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Farewell to an icon


Geoffrey Bawa passed away last Tuesday, but he lived to see the 20th anniversary of his Sri Jayewardenapura Parliamentary complex which was celebrated a few weeks before his death

The completion and formal opening of the new Parliament building and complex marked the zenith of Bawa's career as an architect which he took up quite late in life. Geoffrey Manning Bawa was the second son of Justice B. W. Bawa and Mrs. Bawa who was a member of a famous Dutch Burgher family, the Schraders of Negombo. Born in 1919 and educated at Royal College, he went to England where he read Law at Cambridge and passed out as a barrister. He was called to the Bar from the Inner Temple.

He lived abroad for several years and on returning to the land of his birth, practised Law as Junior to the famous Burgher lawyer, E. F. N. Gratiaen who later became a Judge of the Supreme Court.

An architectural tour de force - the new Parliamentary complex, Sri Jayewardenapura Kotte.

However, it was architecture that was to take him to the heights, making a name for himself as Sri Lanka's most famous architect. He soon became much sought after as a architect of dwelling houses and some of his dwelling houses sparked a great deal of interest for his innovative designs, never forgetting that he was designing houses to suit the climate here as ancient Sinhala architectural features did.

Geoffrey Bawa won the highest British and American degrees in architecture; he was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA), and was awarded the Pan Pacific Citation which is American architecture's highest award. In the mid nineties,he was honoured by the government of Sri Lanka, having the titles of Desamanya, Vidya Jyothi conferred on him.

The interior of the new parliament.

He also received the Chairman's Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Triennial Aga Khan's Awards for Architecture.

It was in May 1978 that Geoffrey Bawa was asked to design the new Parliamentary complex at Sri Jayewardenapura, Kotte.

He was, of course, delighted at the prospect, but being a shy man for all his sophisticated personal style and urbanity, he described as 'terrifying' the ordeal of having to face the press, at conferences as well as individual interviews.

It was way back in the sixties that this writer sought an interview with Geoffrey Bawa for the then Sunday Times newspaper. As a fledgling journalist at the time I was nervous at the possibility of doing an interview with such an eminent person.

At first he hummed and hawed, and it took me some time to persuade him that it would not be any sort of a controversial interview. At long last-also because he and his brother were friends of my family-he agreed. He said it was the first newspaper interview he was giving.

The interview was in his Edward, Reid and Begg office in the Fort adjacent to the Aitken Spence building. I don't know who was more nervous, he or I. Geoffrey suffered, he said from migraine attacks and sometime during the chat he put his hand to his forehead and said he thought there were signs of a migraine coming on. Fortunately it didn't and the interview went on for some time.

Years later, in an interview when Parliament building was just a landscape of numerous pilings driven into the marshland at the site, talking to me in his office on the site which had an elegant illuminated model of the complex in a glass box, he said that it was his idea to blend ancient Sinhala architectural styles with his own original ideas.

Two of his architectural feats- Lighthouse Hotel, Galle (above) and Hotel Neptune Beruwela (below).

The copper roof of the main Parliament building-a truly magnificent architectural tour de force- reflects what he said. MPs would no longer have to sit on hard, wooden seats as they were doing in the old Parliament dating from British times, facing the Galle Face Green; luxurious leather seats were put in, with similar comfortable seats for journalists and visitors upstairs.

Constructed by the Mitsui company of Japan, Dutch engineers dredged the Diyawanna Oya which is like an ancient moat ringing the complex.

Adding to the grandeur of the interior of the new building was the splendid palm-frond chandelier of beaten copper overlaid in pure silver, designed by artist Laki Senanayake, very much a member of the group that frequented the Art Centre Club in Guildford Crescent where the likes of Geoffrey and Laki, Barbara Sansoni and the Danish architect Ulrich Plesner, Arthur Van Langenberg and Pieter Keuneman would gather in the evening.

The enormous silver doors leading into the Chamber of the House are another feature of the complex, as are the flags of the korales, of carved silver, that adorn the inside of the House. Red plush carpeting covering the entire floor area added to the luxuriousness of the chamber.

On an assignment to report on what stage the construction work of the complex was in, the first thing I noticed was a young Buddhist monk, halfway up a ladder, decorating the facing walls of the wide corridor leading to the chamber.

He was none other than Kushan, son of the famous painter L.T.P. Manjusri who gave up the robes for the lay life and furthering his art. The novice monk Kushan was drawing patterns of tracery on the walls with meticulous care.

On a day in April, this writer covered the opening of the new Parliamentary complex, for which Geoffrey Bawa will be best known, for the Sunday Observer.

In his sprawling Lunuganga home, a foil to his brother Bevis'equally famous estate, Brief, Geoffrey surrounded himself with all the things he found most beautiful in life. The house has been photographed and written about in some of the most prestigious publications in the world of architecture.

He led a very private life there and unlike Brief, Lunuganga was not open for people to stroll through house and garden.

I remember seeing pictures of peacocks in all their finery, strutting on the tailored lawns and even adorning the araliya trees!

This is what Bawa himself had to say about his greatest work: 'It will have the best elements of a garden city-shady and calm. In no respect will it resemble the frenetic Fort'.

(He was talking about the area surrounding the complex). He continued: 'There will be trees such as sal and ehela which will last for a long time like the Parliament building itself which will, of course, last for a thousand years'.

And, who knows, the memory of this greatly gifted and gracious man may last that length of time, or more, in the Sri Lanka that was his home.

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