Working in the Tropical City

  • Steel Corporation Offices, Oruwela, 1966
  • Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Colombo, 1974
  • Industrial Estate, Pallakelle, 1971
  • State Mortgage Bank, Colombo, 1976

The Sri Lankan Parliament, Kotte, 1979

The 1977 General Election produced a new government headed by J.R. Jayawardene. In that year Bawa built a remarkable Buddhist ordination temple, the SeemaMalaka, on an island in Colombo’s Beira Lake. With hindsight this simple composition of hip-roofed pavilions can be viewed as a development model for his next major design.


Triton Hotel, Ahungalla, 1979

The Triton Hotel at Ahungalla is hidden away in a coconut grove beside a long and featureless beachfront. The design partie was a seemingly banal version of a traditional rest house with two long wings of rooms facing the ocean under overhanging hipped roofs. But Bawa’s strength lay in his ability to control a project on site and breathe magic into it.


Ruhunu University Campus, 1980

The master plan for the new University of Ruhunu on the south coast near Matara covered an area of thirty hectares and spanned across two hills with views across a lake towards the southern ocean. The campus required 50, 000 square metres of buildings to accommodate a projected total of 4,000 students. It was built by Dutch contractors and took eight years to complete.


New into Old

Lidia Duchini House, Bentota

Mohoti Walaawe Hotel, Bentota

Seeking relief form the big projects in his office, Bawa amused himself with small-scale renovations of old buildings. An old friend, the Italian sculptress Lidia Duchini, enlisted his help in reviving two old houses which faced each other across the main road at Bentota. Here his solution was to realign one house to face its rear garden while rebuilding the other within that garden to create a composition of two pavilions: something new from something old.


Minimalism – Martenstyn House, Colombo

Bawa now had little time to spare for the small intimate projects which he so much enjoyed, but when a favorite client from the early 1960s requested a second house for her daughter, he responded with an astonishing tower which was slotted within the branches of a huge Bo Tree in a corner of the original garden. With it its austere geometric forms, the Martenstyn House signalled a rekindled interest in the language of Modernism and the beginning of a new chapter in Bawa’s oeuvre.

Bawa received a number of government commissions which required him to focus on the problem of the workplace in a tropical environment. In 1966 he built a remarkable office building with cantilevered floors and breathing walls for the Steel Corporation at Oruwela. His 1971 design for an estate of factory units at Pallakelle near Kandy employed step-roofed pavilions similar to those used as prayer halls in traditional monasteries. In 1974 he designed a complex of offices for the Agrarian Research and Training Institute in Colombo using an asymmetric arrangement of low-rise pavilions around courtyards.
Bawa’s 1976 design for the State Mortgage Bank was later described by Malaysian architect Ken Yeang “probably the best example of a bioclimatically-responsive tall building to be found anywhere in the world” (Keniger 1996). The restricted site for this twelve-story high-rise is wedged between Colombo’s Hyde Park Corner and the southern tip of the Beira Lake and lies across the road from Bawa’s childhood home. The lozenge shape plan results in a profile which changes dramatically according to viewpoint and is capped by a floating concrete canopy which reveals the geometric logic of the concrete structure below. The tower offers a slender profile toward the junction and a much flatter profile towards the park and the lake. The main elevations face north and south in order to reduce solar gain and to catch the main breezes and windows are set back behind deep spandrel panels which are designed as air intake louvres.

The 1977 General Election produced a new government headed by J.R. Jayawardene. In that year Bawa built a remarkable Buddhist ordination temple, the SeemaMalaka, on an island in Colombo’s Beira Lake. With hindsight this simple composition of hip-roofed pavilions can be viewed as a development model for his next major design.
In 1979 Jayawardene asked Bawa to prepare designs for a new parliament to built at Kotte, about eight kilometers to the east of Colombo. Having flown over the site Bawa proposed that the marshy valley of the DiyavannaOya be flooded to create a lake of 120 hectares and that the new complex be built on a knoll of high ground which would become an island at the lake’s centre
Bawa conceived of the Parliament as an island capitol surrounded by a new garden city of parks and public buildings. Its cascade of copper roofs would first be seen from the approach road at a distance of two kilometers floating above the new lake at the end of the Diyavannavalley.The design placed the main chamber in a central pavilion surrounded by a cluster of five satellite pavilions. Each pavilion is defined by its own umbrella roof of copper and seems to grow out of its own plinth, although the plinths are actually connected to form a continuous ground and first floor. The main pavilion is symmetrical about an axis running north-south through the debating chamber, the Speaker’s chair and the formal entrance portal. But the power of this axis and the scale of the main roof are diffused by the asymmetric arrangement of the lesser pavilions around it. As a result, the pavilions each retain a separate identity but join together to create a single upward sweep of roofs. The use of copper in place of tile gives the roofs a thinness and the tent-like quality of a stretched skin alluding perhaps to the fabled ‘brazen roofs’ of Anuradhapura.

In the final plan he re-arranged the rooms into clusters to create a series of courtyards at different levels and he transformed the entrance sequence into a coup de théatre, offering a vista through a grove of palm trees, past the slender columns of the lobby to the light blue surface of the swimming pool and the darker blue of the ocean beyond. “ If the world were flat you would be able to see Africa” he wryly observed.

Bawa’s design deployed over fifty separate pavilions linked by a system of covered loggias on a predominantly orthogonal grid and used a limited vocabulary of forms and materials borrowed from the Porto-Sinhalese building traditions of the late Medieval Period, but it exploited the changing topography of the site to create an ever varying sequence of courts and verandahs, vistas and closures. The result was a modern campus, vast in size but human in scale.

Bawa then bought a third old house in the vicinity, the MohotiWalaawe, and converted it into a small boutique hotel. Next to this he built a second small hotel for his friend S.M.A. Hameed who managed the two hotels together under the name “Club Villa”. Here old and new have been knitted seamlessly together to create a timeless space of peace and repose.