Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Geoffrey Bawa: An Alternative Architecture

May, 1988

Published in MIT student newspaper, 1988.


The prominence of Geoffrey Bawa coincides with the collapse of the modernist world-view in global architecture. Although Bawa has been building consistently since the 1960s, mostly in his native country Sri Lanka, it is only in the last few years that his work is being highlighted internationally with a special appreciation and enthusiasm. Cutting through the labels of vernacularism and back-to-the-past, Bawa’s work presents a cogent alternative in in the post-modern debacle.


In countries like Sri Lanka, the struggle for an architecture alternative is not an easy one considering how traditional cultures there have succumbed to the various manifestations of Euro-American influence. As in many Asian cultures, the situation in Sri Lanka is critical, where paradoxically, the past lives into the present, “as a woman drapes her sari,” as Charles Correa is to say, and yet the question of an architecture of the place remains suspect.


A kind of schizophrenia still persists in most countries of the so-called non-western world, especially those with a colonial experience. A rich legacy of diverse but deeply rooted practices confronted with imported ideas and ideals, multiple layers of often contradictory realities, and lures of the technological miracle mark the contemporary scene in places like Sri Lanka. All these make the production of a decent situational architecture even more complex and demanding.


Geoffrey Bawa is certainly a foremost sage in resolving some of the contradictions, and actually synthesizing a new architectural order of a place. Bawa’s achievement not only highlights a seminal contribution in shaping contemporary Sri Lankan architecture but also inspiring other cultures undergoing a similar metamorphosis.


Born in a well-placed Sri Lankan family with diverse affiliations, Bawa was first trained as a lawyer in England. His passion, however, got reoriented from the manipulation of human beings to rearranging the landscape and the environment. Two years later, at a late age of thirty-six, it was that passion that took him to the Architectural Association School in London. Bawa’s maturity and developed cultural notions may have prevented him from being totally absorbed in modern currents of architecture but that did not stop him from learning from various cultures in his wide travels.


As Bawa himself says, “.... All the time I was absorbing – like a piece of blotting paper… medieval hill-towns... their splendid instinctive massing of buildings which, often totally varied in purpose and age, making a magnificent total picture; great English country houses and their essential compliment of park and garden: Greek, Roman, Mexican and Buddhist ruins, the Alhambra in Granada, the chapel in Ronchamp, the Mogul forts in Rajasthan and the marvellous palace of Padmadbabapuram built in the 18th century by the Maharajah of Travancore [S India]...”


Sri Lanka’s critical geopolitical position made it an ideal crosscurrent of cultures. Since the flourishing of Buddhism 2500 years ago, the shores of Sri Lanka have been trodden by such diverse peoples as Arabs, Chinese, Tamils, Dutch, Portuguese, and the English. Geoffrey Bawa is an embodiment of that cultural potpourri.


Bawa acknowledged the deep infiltration of various cultural idioms in Sri Lankan traditions, including colonial ones as long as they served a sincere architectural purpose. Adding those to his lessons from other cultures, he attempted to synthesize something like a new Sri Lankan expression. How does Bawa arrive at this juncture? On what aspect does his architecture pivot?


The most important clue to understanding Bawa’s work is the lyrical, yet powerful, dialogue it establishes with nature and “history.” “A house is a garden, and even more. It is almost nature itself,” as Bawa claims. Brian Brace Taylor notes: “Rarely do his designs allow the architecture to preempt the primordial importance of the natural surroundings, either by their scale, use of materials or sitting...”


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