Explore the Work of Geoffrey Bawa - Sri Lanka's Greatest Architect

Explore the Work of Geoffrey Bawa - Sri Lanka's Greatest Architect

The contribution of Geoffrey Bawa to Sri Lanka's visual landscape is immense.

The island's best known and most prolific architect, his work spans six decades and developed a stylistic movement of its very own, now known as tropical modernism.

Most of his buildings are still in use and can easily be admired from the street whilst specialist guides, books and tailor-made tours will give you deeper insight into Bawa's innovations, and how they ended up being imitated until they became convention, defining much of the island's modern architecture.


Bawa's designs were influenced by local colloquial building styles, emphasising the airy space and natural light within them over the pomp and structural ornamentation favoured for formal and ceremonial buildings. 

Not all of them, however, can be called attractive. His 1976 construction for Sri Lanka's State Mortgage Bank (near Hyde Park, in Colombo, and now used by the Ministry of Mahaweli Development) is fascinating, but all hard edges and angles, straddling a fine line between elegant and industrial - it's hardly the most relaxing vision. 


Look deeper, however, and you discover that this sharp structure was designed to be bioclimatically responsive, carefully planned to reduce solar heat, make best use of the breezes, and channel air into and through the interior. Not insignificantly, the building also had to squeeze into a very tight spot assigned by the city planners. Although it looks very modern, all these climate-control innovations were based on regional structural techniques that had evolved over centuries.

This use of traditional methods to make the most comfortable interior possible in your regional climate is typical of Bawa, who - along with his colleagues and, later, students - drew on indigenous aesthetic as well as practical methods that had evolved over years of living with nature, rather than in spite of it.

Insistent inclusion of the outdoors has become a defining characteristic of Bawa's imitators, too, and is sometimes criticised as a middle class conceit, a self-conscious reference to a past abandoned by parents keen to "better" themselves. 

That may be true where Bawa's aesthetic has been passed on without any of his purpose - that bio-dynamism that made the originals a pleasure to live and work in before their appearance became the subject of trendy desire. But after more than a century of a Sri Lanka dominated by Colonial architecture and British ideals, Bawa's return to indigenous form was close to revolutionary, despite his privileged background and the expensive education that allowed him to excel as an architect. 


As the nation reclaimed independence throughout the 1950s, its Sri Lankan population boomed - building plots were at a premium, and the British bungalows weren't so easily ventilated once they weren't surrounded by enormous gardens. 

Bawa took the standard British layout and inverted it, deconstructing the building and placing the garden on the inside - courtyards, partially enclosed spaces, roof terraces - with his earliest residential designs still visible in the A.S.H de Silva House in Galle, and Carmen Gunasekera House, in Colombo.

His later commercial buildings, like the stark State Mortgage Bank, evolved from this striving for self-contained openness.

Whatever your reasons for visiting Sri Lanka, the buildings of Geoffrey Bawa are more than just a tourist attraction - they've become a defining strand of Sri Lanka's identity.


Travel tip shared by markhodson


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