Lunugana, Geoffrey Bawa and Channa Daswatte:
For the first time my driver is confused. We’ve navigated Sri Lanka, travelling from Colombo to the North Central district, back down to the South East coast and, despite some precarious climbs and circuitous routes to enable me to see tea plantations and spice gardens along the way, we haven’t got lost once. But now he is unsure. He tells me that
The last time I took anyone here, they wouldn’t let them visit, I never could work out why.
As a result, I’m rather grumpy and unconvinced that I really want to visit. Especially as the clouds are gathering and it’s started to rain.
We stop while he asks for directions, before making our way along an impossibly narrow, overgrown and half made-up track. There’s a small parking area and a heavily bolted gateway. This is the main entrance to Geoffrey Bawa’s country house, Lunugana.
Despite a name that sounds like a hybrid from an AA Milne poem, Deshamanya Geoffrey Manning Bawa (1919 -2003) is one of the most influential Asian architects and the principle force behind ‘tropical modernism’. Sri Lanka is liberally scattered with his work, from schools and hotels to the Sri Lankan Parliament Building and the University of Ruhuna. It all began at Lunugana.
The death of his mother triggered a two year round the world trip for the young Bawa. He planned to buy an Italian villa, but when that fell through, he returned to Sri Lanka and instead bought an abandoned rubber estate. It was the challenges he faced trying to create an Italianate sanctuary in Sri Lanka that inspired his apprenticeship to architect HH Reid and subsequent formal training in England. Ten years later, he returned to Sri Lanka and took over the remains of Reid’s practise.
Lunugana continued to be a showcase for his work with buildings and gardens reflecting European style integrated with indigenous materials and crafts in an evolving renaissance of Sri Lankan culture. Bawa continued to develop Lunugana until 1998, when illness forced him to stop. Now owned by the Lunugana trust, the estate is open to the public and it is also possible to stay there or visit for dinner (by prior arrangement). It is a fascinating and tranquil place to explore. A guided tour of the gardens and some of the buildings shows the evolution of Bawa’s work from the heavily Italianate statues through to Tropical Modernism. And, travelling through Sri Lanka it’s impossible to escape the influence of his design concepts.
Arguably this should be the first place you visit when you arrive in Sri Lanka. Geoffrey Bawa is the father of Sri Lankan architecture and many of Sri Lanka’s buildings, both from this century and the last, are his own work or that of his students and followers. Staying at the Cinnamon Bey Hotel is a chance to get some understanding of the breadth of his influence. The hotel was designed by architect Channa Daswatte, one of Geoffrey Bawa’s students and associates.
Berewula was a trading centre for Sri Lanka with Middle Eastern traders and the hotel is a celebration of the influence of the Middle East on Sri Lanka. Modernist, yet with touches of Islamic design throughout, the hotel has Mashrabiya lattice work decorating the rooms, contrasting with the stark white walls, Chettinad tiled bathroom and contemporary soft furnishing. Every room has a wonderful sea view, the sandy beach is just a stone’s throw from the hotel. The spa is approached through a water garden reminiscent of Bawa’s own home and food is served in restaurants that range from ultra-modern Rock Salt with a fusion menu of seafood and meat dishes cooked on hot stone, to rooftop Mezz, an open air relaxed shisha bar and grill.
I was curious when I first arrived. I didn’t understand the context of the hotel in the culture of Sri Lanka and nor did I realise the influence of Geoffrey Bawa on Sri Lankan architecture. Visually stunning, but missing what I thought would be traditional styling, it wasn’t the beach resort I’d expected. After a visit to Lunugana, everything connected.
I was a guest of Cinnamon Hotels and stayed at the Cinnamon Bey Hotel, Beruwala