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  • CHAPI'ER TWEL VE

    David Robson

    In 1949,soonafterSriLankahadgainedits independence, a young man startedto make a garden. For its set ting hechose an abandoned rubber estatestraddling two low bills on a promon-tory which juts out into the DedduwaLake, a sleepy backwater of the BentotaRiver. A mile away to the west thewaves of the lndian Ocean roll in overthe coral reef and break on to a whitesandy beach fringed wi th coconut palms.To the east beyond the serried ranks ofrubber-clad bills and rice-carpettedvalleys, lies the mysterious Sinharaja,Sri Lanka ' s only remaining area of pri-

    meval raiD forest. This is the wettestregion of Sri Lanka and its most fertile,a vast hothouse ,of exotic trees and

    plants.Today the garden is in its prime, but,

    after the passage of more than fortymonsoons, Sri Lanka has lost its inno-cence and the young man has grownold. As he sits on a terrace above therice paddy and surveys his handiworkhe reflectson theinevitabilty ofwhathehas produced: perhaps the garden hadsimply been waiting there to be discov-ered beneath its canopy of jungle. Butthis is a work of art, Dot of nature: it isthe contrivance of one mind and a hun-dred pairs ofhands working with natureto produce something which is, supranatural ' .Forests have been felled

    and new trees planted, hills have been

    moved and terraces cut. The originalestate bungalow has been turned insideout, and the hill has been liberalysprinkled with pavilions, walls andstatues.

    The garden is called 'Lunuganga.' ,which in Sinhala means 'salt river' .Inits previous incarnations it had been aDutch cinnamon plantation and a Brit-ish rubber estate and, like many of SriLanka's landscapes, it is a man-madecreation. But Dow it has taken on a lifeof its own: it is a living organism,changing with the weather, with thetime of day, ':Vith the seasons, with thepassing of the years.

    The man who has been bothLunuganga' s creator and guardian iscalled Geoffery Bawa. He was born in1919 in what was then the British Colonyof Ceylon and grew up in that tolerant,cultured and cosmpolitan society whichonce thrived on the shady verandahs ofColombo's leafy suburbs.

    Bawa belongs to a generation of art-ists whose lives spanned across theindependence divide, among them thepainters George Keyt and Manjusri, thedancers Chitrasena and Vajira, thede-signers Ena de Silva and BarbaraSansoni, and the architect Minette deSilva. Born into an open and pluralisticsociety they came together from everycorner of Sri Lanka' s ethnic maze, and,inspired by a growing appreciation of

    ~ 119

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  • David Robson

    the diversity and depth of their ownhistory and culture, they worked at theirart to discover ways of making anddoing things wbich would be both newand vital and yet at the same time essen-tially Sri Lankan.

    As a young man Bawa studied Eng-lish and Law at Cambridge in the late1930s and was called to the Bar inLondon in 1943. Maving spent sometime travelling in Europe and Americahe returned home just as Sri Lankaregained its independence.

    ln 1949 when he bought Lunugangabis aim was to turn the estate bungalowinto a weekend house, and to createaround it a tropical evocation of thegreat renaissance gardens of Europe.This ambitious project awakened hisinterest in architecture but he soonrealised that his knowledge was nomatch for his imagination and hereturned to Britain to study at theArchitectural Association School inLondon.

    When he finally qualified as an,ar-chitect in 1956 he was already 37 yearsold. After travelling in Europe he re-tumed to Colombo in 1958 and becameprincipal partner in the near moribundarchitectural practice of Edwards, Reidand Begg. Since then Geoffrey Bawahas been astonishingly prolific. Misportfolio of work has encompassed re-

    ligious, social, cultural, educational,governmental, commercial and resi-dential buildings, and he has estab-lished a comprehensive range of proto-types in each of these areas.

    It is difficult to suffi up or evaluatethe work of an artist who, though closeto the end ofhis career, is still active asa designer and builder. But we can saywith some certainty of Geoffrey JBawathat he has exerted a decisive influenceon the emerging architecture of the

    122

    newly independent Sri Lanka and thatbis buildings and ide as have been takenas exemplars by a whole generation ofyoung Sri Lankan architects.

    His architecture is a subtle blend ofmodem and traditional, of east and west,of formal and picturesque: he exploitsthe climate and the fertility ofhis nativeland in order to break down the artifi-cial separation of inside from outside;he draws on every twist and tum ofhiscountry , s colourful history to create an

    architecture which is fit ting to its place,but he also scours the world for ideas toinform an architecture which is of itstime.

    Two projects probably hold the keyto an understanding of Bawa's work:the garden at Bentota which he hascontinued to fashion for over 40 yearsand his own house in Colombo. Bothhave been many years in the making,both have served as test beds for histheories and ideas, both take an existingcontext as their starting point. The twoact as complementary opposites: thetown house is a haven of peace lockedaway within the busy city , an infiliitegarden of the mind constructed like aRubic Cube on a tiny urban plot; thegarden at Bentota, in contrast, in a dis-tant retreat, an outpost on the edge tothe known world, which challenges theinfinite horizon of the ocean to the westand the endless switchback of hills tothe east and which reduces this vastopen landscape to a controlled series ofoutdoorrooms, acivilised garden withinthe larger garden wildemess of SriLanka.

    Bawa's house in Colombo is an es-say in architectural bricollage. ln 1958he bought the third of four small bunga-lows which lay along a short cul de sacat the end of a narrow suburban lane andconverted it into a pied-a-terre with

  • living room, bedroom, tiny kitcben androorn for a servant. When the fourthbouse became vacant it was convertedto serve as a dining roorn and secondliving room. Finally in 1968 tbe firsttwo bouses of the row were bougbt andadded into the compositon. At this stagethe f1fSt bouse was dernolisbed andreplaced by a 4 storey structure incor-porating a ground floor flat for visitors,a first floor library, a second floor gar-den terrace, and a third floor roof ter-race. The result is an introspective laby-rinth of rooms and garden courts wbicbtogether create the illusion of infinitespace on wbat is a tiny urban plot.Words like inside and outside lose alImeanihg: bere are rooms witbout roofs,and roofs without walls, all of thernconnectd by a matrix of intemal vistas.

    Althougb tbe final plan is the resultof a process of accretion whicb basexploited all sorts of visual accidents,there is also a strong sense of structuredcomposition. The visitor is drawn inalong the long entrance corridor by apool of ligbt framed by two columnsand then tums onto a cross axis wbicb isagain terminated by a small open court,before finally meeting the main longi-tudinal axis which runs frorn the princi-plebedroorn to the furthermost gardencourt.

    It the main body of the bouse is anevocation of a lost world of verandahsand courtyards assembled frorn a ricbpalette of traditional materials andplundered artifacts; the new pavilion isnothing less than a reworking of leCorbusier' s Maisom Citroban, a skilfulmanipulation of interpenetrating vol-umes created by plain abstract surfaces,rising vertically to an upper roof terracewbicb gives view'~ across the neigb-bouring treetops and roofs towards thesea.Here is proofthat old and new can

    exist as complementary parts of the

    same whole: the low horizontals of the

    traditional pitch-roofed bungalow are

    enhanced by the three dimensional

    gymnastics of the cubist pavilion.

    The Colombo house offers a COD-

    trasting prelude to the experience of the

    Bentota garden and together they ex-

    emplify Palladios's advice to the

    burghers of Vicenza in hisFour Books

    of Architecturel:

    A city house is certainly of great

    splendour and conveniency to a gentle-

    man who is to reside there aIl the time

    he shaU require for directing his own

    a.lfairs. But perhaps he wiU not reap

    much less utility from a country house..

    where the remaining part of the time

    will be passed in the art of agriculture.

    improving his estate. and where the

    mind. fatigued by the agitations of the

    city. will be great I y restored and com-

    fortd. Hence it was the ancient sages

    commonly used to retire to such like

    places.. where being oftentimes visited

    by theirvirtuousfriends. having houses.

    gardens. fountains and such pleasant

    places. they could easily attain to as

    much happiness as can be attained here

    below.

    ln the beginning there was an undis-

    tinguished estate bungalow sitting on

    the top of a low hill within in its 25 acres

    of rubber and enjoying only restricted

    views out northwards across the

    DedduwaLake. Since that time a new vista has been

    opened up southwards across the lower

    half of the Dedduwa Lake towards a

    distant Buddhist temple. This has been

    achieved by cutting a broad swathe

    through the rubber trees and removing

    a large section of the neighbouring hill.

    At the same time the old estate road

    which ran in the dip between the two

    hills to serve a neighbouring property

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  • David Robson

    has been hidden within a ha-ha. Theview from the southern entrance ter-race is now contained by carefullyshaped side fringes of trees and is framediathe middle distance by a moonamaltree and a large urn