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Bawa--genius of the place.

The welcome retrospective at the Deutsches Architektur Museum charts the career of the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003). It traces a path from a mannered 'Tropical Modernism' to a highly personal synthesis of Modernist principles with the indigenous culture, materials and environmental techniques of Sri Lanka. A whole floor is dedicated to the house and garden Bawa created for himself at Lunuganga over a period of nearly half a century: it was while working here in the early 1950s that Bawa found his vocation, abandoning his career as a barrister and enrolling at the Architectural Association in London at the age of 35.



The title of the exhibition is taken, aptly, from Pope's Epistle to Burlington. In Sri Lanka, Bawa consulted the genius of a place whose climate and culture he knew intimately; when working abroad he proved adept at quickly developing a comparable understanding. Though best known for his hotels, Bawa brought his skills to a vast range of building types, from low-cost housing and rural buildings to Sri Lanka's magnificent Parliament building. He designed both Christian and Buddhist places of worship, and was honoured by the Aga Khan Foundation for his lifetime contribution to the architecture of the Muslim world. Some landmark buildings will be familiar to AR readers (AR February 1966, August 1970, April 1978, May 1983, November 1986, December 1995). The exhibition weaves these into a rich tapestry of other projects, like the classroom block for Bishop's College (1960), the Mahaweli 'bioclimatic skyscraper' offices (1976) and the sublime Jayawardene House (1997) the last building Bawa completed before being paralysed by a stroke in 1998.


We are shown a man who educated himself through a lifetime of travel, fascinated equally by the architecture of all ages and instinctively absorbing the spatial essence of what he saw. His mature style combined apparently effortless placemaking with a vast range of reference. It is informed not only by a Sri Lankan architectural tradition dating back to the sixth century BC but also by his knowledge of other parts of Asia, of ancient Rome, Moorish Andalucia, Renaissance and Baroque Italy, the English picturesque and the twentieth-century legacies of Wright, Mies and Le Corbusier. We see him working with space as a sculptor might work with stone, starting with a design strategy that optimized the potential of the raw site, then carving his building out of the landscape and the air, responding as its character developed and the grain of the material was revealed.

The form of Bawa's buildings followed strictly from an analysis of functional requirements--though this may initially come as a surprise to someone viewing the extended plans of the Triton or Kandalama hotels. Crucially, however, his concept of the function of a hotel was formed by his experience as a traveller. From his earliest hotel schemes in the mid-1960s, Bawa saw their fundamental purpose was to communicate the beauty of a tropical landscape and the essence of an ancient culture to a person who might have journeyed half-way round the world to experience them. This was indeed a revolution in modern hotel design, a revolution that restored the guests, rather than the operator, to the heart of the architectural programme, and actively sought to complement and enhance the place they had come to see. His approach was to have a profound influence across the tropical world.


Arranged thematically in a layout that evokes courtyards and verandas, and amplified with colour, texture, film and sound, this show vividly communicates the work of a remarkable man. It was curated by David Robson, assisted by a team of Bawa's close associates, and is supported by an excellent catalogue--distilled by Robson from his own book Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works. There is one aspect that would have given Bawa particular delight, for he was adamant that architecture could not be explained and must be experienced directly: special tours of Sri Lanka have been planned by the exhibition team, showing his works in their true physical and cultural context.

I warmly recommend a trip to Frankfurt between now and 17 October, or to Sri Lanka between now and the end of time.

Bawa--Genius of the Place runs until 17 October at the Deutsches Architektur Museum in Frankfurt,
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Title Annotation:View; Geoffrey Bawa
Author:Laird, Simon
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:9SRIL
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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