How Architect Geoffrey Bawa Improved His Corner of Paradise
Lunuganga is the late architect’s Sri Lankan estate and memorial, but it is also a mesmerizing testament to his ability to seamlessly blend design and landscape.
Whatever is the country crib equivalent of a man-crush, I had it.
It materialized mere minutes after arriving at Lunuganga, a vast, pastoral estate set on the southern skirts of a famously teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka. Marked only by a iron gate with an elusive bell above it—behind which lies a steep hill to climb, as the grounds come into focus—it was where, chaperoned by a beaming guide in a white sarong, the heart unclenched.
“And this is where Mr. Bawa would have tea in the morning,” the guide was saying, shortly after, leading me to an artfully shaded nook and pointing to an ancient bell strung from a tree. It is, I soon learned, one of 14 distinct bells scattered through the 25 acres of house and garden, each one used by the master of the house to summon meals and beverages to specific spots on the property (a 5 p.m. G&T bench, for instance!), depending on the axis of the sun.
A clock of his own making!
And, yet, one where time today stands proverbially still.
Unravelling before me in a series of up-down, inside-out vignettes—an erstwhile rubber estate sewn together now by bungalows, turrets, reflecting pools, overhanging roofs, gracious courtyards, mooing cows, Neoclassical sculptures, and trees bequeathing everything from jackfruit to tamarind— the estate is nothing if not one that needs to be in the Little Black Book of any architecture fiend.
Like those houses, like all great houses, there was an obsessive, history-soaked person in the midst of it, and, in the case of Lunuganga, it came in the form of Geoffrey Bawa, who first purchased the property in 1948. Widely considered the founder of what’s known as “tropical modernism”—his influences can be felt everywhere from India to Singapore to Bali—the architect himself was part Sinhalese (courtesy of his European mother), part British and Muslim (via dad), and every bit the aggregate of a country that had functioned, in turn, as a colony of Great Britain, Portugal, as well as the Dutch.
Puttering with the place over the course of 50 years—a living, breathing project that both served as a kind of Rorschach test for his ideas about design—Bawa transformed Lunuganga into nothing less than his architectural “self-portrait,” as novelist Michael Ondaatje argues.
The Sri Lankan-bred Ondaatje, who’s even lifted the tableau as a setting for one of his books, has further described it this way: “Each vista, each location feels like another elegy or another voice… You discover you wish to be at one location at noon, another at twilight, some when you are young, others later in life.”
It’s a thought that found its promise during my own continuing trek around the place. With the crunch of the ground below offering echoes of an old Ceylon, while frogs white-noised in nearby rice paddies, and a multitude of birds offered another ambient soundtrack, the guide pointed out, “You can see the bend of the river here, sir.”
The overall effect? A prevailing sense of the “civilized wilderness” that Bawa, who died in 2003, liked to tout—an effort to merge tropes of the English garden (something that wouldn’t be out place in an E.M. Forster novel) with a jagged, jungled indigenousness. One that even spurred Prince Charles—ever the avid conservationist—to once come and see for himself, paying a personal visit to the architect.
Relying largely on his eye—like a great film director—and less on blueprints, the maestro was so adept at the blurring of interior and exterior that the story he most liked to share was the one about a visitor who when, looking over Lunuganga, said to its proprietor, “But Mr. Bawa, wouldn’t this be a lovely place to turn into a garden?” Bawa always considered that the best compliment of his life!
You know how some travel destinations are beautiful, but not interesting, and how some places are interesting, but not exactly write-home-about beautiful? After scooting around Sri Lanka for several days, it was italicized for me: This was an abode that’s definitely both. From its surf to its ruins, its white-hot beaches to its tea-growing hills—its colorful townships! its cloud of spices! its mosques and temples and shrines!—there’s an exuberance, all right. And coming here now to this private home, built by an architect with whom, I will admit, I was entirely unfamiliar? Only helped, further, to confirm the layers and layers to this island-nation.
Indeed, one of the best made-to-measure ways of exploring Sri Lanka might just be to do a Geoffrey Bawa hopscotch. His designs loom across the country, from oceanfront estates to the iconic parliament buildings he designed, in the capital of Colombo, to his final project at the Anantara Kalutra Hotel.
Maintained now by a trust, and featuring a coteries of guesthouses that can be rented out, Lunuganga, of course, remains the ultimate aria. And my visit, in that way, was an insight into both the man and his country (sometimes both at once). Bawa had studied at Cambridge, and flirted with the law, before finally succumbing to his true love, architecture, taking over the firm of his mentor H.H. Reid, at age 38.
Cosmopolitan, well-traveled, and gay, Bawa was part of a rarified circle that included author Arthur C. Clarke, of 2001: Space Odyssey fame, a renowned perma-expat Sri Lanka. Bawa had no long-term partner and during the latter part of his life seemed devoted only to his craft. His time on the island, incidentally, coincided with many conflicting mores: Though there was a lax attitude, in part, pre-Independence, toward homosexuality (the island’s two dominant religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, do not condemn), it remains officially illegal in the country to this day.
Because history cannot never be extracted from the familial, there were several mentions during my visit by my guide of something else… another Bawa Brother! Bevis Bawa! In one of the more curious cases ever of sibling rivalry, he was also gay, and also has his own idiosyncratic garden about a hour away! And though he did not exactly achieve the acclaim of his older brother, Bevis, working as the aide-de-camp to four governors of Ceylon, was known for a landscape style that was more mischievous than his brother’s, who had a more architectural eye. Their relationship was… complicated.
What I’ve also since learned? That Bawa the elder was intensely private, to the extent that not only did he not keep a diary, but he also vociferously avoided being photographed. The only clear recording of his voice? Unearthed by accident in London after his death.
Toward the end of my visit, we passed yet another tree, underneath, I was dutifully told, lies the final resting place of Geoffrey Bawa. “He is buried here,” the guide said softly.
Notably, there was no gravestone to mark the spot, which made its own sort of sense: Bawa’s home, in its totality, is his lasting epitaph.
For more about Geoffrey Bawa or to visit Lunuganga, go to www.geoffreybawa.com.