One of the world's great train journeys skirts Sri Lanka's west coast, hugging the shore where the Laccadive Sea meets the land. It's a natural wonder that ultimately must be abandoned for the inland trip towards Bentota and a place where nature gives way to the built environment. Perched on Dedduwa Lake, Lunuganga Estate, with its renowned garden, stands as one of Sri Lanka's most popular attractions, as well as one of the best-known works of architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003). Its influence is palpable in all of his work, which we can thank for the pitched roofs and harmony with nature that are now staples of tropical hospitality design.
A cinnamon plantation under the Dutch in the 17th century and a rubber plantation under the British in the next, the six-hectare Lunuganga is now a public garden and seasonal hotel after dozens of other incarnations. Fresh from law school, Bawa purchased the abandoned estate in 1949 and it was Lunuganga's sprawling main house, surrounding tangle of greenery and cool, serene lakeside position that inspired him to study architecture in London. An ongoing project for Bawa over the next 40 years, Lunuganga became something of a laboratory, a place where the influential architect would hone his craft and define his signature tropical modernism, a hybrid of his Architectural Association education and his home's monsoonal climate.
"[Bawa] did not really give a particular precedence to the modernist project over other good architecture," says architect Channa Daswatte at MICD Associates. "He once said, 'Why would a good Palladio building be better or worse than a good Le Corbusier one, or vice versa?' He questioned the relevance of the modernist project in Asia, creating an approach to architecture that not only accommodated the monsoon climate and environment in which he lived, but also its culture through the materials and skills available to him, marrying them with the best of the spatial and ideological aspects of modernism. This is what tropical modernism is all about."
The Sri Lankan Parliament building, commissioned in 1979, effortlessly combines Bawa's modernist, geometric leanings and the tropical space the building occupies: asymmetrical, interconnected pavilions rooted in indigenous architectural forms and constructed with local wood and stone comprise the halls of power, seemingly floating on a man-made lake and surrounded by dense foliage reminiscent of Lunuganga.
The Kandalama Hotel in Dambulla, finally completed in 1992, exploits its ridge-side position overlooking a reservoir by aping the rock it's on before vanishing into the surrounding jungle.
"New rooms needed to be built to replace the original villa-type design that had been suggested by Bawa, and the room block on the beach side,"
Bawa's work can be found across the region, in almost all of its luxury resorts, and Daswatte recently ushered an unfinished Bawa project to completion in Kalutara, about 40km from Colombo. Commissioned in 1995, the Anantara Kalutara Resort is sited on a lagoon between the Indian Ocean and the Kalu Ganga river, with waterfronts on both. It sat idle for 15 years after Bawa's death until Daswatte, a former Bawa student, took up the challenge. Of the original plans, the main building with its colonial Dutch gable roof, breezy arrival hall, lobby lounge and upstairs bar remains, with Daswatte taking several pages from Bawa's book to come up with a design for the library, ultimately modelled after Daswatte's personal study.
The modern, 141-room hotel had to accommodate a site divided by a public road. Daswatte's goal was to stitch the two halves together using three-storey walls to cross the gap. As 1995 is a lifetime ago in hotel terms, changes were required to guest rooms. "New rooms needed to be built to replace the original villa-type design that had been suggested by Bawa, and the room block on the beach side," says Daswatte. The beachside rooms were irreparably damaged by 2004's catastrophic tsunami and subsequent neglect. However Daswatte says, "The new designs follow the approach Bawa has taken in similar circumstances in other hotels. I adapted them to the needs of the Anantara and the site."
This is an excerpt from “A tropical legacy", a feature article from the April 2018 issue of Perspective magazine. To continue reading, get your copy of Perspective.