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Pubdate: 04-Mar-1997

Edition: Late


Subsection: ARTS

Page: 12

Wordcount: 936

Fantasy Island



ROOMS without roofs, floors which transform seamlessly into water, house and garden so intertwined as to be inextricable. For most architects this is fantasy stuff, long since jettisoned in the interests of real-world survival. But for a Sri Lankan architect-barrister, Geoffrey Bawa, assisted by a degree of financial insulation, this is the real world. Bawa has made a career of realising just such dreams on and around the island of his birth.

If you allow the old nostrum about science seeking universals while art celebrates the particular, Bawa’s work constitutes a lifelong polemic for architecture as 100 per cent Art . Not that there’s anything egotistical about it. Quite the contrary. Bawa’s entire accumulated oeuvre of houses, hotels, schools, universities and even a parliament responds assiduously, and with utmost grace, to form-giving nuances of site, climate, culture and program.

Bawa’s work, romantic to a point just this side of gooiness, has inked Sri Lanka onto the world map of architectural pilgrimage, just as Luis Barragan did for Mexico. In both cases the successful MO involved a deliberate rejection of modernism’s universalising principles in favour of a grassroot reinvention of the vernacular. And in both cases the resulting global esteem – call it fame – has far transcended both the scale of the work and the limits of locality.

As irony would have it, Bawa, this guru of regional identity, widely lauded for having restored cultural pride to Sri Lankan architecture before it was fashionable and before it was too late, was educated in post-Imperial England. A well-to-do Ceylonese childhood led to Arts/Law at Cambridge and admission to the English Bar, before a mid-career switch to read architecture at London’s Architectural Association.

British architecture, led by the AA in those fervent postwar decades, was at the height of its Utopian zeal. Figures such as Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew, Serge Chermayeff, J.M. Richards, Berthold Lubetkin and Alison and Peter Smithson preached the “principle of anonymity” together with an airy disdain for the desires of the flesh, the exigencies of climate, the expectations of culture and the passage of time.

All the more remarkable, then, that Bawa should return home with a fully-fledged determination to demonstrate the civilising pleasures of an architecture minutely attuned to the peculiarities of place.

Of course, he had the spot for it. A verdant isle, evincing both indigenous and Portuguese precepts, where a traditional language of deep shade, moving air, filtered light, reflecting pools and lush, walled gardens lay awaiting poetic abstraction. Bawa wasted no time, as a current retrospective of his work, now showing at the Royal Australian Institute of Archithects (NSW chapter) in Potts Point, richly reveals.

Some of Bawa’s earliest work is the most seductive. Take the architect’s own house, for instance, which grew piecemeal over 10 years (1957-68) from a single whitewashed Colombo street dwelling to a miniature urban palace. The interior – for this is a house with no outside to speak of – forms an ordered chaos, with axial views constantly broken and remade by a rhythmic punctuation of internal gardens and pools.

Bawa’s office in Colombo (1963) is equally enchanting. Converted during construction from its original design as a doctor’s house, it too embroiders, within similar self-containment, themes of procession and informality, ancient and modern, indoor/outdoor ambiguity. When is a room no longer a room but a courtyard? Does a central impluvium – set, in the Roman manner, above an ornamental floor pool – make the crucial difference?

The Triton Hotel at Ahungulla (1981), with its impossibly attenuated approach and guest rooms strung out gloriously along the beach front, further exemplifies the charms of an architecture without air-conditioning.

Few modern technologies (with the possible exception of the aluminium window) impose as profound a limitation on architectural possibility as the demand for expensively cooled, cleaned, humidity-controlled air.

There is a famous view from the Triton’s main entrance: across a palm-studded reflecting pond, through the shaded midground of huge spreading roof, dark timber columns and high-polished floor, to a further expansive pool and, beyond that again, the limitless ocean. This is one of the world’s iconic architectural images, any time, anywhere. Air-conditioning would have precluded both the image and, more importantly, the sense of charmed interconnection that feeds it.

Not that Bawa always gets it right. Abstracting ethnicity is an exceedingly tricky business: too much abstraction and rigor mortis sets in; too little and you run a real risk of Seriously Bad Taste. Bawa is adept at judging this balance so that the result is neither gauche nor patronising. There are times, however, when the works suffer from stiffness, in the absence of full traditional detailing – or excessive eccentricity.

Bawa’s Sri Lankan Parliament Buildings in Kotte (1982) have a magnificent and imposing presence, a series of huge-roofed pavilions set on an artificial island within a heavily wooded lake. The copper roofs, supported again by traditional stone and timber columns and approached across the moated causeway, imply a genuinely feudal presence, exciting expectations of genuine antiquity which cannot be fulfilled by the building at close range.

The University of Ruhunu (1980) sets a poetic idea on a splendid terraced site above a palm-fringed Indian Ocean. A series of pavilions linked by open, roofed walkways, Ruhunu would seem the perfect scholarly setting, ideal embodiment, too, of Bawa’s belief in the enriching potential of architecture and landscape. The buildings themselves, however, lack the strength inherent in both the idea and the site.

But such quibbles will and should do nothing to reduce Bawa’s pulling power as a magnet for architectural pilgrims. As the critic Michael Brawne put it: “To watch Geoffrey Bawa resting on a shooting stick deciding the height of a dividing wall while workmen move bricks, or having some plants and paving shifted in a court until they appear right, is to be aware of another era as well as one’s own envy.”

The retrospective of Geoffrey Bawa’s work will run at Tusculum, 3 Manning Street, Potts Point, until March 26.


Illus: Watery wonder …

Bawa’s Peter White House, Mauritius (1974), with its charming pool.


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