The Bawa brothers gace inspiration and design to Sri Lanka.
Geoffrey and Bevis lived in Sri Lanka and had exquisite gardens which still exist today.
The two Bawa Brothers embraced country’s natural features, showing the varied palette of landscapes that inspired Bawa’s sensitive treatment of architecture.
This is part of the history and story about Sri Lanka nature and landscape on an island of exceptional beauty.
The island nation of Sri Lanka, colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, has a diverse cultural identity, with Veddas, Tamils, Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics calling it home.
The Bawa brothers, Bevis and Geoffrey, born 10 years apart, were members of the wealthy and privileged Burgher society and of mixed Muslim, British, Dutch and Sinhalese heritage, both impressively self-directed in their incredible pursuits of architecture, landscape architecture and design.
Lunuganga, near Bentota, is the more formal beauty, in which nature has been tamed to mirror the restraint and urge for perfection that drove Geoffrey Bawa, the celebrated architect dubbed the ‘father of tropical modernism’. Brief Garden, in Beruwala and Aluthgama, is spectacular in its flamboyance and somewhat untamed splendour, the personal estate of Bevis Bawa, a landscape architect with a discreet humour and gay lifestyle.
Lunuganga has views across the lawn towards the lake.
Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003), the younger sibling, is far better known than his brother. He studied law in England and travelled around Europe and America before returning home to Sri Lanka. His travels ignited a deep interest in architecture and he turned his back on law to pursue this new career. His practice of combining local materials in a modern style brought him global renown.
Lunuganga, the garden and home of Geoffrey Bawa, was originally a small rubber plantation of 10 hectares when he bought it in 1949. As it stands today, the beautiful estate appears perfectly formed by nature, but this is far from the truth. Yes, the lake at the bottom of the hill remains the largest feature, but back then it was hardly visible through the tangle of trees and vegetation that surrounded the house above.
In keeping with Geoffrey’s more formal tendencies and the influence of the English landscape movement, trees were moved or removed, earth was reformed to allow a long view, water was restrained to create miniature rice paddies and vegetation was cleared to provide flat open spaces on the hill. Nature was tamed.
“The long view to the south ended with the temple, but in the middle distance was a ridge with a splendid ancient moonamal tree and when I placed a large Chinese jar under it, the hand of man was established in this middle distance.”
Peep through the window of a guest bungalow and it reveals an interior like that of a movie set: tasteful, a little surreal, all black and white tiles, a bare concrete staircase with a delicate sculptural metal handrail hugging the wall. It speaks of a restraint that is almost painful in its elegance.
Move along the path and look down at the folly, with its carved sundial, and enjoy the view of the checkerboard mini rice paddies and water gardens covered in water lilies. Wander the border of the lake around to the long expanse of lawn where groupings of trees have been strategically placed so they don’t obscure the long, wide landscape. Large Chinese urns placed under a tree or at the water’s edge remind us of the presence of the guiding hand of man.
Walk over the covered bridge, running under which is a track still used by local villagers, and you arrive at the southern end of the garden, a shining white stūpa of a Buddhist temple in the distance. On the way back to the house, a loggia featuring colourful murals by artist Laki Senanayake reminds us we are very much in Sri Lanka despite the English-style formality of the estate. Back on the steps of the house, the eye is drawn across the expanse of lawn that rolls gently away, towards a Greco-Roman statue of a young man standing languidly and extends out towards the lake and island beyond. The house, with its inviting wraparound terraces, is now a boutique hotel, the elegant interiors of which include the signature mix of black and white floors, metal candelabra and antique wood.
Bevis Bawa (1909–1992) was the elder of the Bawa brothers and cut an imposing figure at six foot seven. He joined the Ceylon Light Infantry and served in the British colonial administration with distinction before returning to the family rubber plantation bequeathed to him by his mother in 1929. Acknowledging that he lacked the self-discipline or interest to run the plantation, Bevis sold off the majority of the land, leaving just enough to carve out the spectacular Brief Garden, named after a legal brief won by his father.
Walk up to the ornate gateposts with their male and female figures, and it is clear there are both Eastern and Western influences at play here. The path, almost oppressively overhung by abundant palms and ferns, invites visitors to veer left towards the garden or right through a black and white door set in an apricot-hued wall that will take you inside the house via a smoothly curving passage.
“In the land where the jaggery grows and the skies are raucous with crows Years ago on a pastoral hill which was left to him in a will. A young man was heard to declare ‘I will build my own kingdom there I will proclaim myself its chief as the one and only Bawa of Brief!’”
The garden path, which is narrow and winding, where the jungle has been restrained just enough for the eye to alight upon an occasional sculpture or appreciate the splendour of the tropical foliage. Look back along the terraced ponds or the stone staircase and marvel at the time, effort and skill it took to achieve this harmonious beauty. Along the way, homoerotic sculptures seemingly strategically overtaken by foliage or lichen, cheeky gargoyles and hidden grottos delight with their unexpectedness.
The house is a study in timeless simplicity—terracotta tiles, painted concrete floors, metal, wood and linen. Then your gaze catches on a risqué sculpture or painting and you find yourself chuckling at the irreverence. I suspect this sums up Bevis Bawa, a free spirit ahead of his time. Wander past the patio with its wall of bottles into the private, enclosed back garden that is home to exotic species including the coca plant and the striking black bat flower, back out into the open, and realise you have progressed through a series of outdoor rooms that felt every bit as considered and intimate as the spaces inside the house.
Bevis started crafting the Brief Garden— named so as his father bought the land after winning a legal brief—around 20 years before Geoffrey began Lunuganga as an essay in tropical modernism.
Brief is a hedonistic, wild ode to the tropics interlaced with homoerotic sculpture and seating, perfect for hidden rendezvous and whispers. Created with abandon by the openly gay Bevis, it played host to parties and famous house guests like Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh and Donald Friend. A short visit to the gardens will also afford you a glimpse into Bevis’ rich personal tapestry.
The landscaped gardens inside the Brief Garden Photo Dawn S Alamy Stock Photo
The landscaped gardens inside the Brief Garden Photo: Dawn S / Alamy Stock Photo
The 20-acre property is also a horticulturist’s paradise, home to over 200 plant species, carefully positioned ponds and viewing areas. Two particularly fascinating works to look out for are the bas-relief sculpture of the head of a mischievous forest deity (most likely Pan) and the extensive mural depicting the story of Lanka. You may be the only visitor whilst there so take the opportunity to stroll around, speak to the caretaker Mr Dooland who was a personal friend of Bevis, or even steal a kiss in one of the artfully created nooks.
How to get there: Just about 10km inland from the popular Beruwala and Bentota beach towns, your quickest way here is by tuk-tuk or taxi.
Visit throughout the year, prepare yourself for intermittent afternoon showers. Open from 8-5 PM.
LKR 1,000 for the bungalow + garden;
LKR 300 for only the garden.
Tropical Modernism within architecture has only grown since its popularization in the 1930s. Stylistically, this movement is anything but homogenous. However, its principals are clear: building structures that respect the culture, environment, traditions, and history of the areas, while also maintaining the comfort that most people expect from modern buildings. Because of this primary tenant, it has become a hub for architects focusing on sustainability and natural beauty. Artists get ideas for designs that will suit a wide variety of climates from the country’s history and local creators and materials. Known as one of the founders of this movement, Geoffrey Bawa is a renowned architect and one of his generation’s most influential artists.
Born on 23 July 1919, in what was then known as British Ceylon but is now Sri Lanka, both of his parents passed on their mixed heritage. Raising him and his brother to connect to each part of their backgrounds, Geoffrey would always hold respect for both colonial and indigenous understandings of architecture. He did not start as an architect, though, and began his journey believing he would become a lawyer.
Travelling to Europe for school, he found a love for travel as well as discovering his sexuality. When he moved to England to study law in 1938, he was quite open about his identity at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Denys Johnson-Davies, who was a friend of Geoffrey at the time, said:
“He was from Ceylon and flouted the fact that he was gay. He dressed in a flamboyant style and spent as little time as possible in the college.”
He would also say that while being a well-read man, Geoffrey did not take his studies seriously in the slightest. Geoffrey was much more interested in travelling through Europe than his law degree. He seemed to lack a passion for even before he changed career paths.
He graduated and began working in a law firm up until the point both of his parents died. After that, he devoted himself entirely to travel, moving around Europe and North America. He eventually intended to settle in Italy but was unable and was contacted by his older brother. The latter was also a gay man and invited Geoffery to visit Sri Lanka.
At this point, Geoffrey had spent a significant part of his life away from his home country. However, upon his return, he bought an abandoned rubber estate where he settled and slowly fell in love with Sri Lanka as an adult.
He had initially planned to make a piece of Italy within the gardens of his new home. However, he realized he didn’t have the technical skill to accomplish such a feat. This idea had sparked an interest in him, though, and he decided to pursue architecture. Returning to England, he spent a year in Cambridge, moving next to an apprenticeship and eventually becoming a fully credentialed architect at 38.
His ideas had matured through his studies. Architects now understand his groundbreaking designs as an early form of Tropical Modernism. Having fallen in love with Sri Lanka, he learned the history of the architecture. He understood the practical reasoning behind many of the decisions, finding that these traditional materials and structures were more durable for the Sri Lankan climate. He also profoundly valued the place of nature within his systems, believing a work unfinished until he was able to see how the environment around it adapted to the building.
His identity as a gay man had a place within his work as well, as he would include statues of naked men and quite a few subtle nods to queer sexuality within his works.
Cord Magazine would describe his work:
“Bawa’s work is characterized by sensitivity to site and context. His work is instinctively, rather than self-consciously, sustainable. His designs break the barriers between inside and outside, between buildings and landscape, and he characteristically links a complex series of spaces”.
Geoffrey became an Associate of the Sri Lanka Institute of Architects in 1960. He was able to talk and work with other architects who shared similar beliefs. They were able to popularize a reliance on indigenous materials and respect for the history of an area.
His work didn’t hinder his ability to travel, in any case. He was able to visit and work in India, Indonesia, Mauritius, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji, Egypt and Singapore. His travels would make him a distinctive and profoundly influential force in the Asian architectural scene. While he was able to work on many different beautiful buildings, he was most renowned for his work on designing the Sri Lankan Parliament building and his home, the project that began it all. He later names his home in the former rubber estate Lunuganga and worked on and off until his death.
He mostly retired at the age of seventy, though he never altogether stopped working. He spent most of his time in his home and around his large group of friends. He died on 27 May 2003 at the age of 83. His dedication to supporting local artists did not die with him; a fund for Sri Lankan architects was started under his name.
One cannot overstate the legacy of such a man. He is known as the founder of one of the most significant architectural movements in modern history. The moral grounding of the style he started is firm enough to support our current understandings of sustainability and climate. With a focus on indigenous sourcing and respecting the history of a place, he built structures that last to this day and are unlikely to be outdated soon.
His work prioritized comfort as well as ethics. It is loved and has done everything he had ever wished of it. It has made space for people and found a place within nature.