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Geoffrey Bawa and Ludic Modernism

Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003) was Sri Lanka’s most celebrated architect in the 20th century and his half-a-century long career shaped the nation’s visage to the world, even as Bawa’s ludic and polystylistic architectural innovations sat uneasily with Sri Lanka’s majoritarianism grown increasingly strident after independence in 1948. This paper examines Bawa’s architectural sites as “visual texts” that exhibit a fraught, fractious engagement with the dominant nationalism of his times.

(All figures accompanying this article are available on the EPW website.)

Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003) was Sri Lanka’s most celebrated architect in the 20th century and his half-a-century long career shaped the nation’s visage to the world, even as Bawa’s ludic and polystylistic architectural innovations sat uneasily with Sri Lanka’s majoritarianism grown increasingly strident after independence in 1948. This paper examines Bawa’s architectural sites as “visual texts” that exhibit a fraught, fractious engagement with the dominant nationalism of his times. Given his elite upbringing and upper-class clientele, his unique blend of architectural styles has been read as being elitist and exclusivist, even as a whole other tradition reads him as the pioneer of vernacularism and tropical modernism. How is it possible to obtain such diametrically opposite readings of the same texts/traditions? How are we to understand Bawa’s peculiar reshaping of the metropolitanist desires of newly-independent Sri Lanka? And what are the bigger lessons from his work and philosophy regarding modernity, urban spaces, and cosmopolitanism?

It is 101 years this year to the birth of Geoffrey Manning Bawa in colonial Colombo, Sri Lanka (Figure 1, available on EPW website). One of two sons to affluent parents of Sri Lankan and European, Muslim and Christian heritages, Bawa and his older brother Bevis would both, in time, become renowned architects. Bawa died in 2003, having lived out a long career spanning many decades of colonial Ceylon and postcolonial Sri Lanka, and is among those few titans of the 20th century, who, one might with some admiration say, lived through the heydays of both modernism and postmodernism and the intervening decades of many other isms. Bawa came from a racially and religiously mixed family background: his paternal grandfather was Ahamadu Bawa, a prominent Muslim in Ceylon, who married Georgina Ablett, an Englishwoman who was a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants. In 1908, Bawa’s father, Benjamin, married Bertha Schrader, a Dutch Burgher from Ceylon who claimed descent from a German mercenary and a Sinhalese mother. All this is to say that when you look at a photograph of Bawa, with his strikingly tall six feet plus frame, blond wavy hair, pale European countenance, it is easy to forget this enormously complicated genealogy, which, however, worked its way into Bawa’s work and his lifelong belief in what he called “Ceylon architecture.” As he said:

I prefer to consider all past good architecture in Ceylon as just that — as good Ceylon architecture, for that is what it is, not Dutch or Portuguese or Indian, or early Sinhalese or Kandyan or British colonial, for all examples of these periods have taken Ceylon into first account. (Robson 2002: 41)

He remained forever conscious of his awkward looks, his complicated family heritage and history, and a general “outsiderliness” marked his position within many collectivities all through his life. His only sibling, Bevis, older to him by 10 years, was starkly different looking: taller than even Geoffrey in their adult years, Bevis was dark-complexioned and was often taken to be a Moor or “thambi.” The brothers, owing to their age gap, lived out their childhoods rather out of sync, and although Geoffrey always looked up to his dashing elder brother, Bevis was known to be jealous of the attention his younger brother would get from people as well as their mother. Both brothers were gay: Bevis was flamboyant and known for wild parties, and Geoffrey the contemplative sibling, prone to deep friendships and long periods of singlehood. Both became prominent architects in their own rights (Bevis became famous as a landscape architect and aide-de-camp to four British governors), and it is interesting that their homes-cum-workspaces present to us rivalling sides of architectural modernism. The colourful Bevis designed his home, called Brief Garden, near Bentota on the western coast of the island, ensconced in a fantasy-themed garden, which, with its famous Japanese moon gate (Figure 2, available on EPW website) and priapic statues and gargoyles with impudent expressions (Figure 3, available on EPW website), some of them designed by Bevis himself, could not be a greater contrast to the quiet naturalism of Geoffrey’s garden-home, Lunuganga, built a stone’s throw away from Bevis’s.

Although Bawa trained as a lawyer, having been called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1940, he decided to become an architect, beginning with the Lunuganga estate, which he acquired in 1947 and which has been described as “his first muse and experimental laboratory for new ideas” (Geoffrey Bawa Trust). It is only in the 1950s that, after formal training in architecture in London, Bawa devoted himself at the age of 38 to working as an architect. He is widely considered to be a pioneer of “tropical modernism” whose features Tariq Jazeel sums up as

the attention to working with site and context such that buildings become less important than the spatial experience the architect can create; the necessity to work with and through a “tropical,” super-abundant nature that is always on the move; and perhaps most significantly, the concretisation of spaces that conflate inside with outside, “nature” with “culture.” (2002: 1–2)

The methods and aesthetics that characterise “tropical modernism” as a movement vary by space, local tradition, and the sensibility of the architect. With such buildings as the Kandalama and Neptune Hotels, Lunuganga, the Sri Lankan Parliament building, and a host of private houses all over Asia, including the famous Osmund and Ena de Silva house in Ceylon and Poddar House in Bangalore, and hotels, hospitals, even university buildings in Pakistan, Mauritius, Fiji, Japan, and Singapore, Bawa has become known as one of the most eminent architects of the world.

Bawa’s significance needs to be understood in tandem with the birth and development of the Sri Lankan nation state in the 20th century. Contemporary Sri Lanka is made up of a population that is 74.9% Sinhalese, 11.2% Sri Lankan Tamil, 9.2% Sri Lankan Moor, 4.2% Indian Tamil, and 0.5% others (Census of Sri Lanka). Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known up until 1972, has a documented history of 3,000 years, dating from the earliest Mahavamsa chronicle of the landing of King Vijaya Singha in 543 BC. From 1517 onwards, it was colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British over nearly four and a half centuries, all of whom left significant social, political, and architectural impacts upon the tiny island state. In 1948, Ceylon gained independence from British rule without violence or really a coherent nationalist movement of its own. The Ceylon of Bawa’s childhood was marked by several influences when it comes to an understanding of architecture: the British penchant for bungalows with gardens—or nature tamed, as the Victorians called it—was as powerful and influence as the Dutch before them, who, with their predilection for long verandahs, porte-cocheres or porticos, and intricate lattice-work, marked many manor-style homes to be found in the Colombo of Bawa’s childhood. Combine this with Sinhala designs of the stupa, dagoba, and mandala, the Kandyan kingdom’s Tamil temple-like architecture, Chinese and Moorish influences ­especially in such places as Galle, and you have, in the space of a nation only as big as 25,000 square miles, an incredible variety and plurality of architectural histories. It is in this light that Bawa’s perspicacious endorsement of Ceylon’s multi-ethnic character—what Bawa calls “good Ceylon architecture”—takes on a special quality, especially given the rise of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that only got more strident, exclusivist, and even violent from the 1950s onwards.

Vernacularism and Regionalism

Between 1948 and 1972, the transformation of Ceylon to Sri Lanka is closely tied to the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, its openly confrontationist stance towards Tamils and Muslims, and the espousal of majoritarianist theocracy as the face of its democracy. The Civil War between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the last three decades of the 20th century was a direct outcome of the strident and often divisive policies of multiple Sinhala-dominated governments of the past decades. Through these decades, the very notion of Sri Lankan-ness became tied to what Nihal Perera (2010: 76) has called “critical vernacularism” and O’Coill and Watt (2009: 1), following Kenneth Frampton, call “critical regionalism,” which becomes an important way to read and understand the various interpretive models for the newly independent nation’s architecture. Bawa’s work has often found itself at the crossroads of clashing interpretations, with recent criticism focusing especially on Bawa’s appropriation within a dominant Sinhala nationalist imaginary that hijacks such ideas as “indigenous” or “vernacular” for exclusivist Sinhala Buddhist iconography, a point that Lawrence Vale (1992: 197) underscores in his assessment of Bawa: “The only culture that seems to be considered indigenous in the iconography of [the national] masterplan is that of the Buddhist Sinhalese.” In contrast, other assessments of Bawa’s architectural sites emphasise their European features and “international style” (Jayawardene 1986: 47).

The trend in interpretations of Bawa’s oeuvre is whenever a critic or architect wants to describe something that does not fit a pre-formed tradition, invariably the word used to define it is modern. Clearly, modern helps to identify that which is radical or iconoclastic in Bawa’s work and style, but what is the modern, and especially, what does modern connote in the Sri Lankan context?

Forms of Modernity

Through the past many decades, modernity has been a fulcrum for numerous writings: synthesising the work of critics such as Rebecca Brown (2009), Timothy Mitchell (2000), Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) among others, Robin Jones (2011: 10) in her essay on Bawa has argued for an understanding of the modern “as an innately unstable condition,” especially on account of the central role that colonialism played in the production/proliferation of most recent forms of modernity. As a result of “this intrinsic instability,” Jones (2011: 10) argues, ­modernity “must be continually re-staged to preserve an internally unified … presence.” As Brown puts it, read this way, “the modern only appears to be monolithic. It is held together as monolithic through a continual performance of re-presentation of this uniformity. As such, the non-modern and the non-West often participate and constitute the staging of the modern” (Brown 2009: 10). At least three architectural models can be seen to be relevant to the Sri Lankan space: what can be broadly called “picturesque,” “vernacular,” and “modern,” (Jones 2011: 11–14; Richards 1986: 45–46). Where picturesque models drew largely upon the more immediate colonial Dutch and British styles, vernacular models relied on the more distant precolonial Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil Hindu architectural styles. Between these two visions, there is that wiggle-room called the “modern,” which seems to be a keep-safe for the incongruous, dissonant, and unidiomatic. Into this space, Bawa’s work is often positioned in what seems to be a disconnect with the actual sense of connection and interdependence between nature and creative effort that many of Bawa’s buildings and landscapes embody. So, what is missing in the literature on Bawa which struggles to categorise his oeuvre, even as his own work provides clues to how to read Bawa’s sensibility?

David Robson (2002), Bawa’s biographer, provides an insight­ful glimpse into Bawa’s enigmatic personality, one that can be useful for us as we assess his architectural ethos; Robson writes:

[Bawa] has always been a very private person, whose life was divided into clearly defined chapters, whose friends here kept in separate compartments, whose inner thoughts and feelings were seldom, if ever, exposed, and whose deeply held architectural beliefs were carefully camouflaged. When asked to explain his buildings he would usually offer witty ripostes or banal homilies and pretend to hold no truck with theorizing. (2002: 2; my italics)

Look at this in parallel to what J M Richards (1986), British architect and historian, writes of Bawa’s style of functioning:

The local vernacular … has not only given Bawa a live architectural tradition to build on … but has kept alive a tradition of inherited craftsmanship which he has always done his best to foster … and Bawa prefers when possible to take decisions and modify details on the site in the manner of the master builders of some centuries ago. From this no doubt derives to some extent the sensitive relationship he always manages to establish between nature and architecture. (1986: 46; my italics)

If we put together both these insights, we arrive at the glimmerings of an understanding of Bawa’s singular and special kind of modernity, one which championed tradition and its repository of time-tested and ancient practices as interpreted in the context of the demands of the now, the often understated links between the two provided by technologies of both the old and the new. By necessity, Bawa honed a sensibility and approach that was provisional, contingent, polystylistic, and ultimately, ludic or playful, betokening an ex-centricity that could, in one visual sweep, pay homage to a natural exterior and gently parody the domination of it by inserting an unusual and unmissable architectural feature like a ha-ha wall or adroitly placed incongruent vase or statue.

Play, Paradox and Profligacy

This kind of stylisation has a profound impact on the visitor, and if visual and architectural buildings are also “texts” and “sites of meaning,” then walking through Bawa’s designed spaces has an analogue, perhaps, in a feature of some literary modernist texts that Ian Watt (1980) called “delayed decoding,” a technique that defines the way in which literary texts unbundle thick, sensory detail, leading a reader down different corridors of meaning before restoring her to the main thread. The “delay” is, of course, a temporal thing—a matter of time that elapses between the registering of a detail and the recognition of its meaning or value later. As Watt (1980: 175) put it, delayed decoding “combines the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning.” Bawa’s architectural space yields a similar effect, as “outside” and “inside” lose categorical distinction, vistas and interiors are coaxed into “carefully camouflaged” relationships of adjacency, and only the sense of movement remains to break the sensory thrall of the design and provide a point of anagnorisis and contemplation.

In this sense, Bawa’s mode of operation is one of constant adaptation, and his buildings, while evoking specific traditions, remain open to play, paradox, and profligacy. There is in the production of such performativity a recognition of the modern as a dynamic mode for the folding, unfolding, refolding of memory over time and space. As Jones (2011: 11) notes philosophically,

Bawa’s architecture and landscapes cannot just be thought of as an alternative modernity that references a central, singular, monolithic modern located in Europe. Neither is Bawa’s work specifically marked by an over-arching, comprehensive difference or South Asian-ness. Rather, his output can be interpreted as an intervention in or interruption of a totalising, unified modern through the re-presentation or re-staging of that modern

as, precisely, a ludic modernism that treats living spaces as visual, aural, sensorial texts. Architect and pedagogue Vladimir Belogolovsky (2020) provides an insight into what makes Bawa so interesting as an artist of the world:

[i]t is hard to describe Bawa’s buildings in precise stylistic terms…. if we want to define Bawa’s place in the history of contemporary architecture, not simply admit that his work is genuinely likable, we are forced to analyse his achievements in precise terms without categorising him because he simply doesn’t fit in any of the prevailing and convenient categories… [R]ather than in complete buildings, his significance lies in fragments and notions. They exalt a multiplicity of ways of how to merge architecture and landscape, juxtapose modern and historical elements, blur inside and outside, frame seductively beautiful views, introduce traditional materials, reveal layers of history, and celebrate such notions as nostalgia and decay. His work is at once pre-modern, modern, and post-modern.

Let us look at some examples of what can be termed adaptive and ludic in Bawa’s oeuvre, in particular, two features of his buildings: the verandah or courtyard, and the use of water. Figure 4 (available on EPW website) is a photograph of Ena and Osmund de Silva’s house built between 1960 and 1962, and a turning point in Bawa’s career. Commissioned by the affluent de Silva couple, the home also marked a high point in Bawa’s collaborative career with Danish architect Ulrik Plesner (1930–2016). The house was designed in the cramped city-space of Colombo around an internal courtyard—“itself a reinterpretation of vernacular Sinhalese domestic space” (Jazeel 2007: 8)—and seen usually in old colonial walauwes or feudal manors, but one that also recalls the South Indian tradition of the naalukettu, a rectangular structure where four corridors are brought together with a centre open to the sky. Tariq Jazeel describes the impact of the verandah as one of

openness and transparency through the main living areas. The pitched roofs were designed with large overhanging eaves that extend way beyond the structure’s walls creating a veranda space that leads one into the internal courtyard, another effect of which is that space flows seamlessly from inside to out. This illusion of spaciousness and connection to the outside is accentuated by the alignment of doors and windows such that long through-vistas are created throughout the property. (2007: 8)

Many rooms designed by Bawa tend to have hyphenated identities: living rooms tend to look like studies, and interlinked corridors and turns recreate, even in a small space, the sense of being in a maze and of constantly being surprised. In a spatial parallel to delayed decoding in literary texts is the impact that such interior-exterior has on the viewer: as Geeta Doctor (2016) puts it, Bawa’s design demands strenuous engagement and “cannot be consumed as artefact. It can only be experienced, as it slowly reveals different facets of itself.”

Central to Bawa’s use of space was his championing of local products, materials, artisans, and labourers, a tribute to auto­chthony that is woven into the very formation of his buildings and their interiors. Bawa liked especially to work with locally available stone, which he used in a versatile way, and was known also for recycling old doors and windows, and materials salvaged from aging homes in Sri Lanka and southern India. Jazeel (2007: 8–9) writes that such “vernacularism” was

not just a stylistic innovation. This new appropriate mode of architectural praxis was also born from the proto-national social and economic context. Sri Lanka’s participation in the non-aligned movement through the 1960s had a lasting impact on the development of this architectural genre, as the likes of Bawa and Minnette de Silva built through times of severe shortage and import restriction. Glass and steel were expensive and almost impossible to get hold of; thus for the Ena de Silva house Bawa had to improvise, and he relied heavily on locally produced materials and locally trained craftspeople; something that remains integral to the sense of vernacularism that one reads in the modernist movement today.

The combination of old walauwe features with the modern sensibilities and requirements of the de Silva family provided an opportunity for Bawa (and Plesner) to bring together the incongruous and anachronistic in a relationship of play, as the architects experimented with symmetry, axiality, and linearity. Arief Setiawan (2010: 39) has finely analysed the comingling of multiple, transversal elements in the de Silva home (Kandyan walauwe, with Portuguese porticos, and Arabic mashrabiyya or latticework) as creating “a choreography of view.”

Emphasis on Water

A second key feature of Bawa’s architectonics is his singular emphasis upon water. The place of water in Sri Lanka’s landscapes (either through the incorporation of a natural waterbody or the creation of artificial “tanks” or reservoirs) has been a significant aspect of the island’s cultural make-up from its earliest histories. For example, Sri Lanka’s great historical chronicle, the Mahavamsa, records the significance of water during the medieval period on a number of occasions, commencing with the foundation myth of the island (with the arrival of Vijaya by sea). Indeed, the dominant features of Ceylonese life centred around the trio of the vava (irrigation tank), yaya (paddy field) and dagoba (temple). This was true of areas such as Hindu-dominated Jaffna ruled by dynasties of the Sinhalese, as well as Buddhist Kandy where the last dynasty to rule was of South Indian, Hindu origin. Bawa was drawn to water as a fulcrum of Ceylonese identity, and he remained committed to using water in as natural a way as was feasible and accommodable. While water features as an integral element of virtually every building or space Bawa designed, it is with Lunuganga (Figure 5, available on EPW website), a 40-acre derelict rubber estate, 60 miles south of Colombo at Dedduwa, Bentota, which Bawa bought in 1948 and worked upon for 50 years, that we find an enduring embodiment of the working principles of his vision of modernity. The estate provides evidence of a polystylism that Jazeel (2007: 14) has called Bawa’s “architectural secularism” by which he means that Lunuganga stands, in the corpus of Bawa’s works, as an embodiment of the multiple traditions that left an impact on how Bawa imagined space. Nowhere is such polystylism more powerfully felt than in the use of water: a natural lake providing the anchor to viewing the house and the garden as also creating the illusion of sublimity from the perspective of land on which there are housing structures, paddy fields, open gardens with grass and no flowers, as well as sections where lush vegetation proliferates in striking contrast to the knoll-like spaces.

An odd Italian statue (Figure 6, available on EPW website) pops up as do Ming jars strategically left in different places (Figure 7, available on EPW website) while elsewhere, as Anna Pavord (2011) puts it, “a grotesque horned head of Pan that leers out from the undergrowth” (perhaps, a tribute to his colourful brother Bevis; Figure 8, available on EPW website) sits somewhat uneasily alongside a whimsical, but instrumentalist, adaptation of the British ha-ha semi-wall (Figure 9, available on EPW website). All of these features taken together suggest a performative, adaptive ex-centricity that is constitutive of Bawa’s embodiment of the modern. The figure of Pan, ironically, was called by Bawa “Hindu Pan,” suggesting further the ludic nature of his restaging and transculturation.

Jones (2011) notes that other buildings by Bawa “also draw water into their plan and thereby engage the sensory experience of the visitor as well as referencing ancient vernacular traditions of building.” The first sight of Triton Hotel at Ahungalla, on the south-western coast of the island, is a view across a still pool filled with coconut palms extending to a further view through the entrance of the hotel where the sea is glimpsed. As Rupert Scott (1983: 16–17) has written, “the view across the expanse of water, lobby floor and again water, whose reflective surfaces are all identical heights … gives the impression of an unbroken sheet of water.” This is the core philosophy behind the infinity pool at Kandalama Hotel as well. Richards (1986: 46) notes:

[Bawa] appears to be guided not by theories but by his eye, and by his feeling for plants and for the landscape—including water, which in Sri Lanka is an essential component of the landscape. His buildings in fact are themselves in the nature of landscapes, not only because they incorporate planting and water and subtly contrived changes of form and level, but because incident follows incident after the manner of a well-composed landscape which is never without an element of surprise. Indeed they reflect the continually varying texture of the Sri Lanka landscape.

Bawa’s work has been claimed for by multiple projects, all of which constitute an orbit of modernity on which I have suggested, it is possible to imagine multiple points of movement, all revolving away from one another. On the one hand, he is the icon of Sri Lankan-ness although much of his output can read to be explicitly working away from the celebration of theocratic Sri Lanka;1 on the other hand, his philosophy has been understood as a variant of colonial modernity with its focus on the picturesque, where the heavy hand of domination upon nature brings its wildness to scenic control. Yet more, as the pioneer of tropical modernism, in which his training in Europe played a vital role, Bawa’s architectural style led to a new revival of vernacular styles and methods. But Bawa’s clientele comprised the affluent minority of Sri Lanka, and in a perspicacious essay written in 1986 when Bawa was alive and well-known, Shanti Jayawardene (1986: 49) argued that

the most severe reservations regarding [Bawa’s] work rest in the awareness that he chose the urban middle classes as his chief client at a historical juncture in which rural planning and resettlement, urbanisation and mass shelter are the most urgent of human concerns, as indeed they are of national policy.

Jayawardene (1986: 49) further noted,

[p]easants who constituted 85% of the population continued to build as they had always done in popular indigenous modes, while the bulk of state building was carried out by engineers and a few architects. Bawa’s clientele was thus circumscribed to less than 5% of the population and comprised the urban upper middle classes. His architecture, it may therefore be deduced, took little or no account of the building needs of the remaining 95% of the Sri Lankan people. What is critical in his work is not its indigenous content per se, which in its popular form represents the building mode of the majority. Its significance lies in the act of raising both the formal and the popular indigenous traditions from the degraded status assigned to them in the colonial era, and in the creation from them of a formal architectural language which could once more receive national patronage.

Bawa became a national icon while still alive and his work became appropriated within divergent, even contestatory, traditions, necessitating the need to remain alert to the political and socioeconomic contexts of the spatial texts that he created.

Moreover, Bawa’s place as a world artist can be assessed only if one takes a long view of what he achieved in multiple sites across the globe, a task which is outside the scope of this essay. Relevant in this regard, however, is the understanding of “tropical modernist” architecture itself, which Jayawardene bifurcates into colonial tropical architecture (CTA) as practised in the 19th century and modern tropical architecture (MTA) of the 20th century as it evolved in ex-colonies. Noting the many overlaps and temporal continuities between the two, Jayawardene (1986: 48) argues:

[t]he only basic difference between CTA of the nineteenth century and MTA of the twentieth century appears to be that one was created by Europeans for Europeans in the colonies and the other was created by Europeans for “natives” of the neo-colonies. Both were alien implants validated by the superior power of the imposing authority; in one instance obvious and in the other insidious. But in essence both systems ruthlessly functioned upon the false assumption that the indigenous architecture of the subject or newly independent people was (in classic orientalist prose) “decadent,” “moribund” and happily, of course, devoid of a living history.

Bawa’s architectural sites are not ahistorical or acultural symbols of some timeless essence (howsoever that essence is appropriated and ideologised), and I am in broad agreement with Jayawardene that his work and philosophy should be read in light of global historical trends in urban design and of the rise of industrialism and capitalism in post-colonies.

The question, then, is: How are we to theorise/assess Bawa’s modernity? Is it to be understood in terms of continuities and departures—from the European picturesque, from Buddhist architecture centred on stupas and dagobas, from Kandyan Tamil architecture with its curving domes and intricate carvings, from state-authored buildings that foreground a vision of unity over diversity? I have called Bawa’s techniques polystylistic, by which I mean that the coming together of the picturesque, the vernacular, and the modern can occur simultaneously (even polarisingly), so that sensorially, one’s reaction to a particular feature could differ from someone else’s reaction to the same feature. Lunuganga especially defies “simple categorization in a single, cultural and historical origin” (Jones 2011: 16). Its modernity lies in the re-presentation of different precolonial and colonial models that, as Jones has insightfully argued, interrupt a totalising, unified modern. The ludic nature of Bawa’s architectural imagination allows for the element of play, which renders the categoricity of traditions unstable less absolute. While Bevis’s flamboyant gardens and landscapes often extend the idea of play to disruptive camp, Bawa remains, in contrast, committed to visual, aural, and affective congruences but not without his own interpretation of playfulness. As a 50-year project that Bawa fine-tuned, messed with, experimented on, Lunuganga presents for us “one of the most appropriate examples of historical eclecticism” through a restaging of the definition of the modern as constituted around a relationship between time and space (Pieris 2016: 24). But such relationships are to be seen in other works of Bawa as well, where the yoking together of divergent elements drawn from multiple centres of the world offers up a veritably heterotopic experience of space.

When we begin to think of the modern as mode, modus in the modernus, we have before us a dazzling array of re-presentations that play off against each other in an endless dance of interpretation. Jameson, Baudrillard, and Appadurai have all shown us that postmodernism is but the logic of late capitalism developed to a nicety in the ideological theatre of the real where all we see are but more and more representations, some better than others, but all as ephemeral as each other. When encountering Bawa’s spaces, it is tempting to recall Michel Foucault’s great essay “Of Other Spaces” whose first rendition was as a lecture to architecture students in March 1967, where Foucault exhorted students to rethink “space” and “time” as experiential concepts and not merely abstract vessels carrying disembodied human thought. Indeed, Bawa shows a keen awareness of the ways in which “a thing’s place was no longer anything but a point in its movement, just as the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down” (Foucault 1984: 1–2). But while Bawa draws upon the functions of parody, plurality, and allusion or intertextuality, which so heavily mark postmodern architectures, ultimately, his designs steer attention away from themselves and emphasise organicity, integration with environment (topography, light, climate, tectonic features, ethos), and an autochthony of plural local traditions that evoke complex symbolic meanings, always beholden to and never quite dominating the natural environment. Belogolovsky’s (2020) strange simile, when you think about it, actually fits well:

Bawa’s buildings are like plants; they unfold and make everyone within comfortable and joyous. None of these structures are [sic] ever finished or thrived for perfection, they constitute beginnings of journeys by absorbing all kinds of qualities of their surroundings.

Pioneer of Tropical Modernism

Can all these readings, so fractious, so distinct, so contradictory, arrive at the same time? What Bawa created in Lunuganga, inspired as he was by the campy exuberance of Bevis’s home, is an experiential record of space registered through the invocation of time: what Setiawan (2010: 39) calls “a choreography of view” is, indeed, a result of “strict arrangement” and precise art(fulness). The critical tendency to harmonise and resolve the pluralities of influences and affective transformations that Bawa designs so consistently in his buildings often emerges, as O’Coill and Watt (2009: 8) note, from “the conceptual limitations of dualist thinking [within which] regionalist representations of Bawa’s work have been framed … [and] always understood in terms of some unified, ahistorical and essentialist notion of Sri Lankan identity.” Such an approach misses the important dimensions of affect and perception from which, in the 21st century, Bawa’s sites can be revisited for their continued relevance, value, and beauty. As one walks through the different components that make Lunuganga a home, a workspace, a garden, a museum of lost and reclaimed objects, all occupying a fraction of the total space while the rest remains wilderness, one is reminded of what Bawa called “experiencing space”: “[a] building can only be understood by moving around and through it and by experiencing the modulation and feel[ing] the spaces one moves through—from the outside into verandah, then rooms, passages, courtyards. Archi­tecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced” (qtd in Sreekanth 2011).

Today, Bawa’s influence lies globally dispersed in the visions and works of numerous architects inspired by him, and in an age that Suddhaseel Sen (2020: 190) characterises as one of “postcolonial mimicry,” such that led Thomas Friedman to “joyfully [note] the sprouting of glass-and-steel buildings like weeds each week in Bangalore, which he took as a sign of India as having finally ‘arrived’ in the global economic order,” some of the lessons of vernacularist cosmopolitanism embodied in Bawa’s buildings and methods merit recall and wider application. The tension between the forces of cultural homo­genisation, on the one hand, and cultural heterogenisation, on the other, is nowhere more evident than in the houses, offices, hotels, and monuments that come up around us in the 21st century. Bawa’s long architectural career spanned many movements from modernist to the postmodernist, but the common theme running through his works remains tied to his deep love for natural environment and a ludic and adaptive philosophy of time as embodied in space. Bawa’s insistence on “experiencing” space as a function of time captures the philosophical core of his art, which is one of embodiedness and corporeality and emphasises pragmatic and durable use of natural assets.

The challenges of staying salvageable, scaleable, and sustainable that drive architectural projects today are also the challenges we face in reimagining our place on the planet, one that we can continue to inhabit in responsible and shareable ways. For such a project, whose value is universal, we must look, as Bawa did, to the local and particular, formed as these were in the crucible of multiple historical interactions and cross-cultural pollinations. In this sense, Bawa’s buildings are neither Buddhist nor British, neither surreal nor hyperreal, and their clean lines, programmatic use of natural and refashioned spaces, vernacularist methods in sync with locally available materials and resources, and polyvalent insertions that disrupt any single interpretive frame in which to stably categorise his work, all mark out Bawa’s experimental, ludic philosophy and praxis as exceptional in his own time and emulable for times to come.


[An earlier version of this essay was presented at the “International Seminar on Megacities: Conviviality and Its Limits,” Jadavpur University in 2020 where it benefited from the insights offered by architects and city planning experts in the audience. I thank the Faculty Research Project Development Fund programme of the Presidency University for the funding that enabled the travel and research for this essay.]

1 See Robson’s (2002: 34) dissent from Vale’s reading of “roof forms” in Bawa’s buildings as drawing solely upon medieval Sinhalese architecture championed by Sinhala revivalists. See also O’Coill and Watt’s (2009: 7–8) discussion of the negligible influence of Tamil or Muslim architecture in Bawa’s buildings, and their larger argument that whether or not Bawa intended it, and whether or not individual architectural features have multiple symbolic meanings over time and culture, architecture as a socially-constructed profession and science is embedded “within particular relations of power, shifting or indeterminate patterns of cultural encounter … [and] in the context of post-independence Sri Lanka, that meant [Bawa’s] ­architecture was invariably caught up in the ­Sinhalese struggle to establish a national cultural hegemony.” The afterlife and continued relevance of Bawa’s designs need not, however, be held captive to their gestational politics.


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Belogolovsky, Vladimir (2020): “Celebrating Geoffrey Bawa’s Delightful Buildings and Gardens on His 101st Birthday,” STIRworld, 23 July, https://www.stirworld.com/inspire-people-celebrating-geoffrey-bawa-s-del....

Brown, Rebecca M (2009): Art for a Modern India, 1947–1980, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Census of Sri Lanka, http://www.statistics.gov.lk/Population/StaticalInformation/CPH2011.

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— (2002): Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Jayawardene, Shanti (1986): “Bawa: A Contribution to Cultural Regeneration,” Mimar 19, January–March, pp 47–49.

Jazeel, Tariq (2007): “Bawa and Beyond: Reading Sri Lanka’s Tropical Modern Architecture,” South Asia Journal for Culture, 1, pp 1–22.

Jones, Robin (2011): “Memory, Modernity and History: The Landscapes of Geoffrey Bawa in Sri Lanka, 1948–1998,” Contemporary South Asia, Vol 19, No 1, pp 9–24, DOI:10.1080/09584935.2010.544717.

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O’Coill, Carl and Kathleen Watt (2009): “The Politics of Culture and the Problem of Tradition: Re-evaluating Regionalist Interpretations of the Architecture of Geoffrey Bawa,” Architecture and Identity, Peter Herrle and Erik Wegerhoff (eds), Lit Verlag: Berlin.

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Watt, Ian (1980): Conrad in the Nineteenth Century, London: Chatto & Windus.


Updated On : 23rd Nov, 2020


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