I have loved my recent travels around Sri Lanka: the people; the countryside; the food and the wildlife, are unique, rich and amazing. However, I have struggled to cope with the country’s everyday urban spaces and contemporary architecture, which are often (in my opinion), poor quality and ugly.
Perhaps born of: cost restrictions; self-build; lack of planning controls; knowledge of design and a shared locally-based architectural form? Crude, generic functionality seems to win out over design and vernacular style. I imagine that economic prosperity and development in Sri Lanka will mean a lot more of the same with architectural heritage and any ‘Sense of Place’ generally forgotten.
Of course there are gems of contemporary architecture and impressive old (and colonial), buildings to be seen, but you have to search hard. In rural areas it’s a joy to see vernacular buildings made of earth, timber and palm, but in most small towns the rush for concrete in its crudest form is disappointing.
During my struggle with all this I bumped into (and was uplifted by), the work of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. I subsequently visited his former home in the classy suburbs of Colombo and his beautiful country retreat ‘Lunuganga’ on the Bentota river.
(images from Bawa’s Colombo home and office)
Bawa (1919-2003), was an advocate for the use of vernacular materials and form. His work a fusion of internaitonal modernist design and local knowledge. Many reviews claim that Geoffrey Bawa was one of the foremost Asian architects of the 20th century. After travelling and living in Europe his architectural training was in England. A disciple of Modernism who also established a working partnership with Danish architect Ulrik Plesner who was a student of Scandinavian design.
In Sri Lanka, Bawa soon realised that pure white surfaces weathered badly and flat roofs were no good in a monsoon. Shortages of imported materials like glass and steel encouraged him to look to indigenous solutions. He began to soften Modernist style and enriched it with traditional materials. In Sri Lanka’s tropical climate his buildings could be, in part, open to the elements, utilising natural ventilation and light. Bawa’s buildings are often designed around existing landscape features including trees and in his work locality and the site dictates the design.
“we have a marvelous tradition of building in this country that has got lost. It got lost because people followed outside influences over their own good instinct. They never build right through the landscape… You must run with the site, after all, you don’t want to push nature out with the building”. Geoffrey Bawa
I suspect that Geoffrey Bawa’s impressive work, influence and legacy will only be enjoyed by a minority in Sri Lanka.
Parliment House Colombo
Kandalama Hotel Dambulla
Jetwing Beach Hotel Negombo