Remembering Geoffrey Bawa, 1919-2003
The beloved Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa died in his native city of Colombo on May 27, at age 83. He will be remembered as a prolific and influential designer who drew on many traditions but especially those of his own people. His works — from houses to hotels — are noted for their sensitivity to the South Asian culture and climate.
In 2002, after a severe stroke had ended his active career, Bawa received one of architecture's highest honors when the Aga Khan gave him a special Chairman's Award for Lifetime Achievements. Shortly after the award was announced, his life and work were described in a tribute in ArchitectureWeek.
Bawa began working in the architecture profession relatively late in life, at age 37, having been a lawyer, then a restless world traveler. After studying at the Architectural Association in London, he returned to Sri Lanka (then still known as Ceylon) to practice his own blend of traditional and modern architecture.
His own home, the Lunuganga Estate, was one of his earliest projects, and he continued to work on it for the rest of his life. It has been described as "a civilized garden retreat in the wilderness," where he transformed an ancient rubber estate into a series of outdoor rooms.
Bawa's first major commission came in 1979, when President Jayewardene invited him to design Sri Lanka's new Parliament at Kotte. At Bawa's suggestion, the swampy site was dredged to create an island at the center of a vast artificial lake. The building incorporates abstract references to traditional Sri Lankan and South Indian architecture within a modernist framework.
During the 1980s Bawa 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 pavilions and courtyards are dramatically arranged on a pair of rocky hills overlooking the Indian Ocean.
In announcing his award last year, the Aga Khan Development Network wrote: "Throughout its long and colorful history, Sri Lanka has been subjected to strong outside influences from its Indian neighbors, from Arab traders, and from European colonists, and it has always succeeded in translating these elements into something new but intrinsically Sri Lankan."
The statement continues: "Bawa has continued this tradition. His architecture is a subtle blend of modernity and tradition, East and West, formal and picturesque; he has broken down the artificial segregation of inside and outside, building and landscape; he has drawn on tradition to create an architecture that is fitting to its place, and he has also used his vast knowledge of the modern world to create an architecture that is of its time."
Let us all see to it that Geoffrey Bawa's deeply positive architectural influence long outlives his personal time on this planet.
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Lunuganga Estate, in southern Sri Lanka, where Geoffrey Bawa lived until his death in May 2003.
Photo: Hélène Binet/ Aga Khan Award for Architecture
National Parliament Building, (1982) Kotte, Sri Lanka.
Photo: David Robson
The University of Ruhunu (1984) in southern Sri Lanka, by Geoffrey Bawa.
Photo: Christian Richters/ Aga Khan Award for Architecture
The Yapath Endera Farm School (1966) in Hanwella, Sri Lanka.
Photo: David Robson
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