Questions on Bawa – Part II

“Tradition involves perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. The past should be altered by the present as the present is directed by the past.” – T. S. Eliot

 Evaluate the above statement and explain how Geoffrey Bawa’s work reflects this point of view by making appropriate references to his work.

Tradition, in the architectural sense, is the transmission of architectural elements, styles, and materials through generations; the accepted manner of doing things. Geoffrey Bawa is considered the pioneer of the modern Sri Lankan architectural tradition. Before he began designing in earnest in the late 1950s, two types of architecture prevailed here, in addition to the local vernacular: Orientalism and Neo-Classicism. There were Sri Lankan Manor houses (walawwas), the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial buildings. Bawa was the first to break away completely from the unquestioning application of these styles.

Bawa had an extensive knowledge of both ancient and modern architecture. T.S. Eliot’s quotation can be applied to Bawa’s work, as he understood tradition, but did not follow it blindly. Instead, he took particular elements from it, developed them, and used them to great effect in his own projects.

For example, Bawa used courtyards in many of his projects. The courtyard is an architectural element found in Dutch townhouses, as well as in the Muslim tradition and in walawwas (meda midula). Bawa designed townhouses around courtyards to let the garden into the house and make optimum use of space, so that the high, enclosing boundary walls would not dominate introverted buildings. The Ena de Silva house is the first example of a courtyard house designed in the modern Sri Lankan style; rooms arranged around one large central courtyard, which acted as the lung of the house. Another example, the four twin houses for P.C de Saram, are adapted from a miniscule version of the Ena de Silva house. These courtyards had parallel, pre-cast concrete beams on top to break up the light, diffuse heavy rain and prevent burglar entry (they were called burglar pergola), a unique Bawa development to the traditional courtyard. (Robson, Bawa, 2002).


Courtyard 1
L – Ena de Silva house. R – P.C de Saram twin houses.

Another element Bawa borrowed from tradition was the pitched roof. The best examples for this are the Seema Malaka temple on the Beira Lake, and the new Parliament at Kotte. The traditional Kandyan pitched roof was made of clay tiles, with a shallow pitch at the eaves and a steep pitch at the ridge. Other vari pitched roofs are found throughout Sri Lanka, and in the Asian monsoon region, where protection from the heavy rain is a necessity.

Bawa used a vari pitched roof for the Seema Malaka, and an abstraction of the Kandyan roof for the Parliament. Regarding this, Bawa has said, “A roof is a covering and its shape suggests itself at some point, some stage of the design, which is what happened to the parliamentary complex.” The Parliament roof has copper instead of tiles, creating the thinness and tent-like quality of a stretched skin, dismissing direct historical clichés, while referencing the “brazen” roofs of Anuradhapura. In contrast, everything else has the elegant simplicity of an abstract Modernist design (Robson, 2002). Appreciating the “pastness” of the past, he has not clung to it, but has let it direct the simpler forms of the present.


Pitched Roofs
Seemamalakaya Temple, Beira Lake.

Additionally, the form of the Seema Malaka recalls the forest monasteries of Anuradhapura with enclosure and raised plinths supporting wooden pavilions with tiled roofs, while its preaching hall harks back to the early ambalama, such the one found in Panavitiya near Kurunegala. Another example is the Pallakelle Industrial Estate, where the units resemble traditional Buddhist preaching halls, like the one at Dowa temple (Robson, 2002).

He did not confine himself to adapting and developing architectural elements and materials from the Sri Lanka alone. Bawa was an enthusiastic traveller and went abroad frequently, and foreign influences can be found in his work. Lunuganga, his country house and garden, the project closest to his heart, and one he did not cease to work on till his death, shows some influences from Italian formal gardens in the use of pavilions, terraces, courts and sculpture galleries. Even so, his adaptation of these features is unique and timeless; Robson says, “The garden may well have been inspired by the gardens of the Villa Orsini or Stourhead, but it is still fresh and vital, while they are now the conjectural remains of something formally great. It is today what they once were: a place for private enjoyment, for contemplation, for gatherings of friends.”

Terra cotta half-round ridge tiles, unglazed terra cotta floor tiles, wooden columns, decorated door frames and window shutters were some of the materials Bawa brought back into use after many years of neglect. He combined them in fresh ways with simple concrete structures, granite floors, pergolas and corrugated cement overlaid with clay tiles on roofs, in addition to deep, overhanging eaves and cross-rafters. Through such design, he created cool, well-ventilated spaces that were also protected from hearty sunshine and heavy rainfall, doing away with the need for glass and large, thick walls and enclosed spaces.


Water Pools
Lunuganga. Photography: Damith Wickramasinghe.


Bawa frequently used water features and reflective pools in his projects. These may have been indirectly influenced by the water gardens and features at Sigiriya, or Anuradhapura – the kuttam pokuna – or by water features in Italy, France and Spain. These are particularly effective in his larger projects – Paradise Road Gallery, combined with his other trademark features: a courtyard, wooden columns and terra cotta roof tiles, and the reflective pools at Kandalama hotel, Blue Water hotel in Wadduwa, and Triton hotel.

Robson describes Bawa as a Modernist. His core ideas rose out of the functional requirements of the project and the client, and the concept was developed in harmony with the site, making full use of the natural terrain. Bawa himself said about his own architecture, “A building must, at the very least, satisfy the needs that give it birth… It must be in accord with the ambience of its place… There must be a knowledgeable and true use of materials.”

At present, Modernism is overshadowed by starchitecture, the homogenous architecture style, when buildings all over the world look and feel the same, despite the uniqueness of architectural traditions found in each part of the world. As a result, this new architecture is often devoid of feeling and sense of place – the two key ingredients that make Bawa’s work timeless. He has altered the way we look at the past, while the present is directed by the past.



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


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