Early Work in Tropical Modernism

  • Strathspey Estate Bungalow, Upcott,1959
  • Bishop’s College Classrooms, Colombo, 19591

Bawa’s early work included office buildings, factories and schools and was influenced by the ‘Tropical Modernism’ of Fry and Drew and ultimately by the work of le Corbusier. Typical of projects from this period are the remote Strathspey Tea Estate Bungalow at the foot of Adam’s Peak, and the classroom extension for Bishop’s College in Colombo.


Houses for a Tropical City

  • Carmen Gunesekera House, Colombo, 1958
  • UpaliWijewardene House, Colombo, 1959

For more than a century Sri Lankan domestic architecture had been heavily influence by British taste.The typical British ‘bungalow’ was a pavilion on one or two floors, cellular in plan, extrovert in concept and located at the centre of a large garden plot. However the population of Sri Lanka was exploding and Colombo was rapidly evolving from leafy Garden City into modern Asian metropolis. As land prices rose so plot sizes shrank and the British bungalow could no longer guarantee privacy or provide adequate ventilation.


The A.S.H. de Silva House, 1959

Tropical Modernism favoured white abstract forms and horizontal rooflines, though Bawa was soon forced to admit that overhanging pitched roofs offered the best protection against tropical sun and rain. His first essay in ‘roof architecture’ was a house for a doctor called A.S.H. de Silva which was commissioned for a steeply sloping site in Galle. Here the deconstructed elements were reassembled on an exploding pinwheel plan and held together by a single raking roof plane.


In the classroom block for Bishops College the interiors were protected by perforated external wall panels which were supported on a concrete portal frame and inserted between the exposed beam-ends to give an impression of extreme lightness and delicacy. A heavy horizontal eaves beam was hung out to protect the facade and to mask the pitched roof, thus accentuating the horizontality and modernist credentials of the design.

In his first houses built at the end of the 1950s, such as that for Carmen Gunesekera (1958) Bawa deconstructed the colonial bungalow and rearranged its constituent parts in such a way as to create semi-enclosed spaces. A second series of ‘frame houses’, designed with Plesner and inspired perhaps by Scandinavian models, used a concrete frame to support covered terraces, garden courts and planted roof gardens and was typified by the houses built for UpaliWijewardene (1959) and AelianKanangara (1959).

The plan can be compared to Mies van der Rohe’s 1923 project for a country house: both attempted to blow apart the traditional villa, both made a distinction between ‘wall’ and ‘no-wall’ and both used continuing wall planes to link inside and outside space and to define outdoor rooms. But Bawa exploited the sloping site to create additional spatial effects and used the roof plane to unify the elements and anchor them to the site. He also replaced the solid hearth core with a void: here for the first time an open-to-the-sky courtyard occupies the very heart of the plan.