100 years of Bawa: walking through freedom and serenity | Sunday Observer

100 years of Bawa: walking through freedom and serenity

28 July, 2019
Ratnapura Tennis Club 2015 - Unseen Bawa by Sebastian Posingis
Ratnapura Tennis Club 2015 - Unseen Bawa by Sebastian Posingis

Throughout history, there has never been a Sri Lankan architect who has been celebrated as much as Geoffrey Bawa. He is now considered as one of the most important and influential Asian architects of the twentieth century. Although Bawa represented the era when architecture was associated only within a certain class, it wasn’t a hassle to find a person who has heard of him in any part of the country, even without knowing exactly who Geoffrey Bawa is.

Since modern architecture was defined, the world of art as well as architecture has been in a never ending debate on whether architecture is an art or just the creation of a solid structure for the benefit of society. To shed light on that debate, Bawa’s architectural creations are living examples, proving that architecture is another form of art with a solid structure for the benefit of society. In any artistic creation, the artist finds the opportunity to express his emotions and ideas of the aesthetics with their imagination, and express his/her inner truth in life. Similarly, whoever walks through any of Bawa’s buildings or landscapes would immediately realize how much he appreciated the time, space and the freedom it creates. Through his every architectural creation, Bawa has gifted us freedom and serenity. The nostalgic and mystic feelings one would get walking through any of his creations would be a reminder to us to slow down awhile until the madness outside recedes.

Geoffrey Bawa was born on July 23, 1919, to Bertha Marianne Schrader who was of German, Scottish and Sinhalese descent and Justice BW Bawa, a Sri Lankan Muslim and French. His family background reflects the ethnic and cultural diversity of Sri Lanka at that time. These multi-cultural influences may have undoubtedly influenced his professional and life choices. Similar to his father and grandfather, Bawa too initially studied and practised law. However, he quit his career half way through and decided to travel across the world after his parents’ sudden death.

He joined the firm Edwards, Reid and Begg in Colombo in 1951 and continued to study architecture in London at the Architectural Association until 1956. Back in Sri Lanka, Bawa developed many buildings and landscapes across the island, including his original passion project Lunuganga, The Ratnasivaratnam House, Steel Corporation Offices and Housing, Geoffrey Bawa’s Town House in Galle Fort, the Osmund and Ena De Silva House, Number 11 33rd Lane (his own home in Colombo), Bishop’s College Colombo, Bentota Beach Hotel, Heritance Ahungalla, University of Ruhuna, the Sunethra Bandaranaike House, Heritance Kandalama, Lighthouse Hotel, Galle and Sri Lankan Parliament Building in Kotte. He also completed projects in India, the Mauritius, Fiji, Japan, Pakistan, Singapore and Indonesia.

With a self-made challenge, Geoffrey Bawa had taken Sri Lankan architecture to a different path. He often used traditional building materials which kept costs low, and which were also factored in local climate. The 1960s was the last decade before Sri Lanka was dealing with the open economy. Unlimited types of raw materials for building construction were not commonly available then. Although it was a challenge to create buildings with only local ingredients to withstand the climatic features in the country, without the use of iron and glass which were popular the world over, Bawa successfully accomplished most of his architectural works depending only on the local raw materials. All his architectural works were beautifully illuminated using natural light and he was the pioneer to establish that concept in architecture, in the country. His work clearly proves that there is nothing wrong with elevation, while converting the darkness and the light into a romantic and sensual setting. However, nowadays designing a home without glass windows and obtaining natural light is considered impossible. Geoffrey Bawa defined modern living in Sri Lanka and inspired thousands of architects and laymen to rethink spatial boundaries and create a tropical aesthetic construction based on the availability of space and the surrounding environment. Not surprisingly, Bawa drew international acclaim and won a group of hardcore fans from all over the world.

During his lifetime he worked with several well-known artists including Barbara Sansoni, Laki Senanayake, Ena de Silva and influenced the practice of many of today’s prominent architects who began their careers under his tutelage, including Channa Daswatte, Ismeth Raheem Anura Rathnavibushana, Sumangala Jayatilaka and Amila de Mel.

He won Chairman’s Award of the Aga Khan Special Chairman’s Award for Architecture in 2001 and the Sri Lankan Government also gave him the title of Deshamanya, the second highest civilian honour in the country.

He passed away in 2003. Geoffrey Bawa, the name will resonate for hundreds of years more.

 ‘Unseen Bawa’

‘Unseen Bawa’ is an exhibition of photography by Sebastian Posingis, open to the public at the Paradise Road Gallery Café until July 31. It is a selection of the lesser known works by Geoffrey Bawa.

Connecting via Facebook, Sebastian shared his experience of the journey of discovering ‘Unseen Bawa’ with the Sunday Observer, “I first photographed some of Geoffrey Bawa’s buildings in 2014 when I was working on the book The New Sri Lankan House. I subsequently worked on two books together with David Robson, In Search of Bawa and Bawa Staircases. Unseen Bawa is a collection of images that are not iconic Bawa but yet exist, like many of his buildings that we pass by everyday unaware of their origin. There is always more to explore and sometimes it’s worth having a second and third look,” Sebastian Posingis is the author of perhaps the most extensive collection of photographs recording Bawa’s work. These photographs, taken over a course of 5 years reveal Posingis’ extraordinary sensitivity to the poetry in Bawa’s buildings. Installed at the Paradise Road Gallery Café, formerly Geoffrey Bawa’s office, the work resonates with the rhythms, patinas and proportions that characterize much of Bawa’s architecture, and which are exemplified in the Gallery.

Sebastian Posingis is a German photographer who spent much of his childhood in Iran, Greece, India and Sri Lanka.

The Bawa 100 Foundation has launched a year-long program starting this month to commemorate Geoffrey Bawa and his work in Sri Lanka.

A few highlights of the ongoing and upcoming events are as follows:

~ ‘The Gift’: Installation Series at Lunuganga, comprising works by Kengo Kuma, Lee Mingwei, Dominic Sansoni, Dayanita Singh, Sarah Sze and Chandragupta Thenuwara.

The series will conclude in March 2020.

~ ‘The Greedy Forest’: Laki Senanayake Retrospective Exhibition, curated by Max Moya in September 2019 at the Ena de Silva House, Lunuganga

~ ‘Open Buildings Day’: a tour of Geoffrey Bawa-designed residences in Colombo by Channa Daswatte, principal architect, MICD Associates and Trustee, Lunuganga Trust and Geoffrey Bawa Trust- October 2019

~ Online Launch of the ‘Oral Histories Project’: an attempt to develop the archive of primary source material about Bawa, especially experiences of collaborators of the artist - December 2019

Pix: Shan Rambukwella
Dushmantha Mayadunne