Remembering Geoffrey Bawa – Sri Lanka’s Master Architect

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The subcontinent in the 19th and 20th century was a place of much upheaval. After its colonial past was etched in stone and independence was founded, a vacuum within which anyone could leave their stamp on society remained. The transformations that came next were catalyzed by the mass movement of people from different civilizations, countries and cultures. Geoffrey Bawa’s family history lent him the opportunity to create real change in Sri Lanka and within the wide and varied field of architecture.

Geoffrey’s paternal grandfather, Amaduwa Bawa, was a Muslim lawyer from the ancient Arab port of Beruwela (a Western province of modern-day Sri Lanka). Amaduwa Bawa left for England to further his education, where he married Georgina Ablett, an Englishwoman of French Huguenot descent. Their eldest son, Benjamin, settled in Colombo, becoming one of the most successful lawyers of his generation. In 1908, he married Bertha Marion Schrader, a Dutch Burgher of mixed European and Sri Lankan descent and they had two sons: Bevis, born in 1909, and Geoffrey, born in 1919.

Geoffrey was born in Ceylon (which would become Sri Lanka in 1972), completing his initial education at Royal College in Colombo and then going on to study English and Law in 1938 at St Catharine’s College in Cambridge, UK. After gaining a BA in English Literature Tripos, Geoffrey studied law at the Middle Temple in London, becoming a barrister in 1944.     

He returned to Sri Lanka after the Second World War, working in a law firm in Colombo. However, law wasn’t where his passion lay, and after the death of his mother in 1946, he left both the profession and the country, travelling through the Far East, the United States and Europe before returning to Sri Lanka in 1948. Back in Sri Lanka, he saw a beautiful abandoned estate which was once a cinnamon and rubber plantation. Recognising the potential for beauty that lay amongst the tropical wilderness, he purchased the estate, which would later be named Lunuganga, and become the cornerstone of his architectural career.

Bawa initially planned to convert Lunuganga into an Italian garden and villa, however, once he started working on it, he realized his dearth of architectural knowledge. He apprenticed in 1951 at a well-known architectural practice in Colombo, Edwards Reid and Begg, and then returned to England, where he enrolled as a student at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, gaining a Diploma in Architecture by 1956. A year later he became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects and returned to Sri Lanka and back to the same firm he first apprenticed with.

Despite his late entry into the field, Bawa went on to become one of the most influential TCK Asian architects of his generation. He explored modernism, its cultural implications and created a unique, recognizable style of design which had a lasting impact on architects across the world. In fact, Bawa was one of the original proponents of ‘Tropical Modernism’, a design movement in which sensitivity for local context combines with the form-making principles of modernism, leading to numerous recognition and awards, including the Aga Khan Special Chairman’s Award for Architecture (2001) and the Deshamanya award in recognition of his contributions to his country by the government of Sri Lanka.

Bawa is an inspiration not only for TCKs, but those who are changing professions. Having started his architectural career at the age of 38, he has proven that one can reinvent themselves professionally, if they apply themselves. Perhaps it was his rich TCK heritage which gave him the adaptability and dynamism to transform architecture across the subcontinent.

How has your TCK background helped you adapt to a new professional environment? Like Bawa’s Tropical Modernism, have you initiated ideas in your profession that are both innovative and local? Comment below and share your story!

Learn more:

Read more about Geoffrey Bawa’s story, from his youth to his ascent to the peak of Subcontinental architecture

Here’s an illuminating visual spotlight on some of Geoffrey Bawa’s architectural masterpieces

Check out Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga estate; his country home, and one of Sri Lanka’s iconic designs

No More Walking on Eggshells

No More Walking on Eggshells