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The architect who let the light into Sri Lanka

Geoffrey Bawa's 'tropical modernism' sweeps the island's hotel sector

Galle Heritage Villa: Happy tranquility in Galle Fort (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

COLOMBO -- Geoffrey Bawa singlehandedly made Sri Lanka a country for buildings that live and breathe.

The father of "tropical modernism" -- a school of architecture that can only be fully understood by seeing the maestro's buildings -- died in 2003, aged 83. By then, he had bequeathed to Sri Lanka a design legacy that has been widely recognized as the island state's hottest architectural genre.

The beauty and tropical romance of the Bawa style has become the standard for many architects and designers in Sri Lanka -- most notably in the construction of the boutique hotels that are popping up around the island to cater for its burgeoning tourist trade.

Bawa's architectural vocabulary and palette of materials have become so accepted, according to the British architect and critic David Robson, an authority on his work, that Sri Lankans have forgotten just how radical they were when he started work in the country in 1957, at the age of 38.

But stepping into Bawa's shoes is a tall order, not just because he was 2.13 meters (7 feet) tall. Seen in context, complete with decor, the tropical simplicity and sensuousness of his designs have a way of surprising and astonishing visitors.

Bringing the monsoon into the hotel at the Jetwing Lighthouse (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

Take the Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle, for example. The "tropicality" of the structure, owned by Jetwing Hotels, a Sri Lankan hotel chain, conjures images of ships, vistas, and, for some people, a sense of being marooned on a tropical island.

Bawa is said to have told the hotel's owners that guests should feel as though they were experiencing the monsoon rains. To achieve this effect, the hotel's spacious viewing pavilion yawns out to sea, just a meter or so above the waves breaking on the rocks below.

A sculpted bust of Geoffrey Bawa, at the Gallery Cafe he designed (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

Catherine Lebouille, a Bawa buff who is executive director of the Sri Lankan travel agency Mai Globe, notes the care he took to stay in harmony with the surroundings of his creations. It established his image in local eyes as the "God of architecture," she added.

Bawa would never hurry a project for the convenience of clients but rather, wanted people to see "God's hand," as another critic puts it.

In typical Bawa style, everything about the Jetwing Lighthouse is carefully designed, down to the heavy, polished wooden doors that glide on massive brass rollers. "Bawa's overall effect is one of focused calm and sanctity achieved through careful manipulation of space, juxtaposition of simple materials and the careful control of light and shade," Robson wrote.

Discussing another Bawa creation, a chapel in Bandarawela, Robson noted: "He built [it] almost entirely from materials found nearby or manufactured in the vicinity, and [it] seems to grow out of the ground, a building that has been 'unearthed' rather than designed."

Letting the light in: A porthole built into the Galle Fort ramparts. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

Not everyone who has sought to emulate Bawa has succeeded. One project that has worked well is Thambili House, a boutique hotel in Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which has been restored by Rohan Aluwihara, a Sri Lankan architect known for his Bawa-style buildings.

Thambili House exudes a luminous beauty. . At first, this appears to stem from some kind of architectural sleight of hand. But the effect is achieved by allowing natural light to cascade into the house through a courtyard space -- a classic Bawa technique. The walls are unevenly cut, and the play of natural light on the rugged surfaces provides a minimalist feeling.

Similarly, at the Gallery Cafe in Colombo -- a Bawa-designed house converted into a restaurant -- diffused lighting owes much to the design of a courtyard entrance to the main seating area that is so lengthy and asymmetrical that most diners would not recognize it as a courtyard at all.

The front entrance of Thambili House, Galle Fort (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

The Bawa style seems especially happily situated in the cobblestoned pathways of Fort Galle, fortified by Dutch colonizers in the 17th century, where the rock walls of the fortress gaze at the often rambunctious southern coast in a romantic setting made to order for Bawa-style hotels.

Here, Jetwing has transformed a 1950s mansion into a colonial Dutch villa in a style that captures the Bawa essence.

But the most controversial of Bawa's hotels belongs to Aitken Spence, a Sri Lankan conglomerate with a substantial hotels division.

The Heritance Kandalama, constructed in the early 1990s, is built into a rocky outcrop in Dambulla, covered by verdant tropical forests that make it almost invisible except at very close quarters, reflecting the impact of public protests about its proximity to ancient temple sites.

The glowing visual artistry of the courtyard at the Gallery Cafe in Colombo at night. (Photo by Rajpal Abeynayake)

As Archtech magazine noted in a review, Bawa was able to subdue the outcry with a subtle design that highlights the drama of the cliff-side location and its breathtaking views. The monks and others who had protested were surprised that a five-star hotel could blend so seamlessly with its surroundings that it effectively became invisible.

Many Sri Lankan architects have sought to keep Bawa's vision of tropical modernism alive, either through new buildings or by converting Bawa's houses into boutique hotels -- The Last House in Tangalle, on the southeastern coast, and Claughton House, in Dikwella, are two good examples.

One of the best-known among Bawa's many followers is Anjalendran, his one-time assistant, who was described in the New York Times as the architect who has been most successful in carrying the Bawa philosophy forward while also "being his own person." Robson, quoted in the same IER publication, said that Anjalendran, who goes by a single name, "breaks the barriers between inside and outside" with his designs.

Miles Young, a former chief executive of advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, owns two houses designed by Anjalendran and says the architect's houses provide "a happy tranquility." In many ways, that seems to sum up the Sri Lankan boutique hotels built in Bawa's tropical modernist tradition.

Guests pay high prices to get away from it all, receiving in return a tranquility that owes much to the design insights of Sri Lanka's most famous architect.

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