Bawa erased the distinctions between inside space and outside space by the use of structure and plan, the circulation of light and air, and the use of materials.

The house for Ena de Silva, a townhouse built in 1960 on thirty perches in Kollupitiya, is a good example of the above. Thirty perches was limited space at the time, and both Ena and Bawa wanted a private compound, so they built the entire house behind one enclosing wall. David Robson, in Bawa, says, “… the plan is introspective, forming a pattern of linked pavilions and courtyards dispersed around a large central courtyard contained within a limited perimeter wall.” Though the site is rectangular, the house is built on a skewered axis, with each room opening out into a courtyard or a little private garden.

Light and air defines space here, flowing from inside to outside, the vistas across the rooms lying on the skewered axis giving rise to the illusion of infinite space on the small plot of land. Ena did not want glass in the windows, so the rooms are open on two sides, with deep overhanging eaves. Bawa incorporated projecting bay windows and raised ventilation ridges made by crossover rafters.

Bawa’s use of natural materials further softens the boundaries between house and garden: cobbles and gravel on the courtyard floor, timber lattices, and polished satinwood columns on granite bases. The courtyard is shaded by large trees.

Ena de Silva house
Ena de Silva house

The same principles of plan, circulation and materials are used in a completely different way in the Kandalama Hotel, built in 1991. The site is in the Dry zone, the hotel built on a rocky ridge in the middle of the jungle. Bawa has used the natural landscape to maximum advantage. Entrance is through a winding tunnel where one wall is made of natural rock. This suddenly opens out to reveal the hotel’s pool, terraces, and Sigiriya in the distance beyond the tank. Robson states, “The snaking form makes it possible for the two residential wings to echo the shape of the ridge, so the journey to the rooms runs alongside the cliff-face, the structure burrowing into the ridge in some places, in other standing proud and allowing the rocky landscape to run beneath.”

Corridors, passages and stairways are open to the elements on two sides, with screens of vegetation grown outside. In places where the rooms cannot be completely opened, glass is used to diffuse the boundaries between indoors and outdoors by opening up the vistas of the encroaching jungle, and tank in the distance.

The structure is minimal, and made of concrete. Bawa makes effective use of contrast here: the materials in the public spaces cool and hard; mostly concrete and granite, relying on the expanses of natural rock to convey a sense of being in the wilderness. (Robson, 2002), while the rooms are surrounded by lush vegetation and greenery. The emphasis is not on the building itself; but on experiencing the environment as we move across the building.

Kandalama hotel
Kandalama hotel

Both projects, built thirty years apart, are very different. They show Bawa’s own distinctive use of space. The first is introverted; he has made a small space appear larger by using the above mentioned devices to open the house out into the garden. The second is extroverted; he has minimised the boundaries of the building, and merged it with the landscape.


Robson, David G, and Geoffrey Bawa. Geoffrey Bawa. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: