I like the fact internationally-famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa bottled out of a legal career in his mid-20s, judging himself dangerously incompetent. It’s a crisis of confidence you don’t typically pair with a high-flyer. The irony appeals to me.
But dropping out like that can’t have been easy coming from a well-to-do family and with your dad a wealthy, influential Sri Lankan judge. Just what his parents thought when Bawa then took off overseas for two years to find himself is anyone’s guess. It was the 1940s after all.
But something happened on his overseas jaunt that would change the direction of his life – and the trajectory of the architectural world – forever.
Bawa discovered a passion for Italy’s extraordinary Renaissance buildings and gardens. It’s this revelation that spurred him to take up architectural studies in his 30s. And it’s this revelation that led to Bawa ‘the architect’ and an entirely new design genre melding East and West known as tropical modernism.
I first come across Bawa’s brilliance in Bentota, a coastal resort town located 64 kilometres south of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. I’m staying at Nisala Arana, a boutique hotel run by Aussie-born manager Ben Pereira. It’s a tucked-away, four-and-a-half acre, walled heritage property styled on Bawa principles.
Purchased in 2000 by Pereira’s mum Jill, a Melbournian, and dad Kevin, a Burgher (Sri Lankan of Portuguese descent), Nisala Arana was once home to an Ayurvedic doctor noted for curing snake bites more than a century ago.
To soothe their ills, the Sinhalese doctor would concoct medicines from the various trees and plants on the property. For venomous bites, he’d reach for neem leaves. For asthma or general coughing, the mandarin trees probably came in handy.
It’s difficult to know exactly what potions the doctor administered. He’s long gone now. But Ben says the decision to keep Nisala Arana’s heritage trees was as much a nod to Dr. Leonora’s natural healing legacy as it was part of the garden’s overall Bawa-inspired design aesthetic.
He says it was his mum, Jill, who led the six-month renovation, which included upgrading the grounds, as well as renovating the doctor’s original Dutch-style colonial home and Buddhist shrine room.
Walking the property today, guests are treated to Bawa in miniature. There are crafted lawns across which squirrels, mongoose and white herons dart for cover. There’s Bawa’s seamless blend of house and garden and his deft sequencing of outdoor and indoor spaces connected by lawns, classical glazed pots and intimate seating areas.
Nisala Arana has a central, open-air pavilion for dining. And each of the resort’s bungalows (including the original 165-year-old doctor’s house) is styled in mostly mahogany and teak antiques to capture Bawa’s preference for simple, masculine interiors. And yet Nisala Arana – now registered as a heritage home with the Sri Lankan Tourism Board – is no Bawa pastiche.
Ben explains: “Mum took a lot of time to understand Geoffrey Bawa’s work. She used to meet Geoffrey here in Bentota at Lunuganga gardens, his private retreat. She had a personal relationship with him and sought out his head gardener for advice and input into the grounds here at Nisala. She also made sure we had local craftsmen work on the restoration. From memory, the entire building team of 40 workers stayed on site for more than half a year.”
“Mum’s got a great eye, but she wanted craftsmen with an in depth knowledge of local materials and techniques to work on the property. She wanted to achieve a style that was in keeping with the original buildings on the place, while maintaining a contemporary vibe. In that sense, Nisala Arana is very much mum’s take on Bawa’s notion of tropical modernism,” says Ben.
Not everyone who stays at Nisala Arana is treated to the property’s backstory or its connection to Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect. Stay at Nisala Arana and you can go bike riding, visit the local Buddhist temple and dine on chef Aroy’s signature white fish curry as the sun goes down to the sound of croaking frogs.
Guests commonly daytrip to nearby turtle sanctuaries, swim at local beaches and grab an air-conditioned car and driver to explore the ancient fort city of Galle. Nisala Arana is also a popular yoga venue for small groups wanting a retreat from the world in the literal sense.
In my Bawa-obsessed state, I opt to spend my final afternoon at Nisala Arana touring Lunuganga Gardens, Bawa’s 10-hectare homestead bought in 1948 and re-fashioned over a period of 50 years.
It takes just a short drive in the Pereira’s vintage Morris Minor to get there. There’s no signage, just a winding dirt road that takes me past rice paddies and emerald green jungle to a clearing of parked cars and chattering drivers.
These days Lunuganga is run as a country hotel of six guest rooms and cottages, with the gardens open to the public. My guide meets me at the main entrance of Lunuganga in the dappled shade of towering tamarind trees.
But soon I am out in the unforgiving heat, trundling down skinny stone pathways, flanked by rippling lilyponds, taking in the story of Bawa’s life’s work. My guide explains how Bawa purchased the property as an abandoned rubber and cinnamon plantation furnished with a modest bungalow, which he promptly turned into his creative HQ.
It took him over half a century to move hills, transplant woods, cut terraces and experiment with landscaping, essentially making a series of outdoor rooms from the property’s jungle setting. Out of local materials he created courtyards, water features and generally expressed his love of combining traditional and modern forms.
Moving between the portico and the Cinnamon Hill house, it’s easy to trace Bawa’s trademark style of black and white interiors and the clever lines of sight that take you from one outdoor courtyard to another or draw your eye to the edges of the majestic Dedduwa Lake.
What is extraordinary is that Bawa had time to design such a place given his frantically successful 40-year career. In total, he designed about 70 private homes (though fewer were built), 35 hotels, as well as schools and many commercial, religious and public buildings, including Sri Lanka’s Parliament House. Possibly, then, Lunuganga was his muse.
Dotted throughout the property, my guide tells me, are some of Bawa’s favourite sitting spots – modest bench seats with bells attached. He’d simply sit in these spots, take in the views, then ring the bell to indicate precisely where he’d like to receive the pen and paper he needed to jot down his next big idea.
IF YOU GO
- Get to Nisala Arana or Lunuganga by taking the two-and-a-half hour drive from the international airport or the one-and a-half-hour drive from Colombo (alternatively, Nisala Arana or Lunuganga will arrange an airport pickup if required).
- Take a Lunuganga garden tour for $10.00 (tours take place at 9.30am, 11.30am, 2.00pm and 3.30pm daily).
- Stay at Nisala Arana or Lunuganga Estate.