If you really want to know Bawa, ‘It is essential to be there’ | Print edition
By Yomal Senerath-Yapa
For the first time in Sri Lanka, an exhibition presents materials from the archives of the master architect
The stables at Park Street Mews will have a timeless serenity from February to April – embellished with the intimate personal touch of Geoffrey Bawa – the soul of man and architect.
Yellowed maps, old letters, photos torn out during his travels (or rather pilgrimages) to Europe where he became deeply immersed in traditional architecture, large English country houses, Italian gardens and even public spaces suspended from flags of old France or Spain. Also some unique items that defined the classic Bawa ethos, from a giant Ena de Silva banner to artifacts from the Ceylon Pavilion at Expo 70 in Osaka.
Organized by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, “It is essential to be there” is the first exhibition with material from the architect’s archives to be held in Sri Lanka.
The alluring title comes from something Geoffrey Bawa once said about his practice:
“The site gives the strongest push to a design with the folder. Without seeing the site, I can’t work. It’s essential to be there. After two hours on the site, I have a mental image of what who will be there and how the site will change and the image does not change.
The five galleries together give a comprehensive map of the great architect’s art and creative soul, showing the different ways images were used in Bawa practice.
The first gallery is adorned with maps of Ceylon and Lunuganga – the old world maps that Bawa treasured and hung in the Lunuganga house giving a burst of vintage maritime travel and adventure.
The second gallery, ‘Situating a Practice’, celebrates the importance of site in Bawa’s work – the idea of ’building for function and form across the varied terrains of the island’.
The Ena de Silva house centered around its mottled central courtyard was a response to the dusty and noisy density of Colombo. The Jayawardene house in Mirissa had the entire structure below ground, so that on the ground was a simple cement floor strip with columns, looking out over the windy cliff top and beyond to the sea.
The Yahapath Endera Agricultural School for orphaned girls interacted with a hilly landscape of Hanwella. The Polontalawa Estate Bungalow was built with natural rocks and trees, a far cry from the colonial tradition of award-winning English bungalows opposed to wilderness.
The third gallery, “In Search of a Way of Building”, examines how Bawa and his associates, faced with the shortage (in the 1960s and 1970s) of reinforced steel and glass, tried to “find alternative means to express the forms and spaces they designed, using the materials at hand.
Very early, the building with the fantastic mural of the jungle with hornbills in the preparatory school of Kollupitiya S. Thomas, proved that reinforced steel was not good considering our climate (too close to the sea, it was corroding) and Bawa was put on the path to such buildings as the charming St. Bridget’s Montessori with its monitor roof showing how building design could better serve the Sri Lankan climate.
At Ladies’ College, the Simon Block’s overhanging balconies provide shade to the lower floors and ventilation through the classrooms. Later, there was the remarkable floor plate suspended from the roof of the Bentota Beach Hotel and the twelve-story building of the State Mortgage Bank (later known as the Mahaweli Building).
The latter is still celebrated as an “extraordinary effort to build an office building that can be naturally ventilated”. Although it has been modified a lot today, it remains an important model for bioclimatic high-rise buildings.
The gallery titled “Setting New Directions” looks at innovation and the iconic.
We linger in this classic Ceylon pavilion at the 70 Osaka Expo, which is still remembered as the best small pavilion there. Here, along with a giant stylized Bo leaf and our classical archaeological heritage, was modern batik.
Stretching along the seashore to the south is Ruhuna University, like a convoluted sea creature connected by long corridors and vast public spaces. These promote common encounters within the framework of a new approach to education.
The exhibition also returns to the controversy that surrounded the Kandalama hotel, built in an ecologically and culturally sensitive place. Ironically, the hotel galvanized the environmental movement in Sri Lanka, and Bawa was to remark that he believed the project would be finished when it fell into disrepair, with leopards once again roaming its halls.
The final gallery focuses on “Places Unbuilt”, those projects that have never been realized and which seduce with their sketches such as the Sand Dune House Yala and the Panama Hotel.
This exhibition curated by Shayari de Silva, curator of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, provides rare insight and coherence into Bawa’s career spanning six long decades. A short walk will enrich and entertain.
Il est Essentiel d’être là, presented in three languages, is accessible to the public free of charge. The exhibition is in place until April 3 at The Stables, Park Street Mews from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
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