Geoffrey Bawa ( Courtesy: Dominic Sansoni; All images courtesy Geoffrey Bawa Trust and Lunuganga Trust)
WHY would a barrister qualified at the Inns of Court in England, with a long-standing familial legacy in law, decide to pursue a practice in architecture in his late 30s? “That is the golden question,” says Shayari de Silva, chief curator at the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, when asked about Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s unusual career trajectory. Perhaps the answer lies in his life mantra: “It is essential to be at the site, to be there…in order to design the space.” Since we cannot be ‘there’ by his side, we are left to imagine what the driving force of one of the most influential Asian architects might have been.
Fortunately, an ongoing exhibition, which takes its name from Bawa’s famed quote, helps us in our search for the answer. Geoffrey Bawa: It Is Essential to Be There, an international exhibition organised by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, is currently on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, before it travels elsewhere. It is the first exhibition to highlight the archives preserved by the non-profit public trust initiated by Bawa in 1982 to promote ‘architecture, the fine arts and ecological and environmental studies’.
Bawa’s work has previously been exhibited in his home country Sri Lanka and across the globe from the United Kingdom to North America. However, this is the first international retrospective of his work since 2004. The exhibition’s intention is to use the archives “to look at Bawa’s practice” and to explore the relationships between ideas and drawings as well as buildings and places.
The exhibit has been curated by an in-house team under the guidance of de Silva, who practiced as an architect and worked in the curatorial space before joining the Geoffrey Bawa Trust team in time for the Bawa 100 project.
The exhibition includes photographs and over 200 documents (which cover even blueprints that never saw the light of the day) and a series of photographs, which Bawa took on his travels, displaying his artistic ability to frame the subject and use it as inspiration for his projects. Photographs and videos by Sebastian Posingis, Dominic Sansoni and Clara Kraft Isono, as well as rare video footage of the architect himself, are also displayed.
This cross-cultural initiative celebrates the 75th anniversary of Indo- Sri Lanka diplomatic relations and the rich cultural exchange between the two neighbouring countries. It was through the efforts of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India and the NGMA in collaboration with the High Commission of Sri Lanka in New Delhi that the exhibition arrived here, after a successful opening last year in Colombo.
Originally envisioned as the last leg of Bawa 100, a project to mark the centenary of Bawa’s birth in 1919, this exhibition was part of a programme of events scheduled to take place from July 2019 to July 2020. The other shows were on decorative arts and landscapes with the objective of highlighting the archive as an incredible repository. Unfortunately, Covid-19, followed by Sri Lanka’s financial and political turmoil, delayed the project. “With the economic crisis, our funding fell through,” recalls de Silva. “But we stuck with Geoffrey Bawa’s philosophy of ‘you just have to find a way’. So, when we finally received the green light in February 2023 for this project to travel to India, we had to scramble to put it all together.” Despite logistical issues, de Silva highlights that the trust couldn’t have asked for a better international opening owing to Bawa’s high regard and close relationship with India.
As one of the most influential Asian architects of the 20th century, Bawa’s work is rooted in vernacular systems, while adhering to an international language of design. His foray into architecture began when his attempt to buy a villa in Italy in the late 1940s fell through. As a result, he decided to return to Sri Lanka in January 1948, a country that was on the brink of independence from British rule. Once there, he purchased an abandoned rubber and cinnamon estate on the south coast, and transformed it into a utopic Italian garden surrounded by wilderness, and called it Lunuganga or ‘salt-river’ after the water body in its vicinity. Thereafter, bitten by the creative bug, he gave up his legal practice to pursue architecture instead.
At first apprenticed to HH Reid, the sole surviving partner of the Colombo-based architectural practice of Edwards, Reid and Begg in 1951, Bawa later studied at the Architectural Association in London. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1957 to establish his own practice, which became firmly rooted in the local context. At the same time, his broadminded views and global exposure made him incorporate aspects of culture, history and environment to help him define a place beyond its geographical location. This fact is most apparent in the photographs of his passion project Lunuganga, which opens the exhibition.
“Lunuganga is an ode to a life left behind. You sense that when you are there,” explains de Silva. “It was his first project, but it shows the breadth of his practice. It represents his ethos and approach, which is a multi-layered and complex understanding of place and history. He had a very generous and broad view of the world.”
Preserving the legacy of Lunuganga in particular, is the focus of the Lunuganga Trust, which was set up by Bawa in 1993 to manage his estate after he was gone. The trust has converted the estate into a hotel for people to experience Bawa’s legacy. There is also a museum, frequent exhibitions and talks and a number of publications, the most recent of which was launched in Delhi at the Raw Mango store. Titled Drawing from the Geoffrey Bawa Archives and published by Lars Müller, this anthology of essays looks at the Bawa archives through various viewpoints.
The very essence of Bawa’s practice was the importance given to the site. To show this, a gallery at the exhibition called ‘Situating a Practice’ is dedicated to four distinctive projects whose function and form relied heavily on the terrain they were built on. The city home of artist Ena de Silva, who later became one of Bawa’s steadfast collaborators, is one of these. It was made in 1962 in the heart of Colombo on a busy thoroughfare. Bawa created a sanctuary in this densely populated area by building an ample inner courtyard, which served as an oasis of calm. Similarly, the Polontawala Estate Bungalow made in 1963 was built around boulders and other existing features of the site, in stark contrast to the existing idea of colonial estates where the terrain was cleared, and interior and exterior spaces were demarcated before construction began. The Jayawardena house on the red cliffs of the southern coast was built to rest on columns, allowing its residents to “engage with the cliff-top site.” It inspired Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje to write a poem in its honour, which is also on display at the exhibition. The Yahapath Endera Farm School incorporated its hilly surroundings to allow its female students of agricultural skills and crafts to feel connected to the environment.
“Lunuganga is an ode to a life left behind. You sense that when you are there. It was Bawa’s first project, but it shows the breadth of his practice. It represents his ethos and approach, which is a multi-layered and complex understanding of place and history,” says Shayari de Silva, chief curator, Geoffrey Bawa Trust
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Bawa’s architectural practice underwent significant changes when Sri Lanka closed its economy in the 1960s. The materials that had hitherto defined modernist architecture such as reinforced steel and glass were in short supply. Further, Bawa realised that the use of these materials wasn’t necessarily pragmatic from a local perspective. These changes are reflected in the next gallery titled ‘Searching for a Way of Building’.
The St Thomas’ Preparatory School (1958-1962) made with steel proved a failure, as it began to corrode with exposure to the ocean. Bawa learnt from this mistake, and explored design alternatives to suit the local climate for his next few projects. St Bridgets’ Montessori (1963-1964) had a monitor roof for the rainwater to slide off, the Simon Block at Ladies’ College had overhanging balconies to offer shade to the floors below and ventilation through the classrooms, the Steel Corporation Building had buttressed supports, and perhaps most notably, the State Mortgage Bank Building had an in-built natural ventilation system.
By the 1970s, Bawa began looking to the future, and this phase of his practice is captured in the gallery titled ‘Defining New Directions’. For the Ceylon Pavilion at Expo ’70 held in Osaka, Japan, he depicted the island in a way that would embrace “the future while celebrating its past.” Hence, a steel and glass pavilion was built to house archaeological artefacts and batik prints. When the south of the island began to be developed, he was commissioned to work on the Ruhuna University campus. At the time, educational campuses seldom had common rooms to discourage the communion of students, but Bawa looked on education as beyond mere book learning. “He made these beautiful open and connected spaces. It was perhaps a subversive way of saying that education happens through interaction with each other. Even now, this university is one of the most politically engaged spaces,” says de Silva.
The Kandalama Hotel (1991-1994), another seminal work of Bawa’s, was made in the midst of forested land in the heart of Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms. Considered both environmentally and culturally sensitive, it courted controversy from its inception, setting in motion the ecological movement in Sri Lanka. Yet Bawa had always intended for the building to be part of the forest. He once said, “The project would be complete when it had turned to ruin, with leopards roaming its corridors once more,” a feat that was nearly achieved in 2020 when elephants wandered the premises during the lockdowns of Covid-19.
‘Places Unbuilt’ is the final gallery of the exhibit, showcasing evidence of works that could have been, had events played out differently. This collection of drawings and photographs offers a glimpse into the ideas and tools that he used in his vast and varied practice. Bawa and his team were known for making drawings of their projects only after they were completed. Hence, the drawings displayed in this gallery are particularly significant. One can see plans for a proposed Hilton Hotel in Colombo, believed to have later inspired the design of the Hilton Hotel in Singapore; a possible house for the Sarabhai family in Ahmedabad; and a couple of hotels that were set to open in Goa.
In de Silva’s words, Bawa had “the sense that we are part of the earth, and so we must not try to subvert it.” She gives the example of Bawa’s love of pristine white spaces, which couldn’t be translated in Sri Lanka’s typography, as the moss would overrun everything. He knew it was a losing battle to tackle the issue and so he learnt to embrace it instead.
When asked what the architects of today can learn from Bawa, de Silva says, “He had this broad sensibility that allowed him to include the perspective of people, nature, culture, and an empathetic way of being. His buildings were designed with many things in mind— who will use it? How will it affect its surroundings? What will its future be? A granular understanding of nature, history and culture influenced his work. I would describe it as an ethos that everyone can and should emulate in their practice.”
(Geoffrey Bawa: It Is Essential to Be There is on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi till May 7)