How Geoffrey Bawa’s legacy lives on at THE LAST HOUSE
How Geoffrey Bawa’s legacy lives on: Sri Lanka’s celebrity architect left his country with beautiful buildings like Lunuganga and Anantara Kalutara Resort – and now you can stay in them
Sri Lanka’s most famous architect Geoffrey Bawa trained in the UK before returning home in the 1950s, where his optimistic designs chimed with the hopes of a newly independent country
Since his death in 2003, his most monumental works have been repurposed for tourism – including his home Lunuganga, beach villa Claughton House and his final project, The Last House
“Architecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced. It should play to all the senses – the smell of vegetation after rain, the sound of birds and the wind in trees,” said the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
Returning to his native Sri Lanka in the 1950s after training in the UK, he went on to become the master of “tropical modernism”, his designs helping to spearhead an optimism in what the future held for the then newly independent country. Today, his work can be experienced by staying in luxury hotels and villas across the island – each a lesson in preservation, yet not stuck in the past. Instead, like their creator always did, they look to the future.
Bawa’s own beautifully preserved home, Lunuganga, where he lived up to his death in 2003, is the greatest example of his work. Set inland from the southern beach resort of Bentota, this 1930s plantation bungalow, hidden in the jungle on the banks of Dedduwa Lake, offers atmospheric accommodation and spectacular views. The Italianate garden is a masterpiece, from the butterfly-shaped ponds to emerald rice paddies to gardens dotted with Ming jars. Renowned batik designer Ena de Silva’s house is also on the estate. The three-bedroom property, with its vibrant interiors, was moved here brick by brick from its original site in Colombo.
In April 2021, Teardrop Hotels came on board to manage Lunuganga and Ena de Silva’s house in partnership with the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. Lunuganga’s rooms, five of which are housed in tiny pavilions, are still filled with eccentric objects from Bawa’s travels.
“The bedrooms, living areas and overall design of the property is what preserves Bawa’s work,” says Henry Fitch, CEO of Teardrop Hotels. “Many of the current staff worked at Lunuganga while Mr Bawa lived there, so they are fully aware of how the property should be maintained and, indeed, where guests can follow in his footsteps.” This includes Bawa’s own bedroom, which opened on November 1, with its glistening plunge pool. A larger swimming pool, on the lawn in the exact location Bawa planned himself, will be finished in December.
Asked what Bawa would think of his home being turned into a hotel, Shayari de Silva, curator of art and archival collections at the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, replies, “The decision to make the rooms at Lunuganga available to guests has allowed the spaces and collections to survive. It is vital to underscore the enormous resources needed for this work, and I’m very grateful we still have them in ways that present and future generations can experience and study.”
Two hours south of Lunuganga lies Claughton House, a magnificent beach villa overlooking picturesque Kudawella Bay. Dreamed up by Bawa in 1980 and named after its owner Richard Fitzherbert-Brockholes’ ancestral Lancashire seat, the property is the most striking example of the architect’s vision of breaking down boundaries between indoor and outdoor spaces.
“We make considerable efforts to educate our guests on who Bawa was,” says Jack Eden of Eden Villas, which manages the house.
A grand whitewashed five-bedroom villa, with soaring blue teak columns, Claughton sits on a headland dotted with palm trees, which sweeps down to an infinity pool carved into the rocks. There is also direct access to the golden sands below. The house is now even more sparkling, following a three-year renovation, including refreshed interiors.
Beyond expansive family homes, Bawa designed the New Parliament Complex in Kotte, the island’s administrative capital, the University of Ruhuna, and a Buddhist temple complex, among many other works.
His final project was The Last House, on Tangalle’s quiet Mawella Bay. This saffron-hued boutique hotel was designed in 1997, after its owner Tim Jacobson met the architect at a dinner party in Colombo. However, this seaside escape had to be finished by his protégé Channa Daswatte after Bawa suffered a stroke.
Jacobson says, “You’ve got a very simple canvas to work with Bawa. That’s the great thing. It doesn’t have to be complicated and we can introduce our own character.” The result is five airy antique-filled bedrooms with sea views and a peaceful atmosphere. The bathrooms have just been refurbished, including Moonamal with its outdoor bathtub.
Reflecting on the project, Daswatte, now an eminent architect himself and chairperson of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, says, “The understanding I had with Geoffrey was that I would complete any work that we had undertaken together should he be unable to finish it. Geoffrey Bawa’s mantle is something nobody could take on. His stature as someone who responded to his time and place in a way that transformed the way architects in Sri Lanka – and perhaps all of South and Southeast Asia – responded to the modern movement and made it their own, is pretty extraordinary.”
Nearly two decades later, in 2015, Daswatte finished the beachfront Anantara Kalutara Resort, between Bentota and Colombo, which he and Bawa started but abandoned in 1995 due to the civil war. Today – following a major renovation during the pandemic – there are 141 contemporary-style rooms including elegant pool suites, numerous dining options and an Ayurvedic spa.
Asked about the future of Bawa’s legacy, Daswatte says he hopes that one or two more Bawa-designed properties will become boutique hotels. Possible candidates include the recently revamped De Saram House, which belongs to the famous Sri Lankan pianist Druvi de Saram, and the architect’s Colombo home, No 11.
Neither is certain, but that’s fine – as Bawa himself used to say, “In nature, nothing is perfect, and everything is perfect.”