Geoffrey Bawa

BAWA ­ GEOFFREY   ­ of “Lunuganga”, Dedduwa, died on the morning of 27th May 2003. Cremation will take place at “Lunuganga” Dedduwa on 28th May, Wednesday at 5.30 p.m.   “Lunuganga”, Dedduwa, Bentota. No flowers please. 

Lanka's master builder is dead

Architect Geoffrey Bawa, one of the master builders of modern Sri Lanka and a man whose monumental brilliance will be remembered for ages in the new House of Parliament, died yesterday at the age of 84.

His biographer Brian Brace Taylor described Geoffrey Bawa as one of the supreme examples of an architect for our times: fully conversant with contemporary technology and international developments, but with a deep understanding - and feeling for -vernacular traditions.

"Highly personal in his approach, evoking the pleasures of the senses that go hand in hand with climate, landscape and culture, Bawa brings together an appreciation of the Western humanist tradition in architecture with local needs and lifestyles," the author said.

Besides the majestic Parliament building on the banks of the Diyawanna Oya, Geoffrey Bawa designed the award winning Kandalama hotel the Bentota Beach and Blue Waters hotel and Lighthouse down South among scores of other well know works of art in Architecture.

Geoffrey Bawa was widely known and admired as Sri Lanka's most prolific and influential architect. His work has had tremendous impact upon architecture throughout Asia and is unanimously acclaimed by connoisseurs of architecture worldwide. Although Mr. Bawa came to practice at the age of 38, his buildings over the last 25 or more years are widely acclaimed in Sri Lanka. The intense devotion he brought to composing his architecture in an intimate relationship with nature is witnessed by his attention to landscape and vegetation, the crucial setting for his architecture. His sensitivity to environment is reflected in his careful attention to the sequencing of space, the creation of vistas, courtyards, and walkways, the use of materials and treatment of details.

Mr. Bawa was born in 1919 in what was then the British colony of Ceylon. His father was a wealthy and successful lawyer, of Muslim and English parentage, while his mother was of mixed German, Scottish and Sinhalese descent. In 1938 he went to Cambridge to read English, before studying law in London, where he was called to the Bar in 1944. After World War II he joined a Colombo law firm, but he soon tired of the legal profession and in 1946 set off on two years of travel that took him through the Far East, across the United States and finally to Europe.

Bawa qualified as an architect in 1957 at the age of thirty-eight and returned to Ceylon. Bawa's growing prestige was recognized in 1979, when he was invited by President Jayewardene to design Sri Lanka's new Parliament at Kotte. At Bawa's suggestion the swampy site was dredged to create an island at the centre of a vast artificial lake, with the Parliament building appearing as an asymmetric composition of copper roofs floating above a series of terraces rising out of the water. Abstract references to traditional Sri Lankan and South Indian architecture were incorporated within a Modernist framework to create a powerful image of democracy, cultural harmony, continuity and progress and a sense of gentle monumentality.

Although it might be thought that his buildings have had no direct impact on the lives of ordinary people, Mr. Bawa has exerted a defining influence on the emerging architecture of independent Sri Lanka and on successive generations of younger architects. His ideas have spread across the island, providing a bridge between the past and the future, a mirror in which ordinary people can obtain a clearer image of their own evolving culture.

The cremation will take place at his Lunuganga residence in Dedduwa, Bentota at 5. 30 p.m. today.

Daily News Thu May 29 2003

Geoffrey Bawa is no more

by Karel Roberts Ratnaweera

Sri Lanka's internationally recognised architect, Geoffrey Bawa is no more. He passed away on Tuesday morniing and was cremated at Lunuganga, Dedduwa, Bentota, on his private estate.

Geoffrey Manning Bawa and his elder brother Bevis were the only two children of Justice Bawa. Their mother was a member of the well-known Dutch Burgher Family of Schrader, from Negombo.

Born in 1919 and educated at Royal College, he then went to England and read Law at Cambridge. Called to the Bar from the Inner Temple,Bawa spent several years living abroad before returning to the island where he practised Law as Junior to Justice E.F.N.Gratiaen. But he abandoned Law for Architecture in which he obtained the highest degree from the Royal Institute of Architects of Great Britain, and from the American Institute of Artchitects as well.

A well-known Colombo figure, he would drive his Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce down Galle Road, attracting much attention as he drove down South or back to Colombo. The highpoint of his distinguished career was when he was asked to design and build the new Parliamentery complex on the Diyawanna Oya in Kotte.

He told this writer in an interview that he had designed the vast complex using ancient Sinhala artchitectural tyles as a guideline. Bawa also designed and built the Bentota Beach Hotel, the first hotel to be designed by him, and one of the first hotels in the South. He also designed and built Kandalama Hotel according to his unique sense of design applied to the climate and terrain.

Geoffrey Bawa had been ailing for some years but that did not prevent him from going to good concerts of Western Classical Music, being wheeled into the hall in his wheelchair. He was an aesthete who abhorred anything that was less than aesthetically pleasing, and he applied these high standards in his work.

Geoffrey Bawa's brother Bevis, also lived in Bentota and predeceased him some years ago.

For all his talent and sophistication in personal style, he was a shy man and dreaded newspaper interviews.

Geoffrey Bawa's Colombo residence, also reflecting his architectural styles, was in Inner Bagatalle Road, Colombo 03.

Island Features - Sun Jun 1 2003

Geoffrey Bawa: a valediction for a colossus

bawa.jpg (11239 bytes)by Neville Weereratne
What would be the surest method of assessing a person’s life and contribution? Sheer volume would possibly be one very tangible measure rather than quality which would be an arbitrary judgement but on both counts, Geoffrey Bawa would stand out as the single, most comprehensive colossus.

His achievements have recently been chronicled in a book appositely called Bawa: The Complete Works (David Robson: Thames & Hudson, London). It is an appropriate title since there seemed no prospect whatever that Geoffrey would work again after the disastrous stroke he suffered in March 1998. In the several years that followed, many people, friends, domestics, colleagues, medical staff have nursed him with enormous affection. His death last week sets them all somewhat at rest. They laboured long and assiduously for his comfort, and they did this with affection.

Geoffrey drew affection from everyone about him because that was the single, personal quality that marked him out. He was himself affectionate to the end. The last time we saw him was in March this year at Lunuganga, resting in his three-wheeler under the shade of a tree, the breeze from over the lake cool and refreshing. He had learnt to utter a few syllables and made himself coherent. He was pleased to see us, nodding and smiling his welcome. When we were about to leave promising to return, he was quite sure we wouldn’t. "Ne", he repeated over and over in Sinhala. And so it was that we didn’t see him again.

But now that we are in a valedictory mode, we cannot escape the attempt to assess his skills as an artist. Prof. Robson, in his book on Geoffrey’s work, neatly reveals the extent of that achievement. This, Robson sees, as a lifetime of addiction to space and proportion, spaces to live in and places to play and pray in, confined space and open places; areas in which light and air, those fundaments of the good life, could have free and easy play.

If there are any secrets in the art of architecture as practised by Geoffrey, it was his constant effort to co-operate with nature. If, however, nature was not always prepared to lend itself to his purpose, Geoffrey was quite happy to bend it to his will.

He did that masterfully at Lunuganga, his property near Bentota where he whittled away at a hill, Cinnamon Hill he called it, until he could view the lights on a temple far off reflected in the lake below his garden. Then he placed a huge Chinese stone jar in the middle distance to draw all three elements into a single perspective. He manipulated nature. He knew precisely what he was doing when he hung weights on the branches of the araliya trees outside his house so that their limbs would fan out, extend and become expansive patterns of flowers and foliage.

Lunuganga is a masterpiece which, Geoffrey once said, had grown over the years, "a place of many moods, the result of many imaginings, offering me a retreat to be alone or to fellow-feel with friends." A lorry driver who once walked around the garden while his bricks were being unloaded exclaimed: "But this is a very blessed place!"

The vistas Geoffrey created at Lunuganga give infinite pleasure. Everything is in place; everything is on perfect order and harmony.

And not only in his own home. Geoffrey Bawa’s enormous achievement is that he carried this message, this aesthetic - if you prefer that expression - far and wide across Sri Lanka - and indeed, into neighbouring countries, India, Indonesia, the Maldives, Mauritius, and even to Panama.

One of his first efforts, even before he qualified as an architect at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1957, was an extension he designed for Arjun Deraniyagala in Guildford Crescent. There already appeared the symptoms of a man pre-occupied with space and proportion.

This inevitably meant looking for a relationship between interior and exterior. Geoffrey would not distinguish between them but sought to bring them together in a unity, complete and whole. He believed that the inside and the outside were indivisible, that architecture involved a dialogue between the interior and the landscape, between the garden and the hearth. Traditional building, which took into account the nature of the site that was being built upon, was an exemplar of this idea. Trees were sacrosanct. Boulders made great sculpture.

Inexpensive local materials

Geoffrey also turned to inexpensive local materials - brick, timber, clay tile and plaster. He also began to use the half-round clay tile (Sinhala ulu) over corrugated cement roofing as an effective, rain-proof covering that, at the same time, was most attractive. Another innovation that was highly successful, once pointed out to me as a hallmark of Geoffrey Bawa, was the use of polished coconut columns with granite base and capital. The granite was to protect the timber from termites.

Geoffrey’s achievements have been acknowledged by his peers in the business. The many awards he has received are evidence enough of this: he was the recipient of a Lifetime Award from the Aga Khan Foundation in 2001. Earlier, the highly regarded Royal Institute of British Architects organised an exhibition of Geoffrey’s works in London which eventually toured several other countries in 1986: Brazil, Singapore and Australia. Geoffrey has been feted too, by the state: he was a Vidya Jothi and a Desamanya.

Geoffrey Bawa’s background should be recounted if only to create a perspective in which to view him. The apocryphal story told by his brother, Bevis, of the meeting of their grandfather and their future grandmother, a young European girl "about to be swindled by a pseudo gem merchant" at the NOH in Galle and of their swift courtship and marriage in an afternoon’s enterprise, has to be believed if only because it is the stuff of which these Bawa brothers were made. It has all the elements of the improbable but then the grandeur of Geoffrey’s imagination (and, indeed, that of Bevis’s) is what we need to understand. They were unfettered. They enjoyed the freedom of talent and the luxury of acceptance.

Geoffrey was thirty-one (he was born in 1919), when, after completing a degree in English at Cambridge University and being called to the Bar, he turned to architecture. This was to be the beginning of a great odyssey which was to see him return to Sri Lanka, the country of his birth which he hadn’t known before and which he was to discover and love in quite a passionate sort of way. He learnt to appreciate the island’s individual characters - the climate, its physical resources, its people, the social conditions that prevailed, the culture, its ways of building, and it was Geoffrey’s outstanding capacity to absorb these elements and to transform them into an individual artistic statement.

On this journey of discovery, Geoffrey was aided by Ulrik Plesner, the Danish architect who first came to Sri Lanka in 1957 to work with Minette de Silva in Kandy and who later joined Bawa at Edwards, Reid and Begg. Plesner had a practical turn of mind and had acquired a particular appreciation of the local building tradition. In the partnership that was forged between them they would have explored those facets of the vernacular architecture that made it unique.

Geoffrey conceded that this so-called vernacular architecture had an impact on the development of his own philosophy. "In my personal search," he wrote in 1958, "I have always looked to the past for the help that previous answers can give." He found this, he said, in Anuradhapura but he was also prepared to look at the latest building completed in Colombo. He would look for the answers he sought from Polonnaruwa to the present day. Geoffrey referred to this great spectrum of building as "the whole range of effort, peaks of beauty and simplicity and deep valleys of pretension."

He was the perennial student, interested, inquiring, but for all that very much his own man. His knew his mind and he would press determinedly for his point of view.

Aspects of vernacular architecture begin to emerge in the solutions he found to specific problems. They can be seen in the parliamentary complex at Sri Jayawardenapura, Kotte, set in an artificial lake with its cone-shaped copper-roofs rising out of the water; the Bentota Beach Hotel which drew its form from an old Dutch star-fort; or the granite face of the Kandalama Hotel that blended effortlessly with its rocky background.

My personal favourite among his 200 works or so, is the elegant house he built with Ena de Silva in Alfred Place, Kollupitiya. It is a masterful blend of the choicest indigenous architectural features combining with a most effective juxtaposition of spaces. It fulfils every demand that could be made of a house which is a place to be lived in by the several members of a family pursuing their individual interests.

It was also Geoffrey’s genius that he recognised in those around him their particular talents and employed them with unerring flair. So, you will see sculptures by Laki Senanayake or his drawings embellishing an hotel, batik ceiling cloths and gigantic flags designed by Anil Gamini Jayasuriya for Ena de Silva Batiks enlivening others, or the handloom fabrics of Barbara Sansoni everywhere in Geoffrey’s public buildings.

I suppose it is possible to consider every building that Geoffrey designed and built to be a permanent monument to him and his art. That would be so if they are retained and maintained as Geoffrey intended them. Unfortunately there appear to be latter-day proprietors who would attempt to improve on the original, with disastrous results. This is where something more than cursory vigilance is called for. We cannot afford to be cavalierly about this. That responsibility could well rest with his proteges of whom there are many and who have all distinguished themselves.

What Geoffrey Bawa achieved was the height of perfection insofar as that state could ever be realised. He set standards which need to be upheld.

As I say, that responsibility now rests with his students. There is also the Lunuganga Trust which Geoffrey set up to provide opportunities for artists and architects. These are some of the forces that need to be drawn upon to ensure that the memory of this colossus will be held in due regard, that the canons of good taste he set and championed are maintained, that the magnificent edifices he created will, with the buildings of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, remain permanent symbols of a pleasing, beautiful, active, resurgent, modern Sri Lanka.

Glimpse of History from ANCL Archives:

Geoffrey Bawa - Legendary Architect and nature lover

by Indeewara Thilakarathne - Sunday Observer Jan 28 2007

Geoffrey Bawa

Banglow on the summit of Lunugaga estate

The Wind-mill which sustains water supply to one of his cottages at

Urns , a facinating feature at Lunuganga

Some of the artifacts collected by Bawa

A typical Bawa’s living room

One of the rare buildings at

Entrance to the

A panoramic view of

Pleasure garden at

Wall-paintings at the rear entrance to the garden

Geoffrey Bawa (1919 - 2003) is considered as the founder of the tradition of tropical architecture and a unique style of architecture where life is celebrated in space and light.

Bawa's colossal influence in shaping the form and motif of Sri Lankan architecture is well recognised and his work has had tremendous impact upon architecture throughout Asia and is acclaimed by a connoisseur of architecture worldwide.

With his own approach to architecture, Bawa's tradition is unique which blends together the Western humanist tradition in architecture exotically with the lifestyle, climate, landscape and the traditions of Sri Lanka.

Though he started late in his career at the age of 38, Bawa's creations over the last 25 years bear testimony to his intense devotion to the subject and tradition he moulded in considering the landscape, vegetation and the crucial setting for his architecture.

His concerns for environment is manifested in sequencing of space, the creation of vistas, courtyards, and walkways, the use of materials and treatment of details.

One of Bawa's earliest domestic buildings, a courtyard house built in Colombo for Ena De Silva in 1961, was the first to fuse elements of traditional Sinhalese domestic architecture with modern concepts of open planning, manifesting that an outdoor life is viable on a tight urban plot.

The Bentota Beach Hotel of 1968 was Sri Lanka 's first purpose-built resort hotel. During the early 1970s a series of buildings for government departments developed ideas for the workplace in a tropical city, culminating in the State Mortgage Bank in Colombo hailed at the time as one of the world's first bio-climatic high-rises.

Bawa also designed a holiday villa for the Jayawardene family in 1997 on the cliffs of Mirissa, which demonstrates Bawa's indefatigable inventiveness.

Bawa was born in 1919 during the British Raj in ' Ceylon '. His father was a wealthy and successful lawyer, of Muslim and English parentage, while his mother was of mixed German, Scottish and Sinhalese descent.

In 1938 he went to the University of Cambridge to read English, before studying law in London, where he was called to the Bar in 1944.

Following World War II he joined a Colombo law firm, but he soon tired of the legal profession and in 1946 set off on two years of travel that took him through the Far East, across the United States and finally to Europe.

In Italy he toyed with the idea of settling down permanently and resolved to buy a villa overlooking Lake Garda . He was now twenty-eight and had spent one-third of his life away from Ceylon.

He was more European in outlook and had a loose-knit relationship with Ceylon. The plan to buy an Italian villa did not materialize, however, and in 1948 he returned to Ceylon where he bought an abandoned rubber estate at Lunuganga, on the south-west coast between Colombo and Galle.

His dream was to create an Italian garden from a tropical wilderness, but he soon found that his ideas were compromised by a lack of technical knowledge.

In 1951 he was apprenticed to H. H Reid, the sole surviving partner of the Colombo architectural practice Edwards, Reid and Begg.

Following Reid's death suddenly, a year later Bawa returned to England. After spending a year at Cambridge, he enrolled as a student at the Architectural Association in London, where he is remembered as the tallest, oldest and most outspoken student of his generation.

Bawa finally qualified as an architect in 1957 at the age of thirty-eight and returned to Ceylon to take over what was left of Reid's practice. He gathered together a group of talented young designers and artists who shared his growing interest in Ceylon 's forgotten architectural heritage, and his ambition to develop new ways of making and building.

As well as his immediate office colleagues this group included the batik artist Ena de Silva, the designer Barbara Sansoni and the artist Laki Senanayake, all of whose work figures prominently in his buildings.

He was joined in 1959 by Ulrik Plesner, a young Danish architect who brought with him an appreciation of Scandinavian design and detailing, a sense of professionalism and a curiosity about Sri Lanka 's building traditions.

The duo formed a close friendship and a symbiotic working relationship that lasted until Plesner quit the practice in 1967 to return to Europe and Bawa was joined by the engineer K. Poologasundram, who remained his partner for the next twenty years.

Bawa's growing prestige was recognized in 1979, when he was invited by President Jayawardene to design Sri Lanka 's new Parliament at Kotte, 8 kilometres east of Colombo .

At Bawa's suggestion the swampy site was dredged to create an island at the centre of a vast artificial lake, with the Parliament building appearing as an asymmetric composition of copper roofs floating above a series of terraces rising out of the water.

Abstract references to traditional Sri Lankan and South Indian architecture were incorporated within a Modernist framework to create a powerful image of democracy, cultural harmony, continuity and progress and a sense of gentle monumentality.

During the 1980s Bawa also designed the new Ruhunu University near Matara, a project that enabled him to demonstrate his mastery of external space and the integration of buildings in a landscape. The result is a matrix of pavillions and courtyards, arranged with careful casualness and a strong sense of theatre across a pair of rocky hills overlooking the southern ocean.

These projects brought Bawa international recognition and his work was celebrated in a Mimar monograph by Brian Brace Taylor and in a London exhibition. A later book by Christopher Bon on Lunuganga served both as a personal tribute to a friend and a beautiful photographic evocation of a garden.

But the Parliament building and Ruhunu had left Bawa exhausted and at the end of the 1980s he withdrew from his partnership with Poologasundram and relinquished the name Edwards, Reid and Begg. He was now seventy and it was widely assumed that he would retire to Lunuganga and contemplate his garden.

However, the break signalled a fresh round of creative activity and he began to work from his home in Bagatelle Road , Colombo , with a small group of young architects.

Together they embarked on a stream of ambitious designs - hotels on Bali and Bintan, houses in Delhi and Ahmedabad, and a Cloud Centre for Singapore. None of these was built but each created enormous amounts of ideas.

Some of these ideas came to fruition in three hotels built in Sri Lanka in the 1990s: the Kandalama, conceived as an austere jungle palace, snaking around a rocky outcrop on the edge of an ancient tank in the Dry Zone; the Lighthouse at Galle, defying the southern oceans from its boulder-strewn headland; and the Blue Water, a cool pleasure pavillion set within a sedate coconut grove on the edge of Colombo.

In 1998 Bawa was tragically struck down by a massive stroke that left him paralysed and unable to speak. A small group of colleagues, led by Channa Daswatte, have continued to work on the projects he initiated before his illness - an official residence for the President, a house in Bombay , a hotel in Panadura - with drawings being taken down the corridor from the office to Bawa's bedroom for nods of approval or rejection.

He died in 2003.Bawa won Sri Lankan and International awards including the national honour of Deshamanya from the Government of Sri Lanka in 1993 and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture Chairman's Award in 2001.

‘Brief’ Garden of Eden

By Rathindra Kuruwita - Nation Aug 12 2007 -

I have heard stories about Bevis Bawa and his haven ‘Brief.’ It has been called “a playground of the senses,” a place full of inviting nooks, alcoves, leafy recess and cloisters. A little corner in the country that is so tranquil, it encourages one to just lay back and take it slow.

The long winding road
Finding the place that the villagers call ‘Bawa Mahathayage waththa’ proves to be no easy task. After the turn off from the Galle Road, the Kaluwamodara road seems to get narrower with each curve. Although we have a map of sorts hastily drawn by a friend we find it difficult to keep track of our path. We have to pull into an ally to let a bus pass and have a difficult time getting the vehicle back on to the road, without falling into the ditch lining the path.

Finally realising that the map will not do us any good, we venture to do one of the most difficult tasks for a man, to ask directions. The way they give directions, enthusiastically and with smiles and the way they pronounce the name ‘Bawa Mahathaya’ tell us that he is very fondly remembered. And why shouldn’t they, when he has distributed most of his land among the villagers, a fact that I am to learn later.

We reach a slab of wood, which has faded ornate Gothic lettering carved deeply and precisely into it saying ‘Brief.’ We are unaware that ahead of us is a long winding road. We travel down yet another narrow road raised across a marsh. Half way through we confront a motorcycle coming straight at us in full throttle, both parties break violently and the motorcyclist nearly becomes one with the soil. Despite his near death experience, he’s kind enough to give us directions.

The road ends with a hairpin bend that leads to a red clay road, which ends at a circular driveway with iconic gate posts. We wander up the red clay road through a tunnel of green. There is a large, bamboo-hedged circle, which serves as a car park. The front door is set in this hedge, making the house behind it quite invisible to the first glance. A magnificent white bougainvillea conceals the roof.
It’s hot and humid and we ring the bell over the garden door and the caretaker appears. “Only 45 minutes,” he says. “Are you sure you want to spend 400 rupees?” “Right on,” I say digging into my pocket.

The garden area is so vast that it is difficult not to get lost and all the paths seem to lead to the front door. However, some of the most beautiful spots such as the “hilltop lookout” with a single Araliya tree that I have seen in so many photos are extremely difficult to find.

I ask politely for directions from the caretaker and add that we are from paththaren (newspaper), to drive the point home. He guides us along the perimeter path and leads us to a patch of greensward with a round pond set in the middle. There is an enormous flight of stone steps to climb on to a hill next to the pond. It is perhaps the most grandiose looking spectacle in the garden.

The house
The house is minimalist. The floors are of bare cement, the walls and ceilings are Spartan and without ornament. No signs of etherealness and lavishness. Yet, this is a place of comfort and beauty. The house is full of art, including Bawa’s own work and gifts from his friends, especially Australian painter/sculptor Donald Friend. The sculptures of proportioned male nudes that dot the house and garden stand out among many others.

Donald Friend stayed for more than five years in Brief during 1960s. Therefore his art is strewen across Brief. Among which are a superb mural, which represents Sri Lanka as the favoured isle of Hindu God Skanda, an aluminum sculpture of Aphrodite rising, hides in a nook in the corridor. Terra-cotta tabletops that bear Friend’s designs can be found everywhere.

No more a Garden of Eden
Nearly 80 years ago one man set out to create his own miniature Garden of Eden and succeeded. However, as the caretaker of Brief Nihal says things are gradually falling apart. “Before Mr. Bawa died, he distributed his land among the villagers who served him. We did our best to look after the garden. Yet, this is nothing compared to what it was.” From the dilapidated outhouse to the statues that are being rapidly covered by rust, and the pathways that are under attack by weeds show that Mother Nature is out to reclaim what was once hers.

Sunday Times Dec 14 2008

The Bawas' Green Mansions

The famous Bentota Gardens, Brief and Lunuganga – created by two famous brothers – are the subject of a luxuriantly beautiful new book

By R. Stephen Prins

In the ’70s, the distinguished architect Geoffrey Bawa threw a big garden party at his sprawling and celebrated home, Lunuganga. Taking his guests on a tour of his home and garden, he made an expansive gesture that seemed to suggest the surrounding countryside was an extension of his own grand property. Indeed, he was lord of his domain and beyond, proprietorial about almost everything in sight, all the way up to the green horizon. He then proudly told his guests about a small correction he had recently made to the view.

“There was this villager’s hut out there in the distance, and it had this hideous zinc roof that got on my nerves every time I looked out of my window,” Mr Bawa was saying. “An annoying little silver square squinting at me from that lovely sea of green. Most aggravating. I could tolerate it no longer, so I sent my chauffeur over to tell the house owner he would be doing me an enormous favour if he allowed me to cover his roof with red tiles – at my expense, of course. He agreed, and we are both happy!”

Like an artist with a paintbrush, Geoffrey Bawa deftly smeared a dab of earth-tone colour over a jarring metallic note and the tiny visual irritant in a corner of the canvas was gone.

Lunuganga: Black Pavillion

My mother was one of the guests at that party 30 years ago, and she remembers Mr. Bawa’s comment as one of many interesting things he said that evening.

The late Geoffrey, like his brother the late Bevis, was an aesthete. Both men pursued beauty with a passion, and both dedicated their lives to the creation of beautiful things. Geoffrey designed houses, universities, hotels and resorts that have become architectural classics, while Bevis dabbled in art and sculpture and fashioned landscapes as a recreation and an occasional occupation.

And both men have left behind what may well be their most widely appreciated and lasting, certainly most evergreen, legacy – two flourishing, luxuriant artworks, the Bawa gardens in Bentota.

Bevis spent 40 years growing and shaping “Brief”, the 2.5 hectare plot of land on the southwest coast, north of the Bentota River, which was his home for the greater part of his life. The landscaped grounds were also a source of income from the many visitors who made a small contribution to see the famous garden. Brief became a popular tourist destination, and attracted an assortment of visitors, from Colombo residents to internationally famous writers, artists and royalty. It continues to attract crowds, 16 years after the owner’s death.

Inspired by Bevis’s home and landscaping venture, and not to be outdone by his older brother, Geoffrey bought an even larger property on the other side of the Bentota River, circa 1948, and laid out Lunuganga, a grand spread of a house and garden worthy of one of Asia’s most respected architects and landscapists. Brief is possibly the better known of the two gardens, because it was always an open invitation to guests; Lunuganga was a private property that was opened to the public only after Geoffrey Bawa’s death, in 2006.

“Though man delights in destroying plant life, I have never known plants to let down man.”



 “The garden had grown gradually into a place of many moods, the result of many imaginings.”


Sketches of Bevis and Geoffrey by Aubrey Collette

Both gardens are the subject of a splendid new coffee-table book, “Bawa ­ – The Sri Lanka Gardens”, a publication that even seems overdue, considering the fame of the two featured gardens and their creators.

With a text by David Robson and photographs by Dominic Sansoni, the book is an extension of previous related work by writer and photographer. Robson is the author of two magisterial studies of the architect’s legacy (“Geoffrey Bawa – The Complete Works” and “Beyond Bawa – Modern Masterworks of Monsoon Asia”), while Sansoni collaborated with photographer Christof Bon on the black-and-white tome “Lunuganga”, for which Geoffrey Bawa provided the text. The new book is the first major publication to give prominence to Bevis and his beloved Brief.

It is all too easy to overlook the text and focus on the visuals in a coffee-table book, especially one as beguiling to the eye as this one. But the reader who skips this text is missing out badly. There is much to enjoy and learn in David Robson’s well-researched material, rich in detail and anecdote, and while the content is scholarly, the writing is easy on the mind and pure reading pleasure.

As in a guided tour with the perfect tour guide, the reader is gracefully led into the Bawa gardens by way of two richly informative introductory chapters, the first covering Sri Lanka gardens in general, historic and contemporary, and the second telling the fascinating story of the men behind the two gardens.
By going back to the ancient kings who ruled from Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, and surveying the remains of royal palaces, and royal pleasure gardens, as well as boulder gardens and monastic gardens, the writer shows how the stones of Sri Lankan history have set a foundation for the Lunuganga layout. The widely travelled Geoffrey was also influenced by gardens he saw during his student years in Cambridge, England, and his visits to China, Italy, and Spain, among many other countries.

Meanwhile, the equally widely travelled Bevis, who started out as a planter on a rubber estate in colonial Ceylon, was an admirer of the cosy interiors and picturesque surrounds of the British planters’ estate bungalows that dot the hills of Sri Lanka. This is reflected in the many charms of Brief.


The Bawas – giants that they were in person, persona and talent – had a way of piqueing everyone’s interest; curiosity about their work and life has always been high.

The second chapter tells the colourful Bawa family story, and is generously adorned with old family album prints and sketches and cartoons by artists such as Aubrey Collette, Donald Friend and Bevis Bawa himself. The account is a fascinating social history, going back to mid-19th century Ceylon, when Geoffrey and Bevis’s grandfather, Ahamadu Bawa, married his French Huguenot wife, Georgina Ablett.
Entrusting the visual part of the book to Dominic Sansoni was a happy decision. Not only is he possibly Sri Lanka’s most high-profile lensman, eminently qualified to take on a project of this kind, he is also, through his family, closely associated with the Bawas, and knows the two gardens intimately. The Sansonis have been regular visitors to Bentota. The photographer has idyllic childhood and teen memories of exploring the mossy wonderlands of Brief and Lunuganga, packed with leafy secrets and arboreal delights. The Sansoni and Bawa connection goes back almost seven decades. The photographer’s father Hilden Sansoni was an officer in the Navy, while Bevis Bawa was a major in the Army, and both took turns as aides-de-camp to a succession of British governors.

The photographer’s mother, Barbara, along with the Australian artist Donald Friend, designed a series of terracotta tiles which decorate a section of Brief.

Sansoni welcomed the Bawa assignment. “My brief with Brief, so to speak, and Lunuganga was to illustrate a text, a book about gardens,” Sansoni says. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

Brief: East of house Spanish court

There was also the responsibility of doing justice to two people who were good family friends and who held to the highest artistic standards. “I could feel the spirits of GB and BB looking over my shoulder every time I used my camera,” he says. “Would they approve, I kept thinking.”

Sansoni says the Bawa brothers were as different as two siblings could be. Geoffrey was formidably intellectual and reserved; many found his presence intimidating. Bevis was genial, gentle, avuncular, a “darling man”. If they disapproved, the responses would be markedly dissimilar. “If Geoffrey didn’t like something, you knew it. There would be this Great Silence, capital G, capital S. If Bevis didn’t like something, he’d let you know, but in the nicest way.”

It is hard to imagine either brother faulting the impeccable, sumptuous and handsome treat that Dobson, Sansoni and the Thames and Hudson publishing team have put together. Leafing through the book, up in his study at the back of Barefoot (the gallery-cum-shop-cum-restaurant-cum-hangout-cum-performing arts space that serves as his alternate home), Sansoni relives the experience of working on the project.

“It had a lot of personal significance for me, of course. Geoffrey and Bevis were dear friends. But this was work, and I was not aware of emotion or sentiment getting in the way. The project took several months, and umpteen trips to Bentota. Often I would stay overnight and start work early the next day, at first light.”

Light, or rather the contrasting of light with shade, are uppermost in Sansoni’s mind when he is prospecting for a golden photo moment. His preferred times for outdoors photography are early morning and twilight, when the shadows are just about to dissolve or congeal.

As we turn the pages, he points to pictures that satisfy him: single and double-page spreads of dappled vegetation, vistas of water and foliage and sweeping lawn shadowed by trees and bushes, and glimpses of statues and paved paths, all seen from various points in the two gardens and houses, with verandas, pillars, pergolas, loggias and pavilions playing visually supportive roles.

Lunuganga: The Broad Walk

“Contrast with light and shade gives you a more three-dimensional image, and that depth invites you into the photograph. I like the idea of the reader wanting to reach out for a tree branch or enter the gardens and walk up a path.”

The interiors of Lunuganga and Brief – filled with art, statues and gleaming antique furniture – are also amply documented.

The writer Michael Ondaatje once described the Bawa gardens as “self-portraits”. The subjects of these dual family portraits are gone, but we will look at both men as mirrored in the beauty of their work with nature, and we will continue to do so as long as the gardens are cared for and allowed to flourish, and the environment protected.“Bawa – The Sri Lanka Gardens” is a reminder of how paradisal this country is. It is also a gentle nudge to the ecologically indifferent who may forget just how fragile this natural wealth and beauty is becoming.