Celebrating Geoffrey Bawa’s 100th birthday, the Lunuganga trust has curated a series of podcasts called ‘Bawa 100’ with people who were a part of his life and contributed to his legacy. Bawa didn’t document much of his working processes in the form of sketches, notes, briefs or memos. The podcasts provide us with a first-hand account of Bawa’s architectural journey from those who witnessed and shared his legacy. In the episode with Sunethra Bandaranaike, she takes us through the memories of her friendship with Bawa.
Sunethra Bandaranaike was the daughter of Sri Lanka’s ex-Prime Minister. She describes her friendship with Bawa as unusual due to the age gap between, she was 29 when she met Bawa and he was around her mother’s age. They had very little in common but shared many conversations about architecture and books amongst other things, over cigarettes and whiskey. She went on to become one of the trustees for the Lunuganga trust. Bandaranaike was a part of Bawa’s very small circle of friends, most of whom were of architectural background.
In the podcast, Bandaranaike narrates the elaborate and slow process of her house in Colombo. Sunethra found a piece of land in Horagolla had dilapidated stables on site. She requested Bawa to convert the stables into a house, instead Bawa hit her with a stern ‘No!’ With an attempt to convince him, She took Bawa to take a look at the land. On the way to the site, Bawa stopped the car, got off the car and observed the full frontal view of the site for a few minutes. She could almost see the wheels of imagination whirring inside his head. He had the entire design visualised as he stood against the car and finally agreed to do it.
Bandaranaike and her husband were tight on money, so the entire building process was slow. Bawa and Sunethra scoured the country for the antiques, pillars, fittings, the high-quality timber, Burma teak etc. both had similar taste in such artefacts and often fought over who would keep it. A similar fight happened over an amazing antique dutch door and as always Bandaranaike was the one who won the argument. While designing the house She had asked for more living space, Bawa added space for a dining room after Sunethra refused to use the veranda for that purpose. She Recalls the architect’s funny response to how they would eat on the veranda when it rained? he replied: “Mop it.” He hated the idea of interfering with nature’s interactions with the built space. He was horrified when plastic sheets were used in the Gallery Café to cover the outdoor seating.
Bandaranaike goes on to tell the story of the Heritance Kandalama Hotel which was one of her favourite works. When Bawa was selected for the project by the parliament, he demanded to see the site before taking on the project. A helicopter was arranged, which took him to the site. It was located halfway on a hill. His reaction to the site and its location was that it was the worst possible place for the hotel. But since they had already bought a chopper, he asked to circle it in the nearby areas to see what was around. He pointed to the rocky top and said that’s where the hotel will be. The parliament had to cancel the plans for the acquired land and strings were pulled to finally acquire the other site. All the hassle was for it to be perfect just like the design by him. Sunethra was awestruck with his brilliance when she saw the structure hugging the rock. The two wings- Sigiriya wing and the Dambulla wing where all rooms and even the bathrooms had the view of the respective landmarks.
Another such work of Bawa that Sunethra Bandaranaike admired was Lunuganga. She accompanied Bawa on a few of his weekend trips to Lunuganga. She remembers how he would travel the estate in his wheelchair or buggy and point at the overgrown/ stray branches of every single tree directing the caretaker to trim the specific branches. She would describe the rubber estate as many sceneries in one with the still water body, the paddy fields, the plain of jars, the rubber plantations and the bamboo trees. Her memories of the Lunuganga estate were peaceful and zen, sitting next to the still water with Bawa was so calming that there was no need for conversations.
Throughout the podcast, she goes on to tell stories about Geoffrey Bawa’s attention to detail and perfectionism. Her amazing storytelling skills take us through Bawa’s life. Along with his quirks like breaking walls from already constructed structures to knocking off arms of the stone sculptures in his persistence to attain perfection all facets to the personality of the connoisseur of tropical modernism.
Three years ago I had a chance to visit Sri Lanka and see Bawa’s marvels, but for those who haven’t had an opportunity to do so, the Podcast plays the role of a tour guide walking us through the amazing architectural landmarks along with the architect’s thought process behind it. Bandaranaike gives us a peek into his personality, the wealth of knowledge he had built from his years in the field & travelling around the world and his modesty through it all is well documented in this podcast.