Geoffrey Bawa is well known in his native Sri Lanka and in design circles, but wider fame has eluded the architect who died in 2003 at the age of 84. Part of the reason is that the building style Bawa pioneered melding Asian and global design traditions in a way that suited the requirements of monsoon climates has become ubiquitous. Verandahs, water features, local craftwork, lush landscaping: today these kinds of elements are taken for granted in resorts, spas and villas all over the region, and it is easy to believe that it was ever thus. But had it not been for Bawa, things may have looked very different.
The publication of David Robson's Beyond Bawa: Modern Masterworks of Monsoon Asia a highly informative study, if at times a little dryly written will hopefully boost the architect's posthumous profile. It also confronts Bawa's reputation for snobbery. Bawa, grants Robson, was a "paternalistic employer" who paid people poorly and seemed "to have had little understanding of how his assistants actually made ends meet." (Such notoriety dogged Bawa throughout his career. When, in 1986, a retrospective of his work was organized at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London the first large-scale Bawa exhibit outside Sri Lanka the only real attention given was a snarky article in Building Design by London-based Sri Lankan architect Shanti Jayawardene, slamming Bawa as an élitist from a privileged background who catered only to the rich.)
Born in 1919 to Eurasian parents his father was a wealthy Muslim-English lawyer, his mother German-Scottish-Sinhalese Bawa was, yes, raised with that proverbial silver spoon. Cambridge-educated, he enjoyed an aimless youth of profligate spending, sumptuous taste and spiffy automobiles. The title page of Geoffrey Bawa, a seminal Singaporean monograph published to coincide with the London exhibition, is a money shot of Bawa's twinkling Rolls-Royce. Contemporary Donald Friend a peripatetic, chain-smoking Australian artist and compulsive diarist grumbled about Bawa's "grand ducal airs."
Robson points out, though, that many of Bawa's projects were anything but patrician, like the Hanwella Convent Farm (Sri Lanka, 1971) and the Bandarawela Chapel (Sri Lanka, 1961), erected as a modest hill retreat for nuns. The austere geometric forms of the chapel owed much to the prevailing international Modernism of the moment, which Bawa was steeped in from his days as a student at the famed Architectural Association in London during the late 1950s. But Bawa's almost exclusive use of local materials was an incipient sign of the homespun revolution to come. His signature "Contemporary Vernacular" style, fusing Modernist elements with traditional design, would fully develop and forever remodel the architectural face of tropical Asia.
Bawa's impact on Asian architects Sri Lankan Milroy Perera, Singaporean Mok Wei Wei and many others documented by Robson is certainly plain to see. All have adapted the basic regionalist Bawa style, which Bawa only loosely outlined. First, he wrote in a 1968 article, "a building must, at the very least, satisfy the needs that gave it birth, both physical and spiritual." Second, it "must be in accord and in sympathy with the ambience [of its setting]." And "there must be a knowledgeable and true use of the materials with which you build."
Thus both Lalyn Collure's forested Boulder Garden Hotel (Sri Lanka, 2002) and Bawa's landmark Polontalawa Estate Bungalow (Sri Lanka, 1964) where the main roof appears to rest, at either end, upon two colossal rocks emphasize harmony with nature. The most striking photograph in Robson's book shows the candlelit open-air restaurant of Collure's hotel sublimely canopied by a jumbo black boulder. Mok's Morley Road House (Singapore, 1996) blends ancient Chinese garden designs a koi pond, bamboo hedges with sharp Modernist forms while blurring inside/outside spatial distinctions. Just so, Bawa's naturally ventilated Ena de Silva House (Sri Lanka, 1960) borrowed from Sinhalese manor houses and Kandyan spaces shrine room, verandahs to create something new: an innovative, urban courtyard home with windows that could be used, according to the client's wishes, "for serenading at night."
We live these days with rock-star architects Gehry, Koolhaas, Libeskind hailed as heroic and solitary prodigies, bringing forth great edifices. While it is tempting to lobby for Bawa's inclusion in this pantheon, Robson argues that he "should not be viewed as a lone genius, but rather as someone who operated within a circle of sympathetic friends." In fact, no architect is an island, and several individuals notably Friend, Danish architect Ulrik Plesner, and artists Barbara Sansoni and Laki Senanayake influenced Bawa's vernacular experiments. As Robson's title suggests, Bawa's legacy, if not his personal renown, continues to thrive because he was not aloof but a collaborator, and because the ideas behind his aristocratic demeanor were essentially democratic namely, that local tradition must be valued in a globalized world, and the future and the past need not dwell in separate houses.
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