Geoffrey Bawa’s family background neatly reflects the ethnic and cultural diversity of his native Sri Lanka. His paternal grandfather, Amaduwa Bawa, was a Moslem lawyer from the ancient Arab port of Beruwela who traveled to England to further his studies and there married Georgina Ablett, an Englishwoman of French Huguenot extraction. Their eldest son, Benjamin, became one of the most successful Colombo lawyers of his generation and in 1908 married Bertha Marion Schrader, a Dutch Burgher of mixed European and Sinhalese descent. That marriage produced two sons: Bevis born in 1909 and Geoffrey born in 1919. Benjamin Bawa died in 1923 and his sons were brought up by their mother and two maiden aunts in their Darley Road home.
In 1938 Geoffrey went to Cambridge to read English and later studied Law in London. After the War he returned to Ceylon and worked for a time in a Colombo law firm. Soon tiring of the legal profession, however, he disposed of his inheritance and set off on a year of travel which took him through the Far East, across the United States and eventually to Europe. Ceylon was slipping off the shackles of empire and, like so many of the ‘people-in-between’, he was confronted with the dilemma of identity: was he a European who happened to have been born in Ceylon, or an Asian with European education?
At the beginning of 1948 he came to a temporary halt in Italy where, seduced by its Renaissance gardens, he resolved to buy a villa overlooking Lake Garda. His plans were eventually thwarted, however, and he returned to Ceylon where he bought Lunuganga, a derelict rubber estate lying a few miles inland from its southwestern sea shore, aiming to turn it into a tropical evocation of an Italian garden. In making the transition from restless traveler and reluctant lawyer to builder and gardener Bawa identified himself fully with newly independent Ceylon and embarked on the serendipitous journey which would lead him eventually to become independent Sri Lanka’s most prolific and influential architect.
The garden project fired his imagination but laid bare his lack of technical knowledge and in 1951 he began a trial apprenticeship with H.H. Reid, the sole surviving partner of the Colombo firm of Edwards, Reid and Begg. This British colonial practice had been founded in 1923 by S.J. Edwards after he won the competition to design Colombo’s new Town Hall and remained the most important in the region until the outbreak of the Second World War.
After Reid’s sudden death in 1952 Bawa decided to return to Britain to study architecture. In 1953 he applied to the Architectural Association School in London and was accepted directly into the third year of the course. Much of his last year was spent in Rome and he wrote his dissertation on the work of German Baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. He finally qualified in 1957 at the age of 38 and returned to Ceylon to become a partner of Jimmy Nilgiria a Parsee architect who had taken over Edwards, Reid and Begg after Reid’s death.