Everything else.. A Tale of Two Brothers: The Bawa Legacy

A Tale of Two Brothers: The Bawa Legacy

2019 Jul 23

Under a bright blue sky in tropical Ceylon, two brothers were born to this world. Bevis and Geoffrey were the sons of Captain Benjamin William Bawa, a wealthy and successful lawyer, and Bertha Marianne Schrader. Bevis, the older brother was born in 1909 and Geoffrey was born after many years in 1919. As different as their lives were, the two brothers are known for their creative and unique style in Architecture and Landscaping.


Image courtesy of https://briefgarden.com/

Bawa of Brief

Bevis and Geoffrey both studied at Royal College Colombo but Bevis had to leave school at 17 when his father died and his mother sent him to his uncle’s estates in order to take up the management of the family estate in Aluthgama known as Brief Estate. What makes Bevis interesting is his life in the military, Bawa was first commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Ceylon Light Infantry and reached unto great points to serve the governor, the king’s house and finally achieved the title as a major. As a war hero of World War 2 and even received war medals for his service.


Bevis didn’t give up on what he loved while serving the army he began making a garden and developing the estate bungalow and devotedly tended to the family rubber plantation known as the Brief Estate. When he retired he made the estate his own home and filled it with many unique styles of landscaping. He was so good with his unique technique that embassies, private companies and houses soon reached out with the hope of landscaping their gardens into paradise. Even though he did not have a formal education in landscape architecture, Bevis Bawa was able to make his mark on our history.


Bawa garden is known to be the most magnificently landscaped garden one could lay eyes upon. Bevis used a combination of art, architecture, and sculptures to make a modern work of art. You would find doors that led to different parts of the garden, stairways, Roman art structures and ponds. Truly, I wonder if Alice got lost in this tropical wonderland.


Photograph courtesy of geoffreybawa.com


Geoffrey Bawa: From Literature to Architecture


Geoffrey, on the other hand, lived a much different life. After finishing his school education he flew all the way to Cambridge to study law and English at St Catherine’s College. After gaining a BA in English Literature he went to study law at Middle Temple, London and became a barrister in 1944. After World War 2 he returned to the motherland. Geoffrey even worked for the Colombo law firm.


Now, the question running in your head. Wasn’t he an Architect?


Geoffrey Bawa the principal force behind Tropical modernism. Yes, the man who changed the look of Architecture in South East Asia was first a lawyer.


After the death of his mother he left the profession of law and spontaneously in 1946 he decided to travel for two years going to the Far East, United States and finally to Europe almost settling down in Italy but eventually, at 28 years of age, he returned to Sri Lanka


Bawa bought an abandoned rubber estate on the south-west coast of the island between Colombo and Galle at Lunuganga, planning to create an Italian garden from a tropical wilderness. However, he soon found that his ideas were compromised by his lack of technical knowledge on Architecture. In 1951, he was apprenticed to H. H. Reid, the sole surviving partner of the Colombo architectural practice Edwards, Reid and Begg. At the time, Bawa received his first project. The Deranagala family who was decedents of the Eknaligoda Walawuua wanted a house that was modern yet cultural. Bawa was asked to be inspired by the old village houses and different places of worship, but, he didn’t take up the project. He decided to go back to London to gain a Diploma in Architecture from the Architectural Association in London. Afterwards, he became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. At age 38 he returned back to Sri Lanka and took up the Deranagala project after five years. It wasn’t very successful but he gained experience and knowledge over time.


Photograph courtesy of geoffreybawa.com


Geoffrey Bawa was famous for two significant Architectural designs, the courtyard concept and the tower type concept.  During his early years in the field, the lack of resources in the country and seldom use of plans to build structures, he was forced to think out of the box and quite often planned on site.  What makes his work so interesting is how he makes a house one with nature. The open nature of space and ventilation gives anyone visiting or living there the feeling of complete bliss. The courtyard style was seen first, Bawa would make an establishment on a large space and have many open verandas right round the house. You could walk around and find corridors that had open spaces on either side that led to large doors which would take you further into the building. Now, the courtyard house was known for the centre opening, also known as the mada midula. You would walk into the house to finally be led to a garden with a large tree of so in the centre. In the manner, the building was always ventilated and let cool. Bawas design of the courtyard house was designed with less privacy, but it always built unity at home.


The tower buildings were to cater to smaller spaces. The mastermind designed buildings in a manner where each floor was built a bit bigger than the other and the ceiling to protrude out at an even larger scale. In this manner, there would be more ventilation in each layer of the building.


He was well renowned for his unique styles used to build stairways with the use of any material ranging from wood, stone to cement and add features of traditional and modern artwork done by famous Sri Lankan artists to give it just the right amount of class.


Geoffrey Bawa started off by designing and building houses, then he moved to do schools, hotels, commercial building, various places of worship and most importantly the new parliament of Sri Lanka. During the Bandaranayaka era, Bawa was restricted from his work and carried out very few projects during the time. He moved abroad and created many wonders in IndiaIndonesia, Mauritius, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji, Egypt and Singapore.


His greatest works of architecture in Sri Lanka include:

  • Lunuganga, Bentota
  • Bishops College, Colombo
  • Ladies College, Colombo
  • Hilton Hotel, Colombo
  • Grand Oriental Hotel, Colombo
  • Bentota Beach Hotel, Colombo
  • Heritance Ahungalla
  • Heritance Kandalama
  • Sri Lanka Parliament
  • Jetwing Lighthouse
  • Jetwing Beach
  • Jetwing Lagoon 


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