It was on a rain-washed morning like today, that I drove to Bentota to see for the first time Geoffrey Bawa’s famed Lunuganga Estate. Bawa is Sri Lanka’s legendary architect and Lunuganga has been described as his “first muse and experimental laboratory for ideas.” Michael Ondaatje, the writer, poet, is quoted as saying the gardens were “self portraits” and leafing through the photos I had taken in 2007, and reading again about Bawa, I couldn’t agree more. Hiidden within the many stories and this beautifully landscaped garden of Lunuganga lurks a visual autobiography of the man himself.
The red terrace was what I saw when I first arrived. The trees, the leaves, the red earth all were imbibing the soft rain that was falling. This was 2007, the time of the Galle Literary Festival and my first opportunity to see the estate.
Finding where Lunuganga was not easy. I had stopped past the Bentota bridge at a small roadside cafe to ask for directions. The man I asked, looked blank and dragged the “Mudalali” — the head honcho out to speak to me. Lunuganga made no sense to him too, but a smile dawned showing his betel stained teeth only when I mentioned Bawa’s name. “Ahh. …. Bawa mahaththaya’s watte” ( Bawa Sir’s estate) said the man breaking into a broad grin and directing a spew of betel cud carefully into the drain he gave me the directions. I finally arrived, clambered up a slippery muddy slope clutching my new camera. We were still strangers – my camera and I, but became good buddies by the end of the day.
The red earth was unexpected. So was the news that I read recently on the Bawa Trust website that the building to the right was once a chicken coop. Bawa having kept chickens in a beautifully proportioned and designed chicken coop is not a surprise. what was amazing was the news that the chicken coop in proportions and structure is almost a miniature model of the National Parliament Geoffrey Bawa was to build in 1982.
Lunuganga means salty river. The most striking for me was the view of this salty river seen through a huge branching frangipani — Araliya tree. The tree apparently was planted in 1947 — the date is questionable as his biography says he bought the estate in 1948 — unless of course it was there when he bought it.
Bawa used to hang weights on the branches for it to spread wide and trained peacocks and peahens to sit on the tree, to effectively make it look like a Chinese painting. If your imagination can get to those days, you would see Bawa having sundowners on the verandah with his brother Bevis, maybe friends like Donald Friend, the famous Australian artist whose diaries mention his stay with the Bawa’s at Lunuganga. Friend left behind a rich legacy of art work in Lanka. Some are in private collections here. A couple of striking work I have seen at the John Keels main office building and some at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
Bawa was born in 1919, and his father was a wealthy and successful lawyer, of Muslim and English parentage, while his mother was of mixed German, Scottish and Sinhalese descent. An awesome lineage that probably gave rise to the creative genius he was. Bawa read English at Cambridge and then studied Law in London and was called to the Bar in 1944. Back home in then Ceylon, he wasn’t happy as a lawyer and set off on travels for two years. Bawa contemplated settling down in Italy. However, his plans to buy an Italian villa didn’t work out and he returned to Ceylon in 1948. That’s when he bought Lunuganga, an abandoned rubber estate, hoping to create an Italian garden out of it. However he soon realised that “his ideas were compromised by a lack of knowledge” that led him back to England to qualify as an architect.
“Concrete tiles reflecting those that are inside the Garden room visually connect the porte`cochere under the Glass Room to the Garden Room itself. This is an affectation often seen in the work of Geoffrey Bawa which helps to connect the inside of the spaces with the outside and make them appear as seamless spaces, only some covered and others uncovered.” (Bawa Trust website)
The water garden with the wind rustling the clump of bamboo was where Bawa often had lunch served.The Black Pavilion at the end of the central path across the waterways marks the eastern edge of the Garden.” ( Bawa Trust website)
A C B Pethiyagoda writing in The Island in 2004 said “The whole complex is 50 acres in extent inclusive of two small islands in the Dedduwa lagoon, which borders two sides of the property. This was planted in cinnamon in the eighteenth century and in the 1930s was replanted with rubber. Both islands are preserved in their natural state and are today bird sanctuaries. A little over fifteen acres round the house on the hilltop is artistically landscaped with dozens of levels of varying sizes; the lowest with two large ponds, a fresh water well, sun dial and a rain fed paddy field of 10 liyaddas. From which ever part of the land one views the vista, close or distant one feels, as if by some charm, an instant sense of peace and contentment.”
“In my personal search,” Bawa wrote in 1958, “I have always looked to the past for the help that previous answers can give.” He found this, he said, in Anuradhapura but he was also prepared to look at the latest building completed in Colombo. He would look for the answers he sought from Polonnaruwa to the present day. Geoffrey referred to this great spectrum of building as “the whole range of effort, peaks of beauty and simplicity and deep valleys of pretension.” (Neville Weeraratne.)
This part of the estate was a former cinnamon plantation, hence the name Cinnamon Hill. “… he whittled away at a hill, Cinnamon Hill he called it, until he could view the lights on a temple far off reflected in the lake below his garden. Then he placed a huge Chinese stone jar in the middle distance to draw all three elements into a single perspective, says Neville Weeraratne.
I had first heard about him and the house he built for Ena de Silva, where a tree grew inside a courtyard and every family member had their own space to carry on their individual interests. This was the time in Colombo when Ena’s and Anil Gamini Jayasuriya — Ena’s son’s batik art and Barbara Sansoni’s handlooms were the rage.
Bawa’s architectural designs were uncommon then. We knew of the inside courtyard — “kotumidula” in old houses and verandahs but seeing these incorporated to new houses, extending the garden to the inside of a house were new concepts. Old was fashionable, old was gold. He caused a run on old doors, windows, lattice framed woodwork, old wrought iron fanlights and even the salted fish stored jars. Hotels Kandalama, Triton and Galle Lighthouse are my favourites and bought Bawa’s work to be admired by the public and foreigners.
On top of the stairs to the left partly hidden by the foliage of the Gate House ( see photo below) is a magnificent wrought iron panel which was actually a fanlight from a 18th Century house in the now demolished Jaffna Fort.
Neville Weereratne, in an article titled “Geoffrey Bawa: a valediction for a colossus” said: “If there are any secrets in the art of architecture as practised by Geoffrey, it was his constant effort to co-operate with nature. If, however, nature was not always prepared to lend itself to his purpose, Geoffrey was quite happy to bend it to his will. …”
“He manipulated nature. He knew precisely what he was doing when he hung weights on the branches of the araliya trees outside his house so that their limbs would fan out, extend and become expansive patterns of flowers and foliage.”
“Lunuganga is a masterpiece which, Geoffrey once said, had grown over the years, ‘a place of many moods, the result of many imaginings, offering me a retreat to be alone or to fellow-feel with friends.’ A lorry driver who once walked around the garden while his bricks were being unloaded exclaimed: “But this is a very blessed place!”
Note: No article on Lunuganga can be comprehensive. This is only a brief memoir of mine and readers should follow the links below to learn more. I would like to acknowledge and thank the writers featured below for many interesting comments and analysis of Bawa’s work that I have enjoyed and used for the compilation of this post.
Sri Lanka Style: Tropical design and architecture by Channa Daswatte, photographs by Dominic Sansoni, p. 154-163.
For more images see: http://pinterest.com/freepin/geoffrey-bawa/