Jan 11 (The National) A gargantuan, grinning head of Pan; a frangipani branching out in all directions like the Tree of Life; a Roman statue perched high on a garden wall, overlooking a vast lake; an old lamppost shrouded by a jungle, reminiscent of a tropical Narnia.
These are but a few of the surreal visual delights within the grounds of Lunuganga, the country estate of Sri Lanka’s late, great architect Geoffrey Bawa. But first you have to find it, off a winding road through Bentota, about two hours south of Colombo. Its only marker is an iron gate with a brass bell above it. I pull on its cord to signal my arrival and someone comes to lead me up a steep path to the sprawling property and its collection of guesthouses, rented out and maintained by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
I’m here with a group from Anantara, which recently reawakened Bawa’s original design for a hotel in Kalutara, about 45 minutes north of Lunuganga. Bawa’s ill-fated hotel project had been delayed in the mid-1990s by the civil war, then put aside after his death in 2003; a year later, the Boxing Day tsunami wiped out most of the construction. For its second resort in Sri Lanka, Anantara commissioned an architect who worked for Bawa, Channa Daswatte of MICD Associates, to complete the project, between the Indian Ocean and the Kalu Ganga. It’s most striking for its gabled roof, covering a vast open-air reception hall that leads out on to the water.
It’s just about impossible to visit Sri Lanka without encountering a building designed or influenced by Bawa, who designed new buildings and remodelled traditional ones on a scale from small to grand: from homes to hotels, schools to office towers. Travel companies organise architectural tours to his most prominent buildings – most notably the Sri Lankan Parliament Complex, an imperial-sized cluster of copper-roofed pavilions that look as if they’re floating on a lake, in Kotte, just east of Colombo, completed in the early 1980s.
As one of the architects of tropical modernism, Bawa merged outdoor and indoor, traditional and contemporary, in buildings that frame the landscape and interact with the environment. Think colonnades, overhanging pitched roofs, reflecting pools, interior courtyards and natural ventilation.
Many of these principles are reflected in Lunuganga, which is where Bawa began. He bought the property, which had served as both a rubber and cinnamon plantation, in the late 1940s, before the start of his architecture career. While still working as a lawyer in Colombo, he transitioned into architecture, beginning as a partner in Edwards, Reid and Begg in the 1950s, then, in the 1990s, forming Geoffrey Bawa and Associates. Throughout this time, Bawa was remodelling the hills and houses of Lunuganga for his own pleasure.
Our guide Rohan, who shows us around the terraced grounds that lead down to Dedduwa Lake, describes the property as Bawa’s "training place"; a "little experiment" where he thought about "how to connect with nature". This is evident in the breezy resting place down around the Water Garden, in the windmill on top of a turret on Cinnamon Hill and in the jackfruit tree that shoots through the overhang of a guesthouse roof near the Red Terrace. It certainly enhances my own connection with nature.
While walking around, I encounter three things I didn’t even know existed: the blue olives dotting the ground, the green-apple-like fruit of the balsa tree and the exotic cannonball flower near the entrance court.
While you can’t enter the buildings unless you’re an overnight guest, it’s possible to glance inside them, at their black-and-white floors and recycled Dutch tiles, still decorated with Bawa’s own furniture and decorative items from different eras.
The work of his artist friends is also on show: the smiling-face planters by Australian Donald Friend; a leopard sculpture, looking out over Dedduwa Lake, by Italian Lydia Duchini; and a mural by Sri Lankan Laki Senanayake.
The author Michael Ondaatje, who used Lunuganga as a setting in his book Anil’s Ghost, wrote of Bawa’s estate: "Each vista, each location feels like another elegy or another voice … You discover you wish to be at one location at noon, another at twilight, some when you are young, others later in life."
Ondaatje referred to Lunuganga as Bawa’s "self-portrait"; and indeed, to understand the man who shaped so many of Sri Lanka’s modern spaces, there’s no better place to begin.