I have always loved modernist architecture – Corbusier, Lloyd-Wright and Van der Rohe are all time favourites. And I particularly love modernist architecture set in a natural landscape, so I was excited to learn about Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) on my recent trip to Sri Lanka.
Bawa is Sri Lanka’s most prolific architect. Originally trained in law, he studied architecture in London in the 1950s and has built the key leading modernist buildings in his homeland of Sri Lanka. I had not known of Bawa before our trip to the island so it was a real treat to not only discover his work, but also to spend time in some of his buildings.
Lunuganga in the tropical south of Sri Lanka was Bawa’s country estate. It’s now run by his trust and open for timed tours. We were running slightly late for our allotted slot as we left our hotel 20 minutes away. The tuktuk driver accepted the challenge as we zipped along at breakneck speed through tiny inland villages, passing cows and dogs on the side of the road.
Lunuganga has no external pomp or presence – the tuktuk deposited us by some large iron gates, which quietly announced the presence of a great architect with their concrete pillars offering a nod to modernism.
After our adrenalin fuelled arrival, we quickly slowed down to a different pace as our tour guide set off on a meandering journey around the leafy grounds, pointing out buildings and views and answering the 101 questions we had. The estate is large and varied – it was hard to initially work out where we were in relation to the lake and houses, but it turns out that this was the best way to experience the place as at nearly every turn we were rewarded with a surprise.
As we wandered, we encountered numerous seating areas, each one with its own scenographically conceived view, often unexpected, across a water garden or a distant sculpture. It’s clear that Bawa loved this place and enjoyed life there. Each seating area has its own bell with a unique sound, so Bawa’s staff would know where to bring his afternoon tea.
Originally purchased as a 1930s bungalow on a former rubber plantation by a lake, Bawa spent 25 years remodelling and experimenting with the landscape, even building a concealed access road and removing three metres from the hill so his view down to the lake would not be interrupted. The whole place is so sensitively designed and personal, giving a real sense of how Bawa lived his life there.
The landscaping is varied and wonderfully indulgent – the gardens include a water garden, a romantic classic garden, a cinnamon hill, pavillions and paddyfields. I read one review that described it as a civilised wilderness which I loved. There is certainly a formality there, but also dense foliage that reminds you that you are in a tropical location. The estate is also home to Bawa’s extensive collection of Ming Jars and sculptures which are dotted around the grounds, although with a formality that indicates a strategy.
“This is not a garden of colorful flowers, neat borders and gurgling fountains: it is a civilized wilderness, an assemblage of tropical plants of different scale and texture, a composition of green on green, an ever changing play of light and shade, a succession of hidden surprises and sudden vistas, a landscape of memories and ideas.” The Archi Blog
The buildings themselves are low level cubes with tiled roofs, whilst the lake is announced with a venetian style terrace.
Wildlife is prevalent – we saw huge monitor lizards lazily grazing in the paddyfields and monkeys playing in the indigenous trees, whilst the whole experience is accompanied with a cacophony of frogs and birdsong. Unfortunately the insects made their presence felt too – we left with ant and mosquito bites on our feet and legs where we had stupidly worn sandals (tip: wear proper shoes and repellent!).
There are a number of buildings in the estate including, Bawa’s office, guest houses, a glass house and various pavilions. It’s clear that Lununganga was a highly personal project for Bawa – he not only fulfilled many of his visions and dreams in this beautiful spot by the lake, but also spent time there maximising his enjoyment of the climate, culture and landscape
Its possible to stay on the estate – six suites which are preserved to how they were during Bawa’s time there. Or if you give the estate a day’s notice they can prepare a traditional Sri Lankan lunch on one of the terraces.
“When you look at the better examples of what remains to us of these earlier buildings, you will find that they all look at life in Ceylon squarely in the face. They look at the rain, at the termites, at the social needs, at the view to be had from verandahs and windows, at the needs of life at the time…” Geoffrey Bawa, The Times of Ceylon Annual, 1968
What I enjoyed most about Lunuganga was its grittiness and experimental spirit. Sri Lanka is a beautiful island but it is also hot, dirty and humid. Bawa celebrates this in the way he embraces view points and materials, experientially merging building and garden. ‘Tropical Modernism’ is the term used on his website and this sums it up perfectly.