ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Geoffrey Bawa and Ludic Modernism

Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003) was Sri Lanka’s most celebrated architect in the 20th century and his half-a-century long career shaped the nation’s visage to the world, even as Bawa’s ludic and polystylistic architectural innovations sat uneasily with Sri Lanka’s majoritarianism grown increasingly strident after independence in 1948. This paper examines Bawa’s architectural sites as “visual texts” that exhibit a fraught, fractious engagement with the dominant nationalism of his times. Given his elite upbringing and upper-class clientele, his unique blend of architectural styles has been read as being elitist and exclusivist, even as a whole other tradition reads him as the pioneer of vernacularism and tropical modernism. How is it possible to obtain such diametrically opposite readings of the same texts/traditions? How are we to understand Bawa’s peculiar reshaping of the metropolitanist desires of newly-independent Sri Lanka? And what are the bigger lessons from his work and philosophy regarding modernity, urban spaces, and cosmopolitanism?

It is 101 years this year to the birth of Geoffrey Manning Bawa in colonial Colombo, Sri Lanka (Figure 1, available on EPW website). One of two sons to affluent parents of Sri Lankan and European, Muslim and Christian heritages, Bawa and his older brother Bevis would both, in time, become renowned architects. Bawa died in 2003, having lived out a long career spanning many decades of colonial Ceylon and postcolonial Sri Lanka, and is among those few titans of the 20th century, who, one might with some admiration say, lived through the heydays of both modernism and postmodernism and the intervening decades of many other isms. Bawa came from a racially and religiously mixed family background: his paternal grandfather was Ahamadu Bawa, a prominent Muslim in Ceylon, who married Georgina Ablett, an Englishwoman who was a descendant of French Huguenot immigrants. In 1908, Bawa’s father, Benjamin, married Bertha Schrader, a Dutch Burgher from Ceylon who claimed descent from a German mercenary and a Sinhalese mother. All this is to say that when you look at a photograph of Bawa, with his strikingly tall six feet plus frame, blond wavy hair, pale European countenance, it is easy to forget this enormously complicated genealogy, which, however, worked its way into Bawa’s work and his lifelong belief in what he called “Ceylon architecture.” As he said:

I prefer to consider all past good architecture in Ceylon as just that — as good Ceylon architecture, for that is what it is, not Dutch or Portuguese or Indian, or early Sinhalese or Kandyan or British colonial, for all examples of these periods have taken Ceylon into first account. (Robson 2002: 41)

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Updated On : 23rd Nov, 2020

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