Geoffrey Bawa was a renowned architect in Sri Lanka whose style spread beyond the island’s borders and influenced others in Asia. He would design homes that blended in with the lush tropical foliage. Perhaps his signature achievement was the home that he himself occupied at a place called Lunuganga (that translates as ‘salt river’) on the banks of a river near the southwestern coast of the island. He furnished it with works of art that reflected his eclectic tastes. You can see many photographs here and here. After his death in 2003, the house has been run by a trust set up by his friends. The gardens are open to the public and the buildings are part of a hotel.
Bawa is not as well known to people in the west but Shinan Govani’s article with its photo gallery may help change that.
Whatever is the country crib equivalent of a man-crush, I had it.
It materialized mere minutes after arriving at Lunuganga, a vast, pastoral estate set on the southern skirts of a famously teardrop-shaped Sri Lanka. Marked only by a iron gate with an elusive bell above it—behind which lies a steep hill to climb, as the grounds come into focus—it was where, chaperoned by a beaming guide in a white sarong, the heart unclenched.
“And this is where Mr. Bawa would have tea in the morning,” the guide was saying, shortly after, leading me to an artfully shaded nook and pointing to an ancient bell strung from a tree. It is, I soon learned, one of 14 distinct bells scattered through the 25 acres of house and garden, each one used by the master of the house to summon meals and beverages to specific spots on the property (a 5 p.m. G&T bench, for instance!), depending on the axis of the sun.
A clock of his own making!
And, yet, one where time today stands proverbially still.
Unravelling before me in a series of up-down, inside-out vignettes—an erstwhile rubber estate sewn together now by bungalows, turrets, reflecting pools, overhanging roofs, gracious courtyards, mooing cows, Neoclassical sculptures, and trees bequeathing everything from jackfruit to tamarind— the estate is nothing if not one that needs to be in the Little Black Book of any architecture fiend.
Bawa came from an artistic family and his life and his relationship with his brother Bevis was complicated. Their lives reflected the curious attitude towards homosexuality that exists in Sri Lanka to this day where it is still officially illegal (a relic of the laws imposed by the British during colonial times that have still not been revoked) but everyone turns a blind eye towards it. It is very much a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ society where it is an open secret as to which public figures, even major politicians, are gay and they do not seem to pay any social or political price.
Cosmopolitan, well-traveled, and gay, Bawa was part of a rarified circle that included author Arthur C. Clarke, of 2001: Space Odyssey fame, a renowned perma-expat Sri Lanka. Bawa had no long-term partner and during the latter part of his life seemed devoted only to his craft. His time on the island, incidentally, coincided with many conflicting mores: Though there was a lax attitude, in part, pre-Independence, toward homosexuality (the island’s two dominant religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, do not condemn), it remains officially illegal in the country to this day.
Because history cannot never be extracted from the familial, there were several mentions during my visit by my guide of something else… another Bawa Brother! Bevis Bawa! In one of the more curious cases ever of sibling rivalry, he was also gay, and also has his own idiosyncratic garden about a hour away! And though he did not exactly achieve the acclaim of his older brother, Bevis, working as the aide-de-camp to four governors of Ceylon, was known for a landscape style that was more mischievous than his brother’s, who had a more architectural eye. Their relationship was… complicated.
Unfortunately I never took the opportunity to visit the house during the time I lived in Sri Lanka. Like many people, one thinks that the places nearby can be visited at any time and thus easily put off for another day, not realizing that events can result in one having to suddenly move far away.