Sri Lanka conjures images of heavenly sunsets, fisherman gracefully balancing on stilts and feel-good moments of Buddhist Zen. Yet for many, the devastation of the 25-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami kept the Indian Ocean island off itineraries.
Now, new resorts and tourists are bringing the island (formerly Ceylon) back into focus.
“People often think of Sri Lanka as “India light” and they come for the beach and hot weather,” says James Jayasundera, a Sri Lankan by birth and the founder of UK-based Ampersand Travel. “But Sri Lanka also has a strong modern design and architectural history that’s often overlooked.”
In particular, design enthusiasts will revel in the legacy of Sri Lanka’s foremost architect, Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), who over his nearly 50-year career imprinted his own unique interpretation of Tropical Modernism onto the island.
David Robson, an architect, scholar and Bawa friend, has written extensively about the Ceylon-born architect whose privileged, colonial heritage — Arab and British on his father’s side, and Dutch Burgher and Sinhalese on his mother’s — afforded the tall, debonair gay man, who drove a Rolls Royce and favored boldly colored shirts and ironed slacks, a British education at Cambridge where he was known for his strikingly designed suite of rooms.
In Robson’s two latest books, “In Search of Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka” and “Bawa: The Sri Lanka Gardens,” he continues to explore Bawa’s passion for a modern vernacular architecture in an island landscape.
Robson compared Bawa’s influence in Sri Lanka and beyond to Frank Lloyd Wright’s here in the states and says, “Bawa created architecture with a soul strongly linked to Sri Lanka’s past that intimately involves you with the tradition of his culture.”
Here are some of our favorite Bawa destinations on his tropical island homeland.
- Geoffrey Bawa Residence, 1962-68
Maintained by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust after the architect’s death in 2003, Bawa’s Colombo home is open to the public (yhere are two rooms set aside for stays.) The entire structure reflects Bawa’s penchant for graphic black-and-white accents, batik textiles, Buddhist relics, colonial cane furniture and mid-century designers like Saarinen. It’s a labyrinth of a building, where sky lights, interior gardens, a Corbusier-style tower and terracotta tiles provide a close-up look at Bawa’s personal style.
- The Gallery Café, 1961
Udayshanth Fernando, often referred to as the Terence Conran of Sri Lanka due to his homeware and hospitality brand Paradise Road, transformed Bawa’s former office into a café and gallery in 1998 with the architect’s blessing. It also happens to be one of the best restaurants in Colombo and Fernando has painstakingly kept the space as it was during Bawa’s time with an open courtyard and a reflecting pool. However, now Bawa’s office is a bar and atop his built-in concrete desk, the café displays cakes and pastries.
- The New Sri Lanka parliament, 1979-1982
About a half-hour east of Colombo, Bawa’s most prominent public work is the Parliament building, which symbolized self-rule for the new Republic of Sri Lanka in the ’70s. Bawa was commissioned by the new president, who also happened to be a childhood friend, and used traditional building materials as well as copper-covered pitched roofs, a nod to local temple architecture, and surrounded the buildings with serene lakeside gardens.
- Anantara Kalutara, 1995
Situated between the Indian Ocean and Kalu Ganga estuary, the new Anantara Kalutara hotel was originally conceived by Bawa in the early ’90s. When the civil war escalated in 1995, the half-built property lay dormant. Much of it even survived the tsunami and construction began again under Bawa’s protégé, architect Channa Daswatte. He lovingly restored the hotel including the striking, yet simple main building with a gable roof, soaring ceilings and dreamy batik banners.
- Lunuganga, 1948
About a 30-minute drive from Kalutara, some would argue that Bawa’s design journey started at this rubber plantation he purchased to recreate the Italian and British gardens he loved. The estate would be a 50-year project that evolved into a living document of his ability to tame the wild tropics into a cultivated vision that looked organic. This is also where he entertained artist friends who were integral to the country’s modernist movement. No Bawa-phile should miss this destination (a favorite of Prince Charles and Stella McCartney) and if you want to check-in to a room on the estate, the Bawa Foundation can help you reserve a stay.
- Kandalama Heritance, 1992
Perhaps the most stunning and dramatic Bawa design, this hotel, built on a cliff overlooking an ancient reservoir in the country’s “cultural triangle,” is the first building outside the US to receive LEED certification. Sustainable elements — roof gardens, grey water systems and cooling corridors — were often part of Bawa’s schemes, yet here the ship-like design, with its multiple levels, has been enveloped by the jungle as if it has always been part of the natural landscape.