Book Review: Geoffrey Manning BAWA: Decolonising Architecture by Shanti Jayewardene

Reviewed by Ranga Chandrarathne

Decolonising Architecture

Title: Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture
Author: Shanti Jayewardene
Publisher: National Trust, Sri Lanka
Pages: 237
Price: LKR 4800

In the monograph titled Geoffrey Manning BAWA, Decolonising Architecture, the author, architect and historian, Shanti Jayewardene examines the enduring architectural legacy of Bawa and how he sought to decolonize architecture from within the tradition, incorporating indigenous Sri Lankan motifs and spirit into the existing corpus of western architecture.

It is Bawa’s attempt that culminated in the birth of Sri Lankan modern architecture, which is now also known as tropical architecture.  The author emphasizes, in no uncertain terms, that the term ‘decolonizing’ does not mean anti-colonial and that Bawa’s architectural legacy should be looked at from a broader perspective, perhaps, as a part of the process of indigenous knowledge production.

At the very beginning of the book the author points out that the field of architecture and study of architecture, like almost all other subjects, was a colonial legacy and the essential part of ‘colonising the mind’ was to look down on the indigenous knowledge as unscientific and obsolete.

‘The architectural “profession” in Sri Lanka has a colonial lineage. Its birth in the nineteenth century announced and affected a distinction in knowledge through apartheid policies of employment linked with knowledge. Only Western-trained individuals were recognised as architects or engineers. J. G Smither was appointed architect of the Public Works Department (PWD) around 1864. The post was held by Britons until independence. In Colonial institutions indigenous knowledge was officially subordinated to Western or so called modern “scientific” knowledge. Overlap between two systems of knowledge was suppressed in the colonial culture.’

It was obvious that the process of colonization was not confined to conceptual level of architecture.  The author observes that one has to understand the process of decolonization from a broader perspective to look back and re-read Bawa’s work. ‘De-colonization is not simple anti-colonialism – it is “the attempt of the previous colonized people to reflectively work out a historical relation with former colonizer, culturally, politically and economically”.’

The study has been carefully divided into several chapters covering Bawa’s birth, the socio-cultural backdrop against which Bawa grew up, his education and his practice in Sri Lanka. Early chapters of the book help readers to learn the myriad of influences of famous architects, diverse architectural traditions, works and books on Bawa and how his Western education shaped his early practice as an architect and how deeply he studied the Sri Lankan age-old architectural legacy, which the author has quite rightly emphasized, was not pan-Sinhalese architecture. In fact it was a tradition which was made up of diverse influences such as ancient Sri Lankan architecture, Dutch, Portuguese, Islam and Tamil architecture.

One of the prominent influences on Bawa was his wide reading over the years. Some of the major influences which shaped his world view were the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and books such as The Wonder that was India by Arthur Basham and Senake Bandaranayake’s Sinhalese Monastic Architecture (1974).

As observed by the author, a prominent architect who influenced Bawa was Mexican architect Luis Barragán (1902 –1988).  Barragán developed his own vision with an inimitable Mexican spirit. The author observes a characteristic influence of Barragán work on Bawa’s creations in areas such as the stairs, courtyards, pools and spaces. However, both architects never met personally but it was obvious that Bawa had read about Barragán’s work featured in I.E Myers seminal work Mexico’s Modern Architecture (1952) that he possessed.

Through case studies such as the Sri Lankan Parliament, University of Ruhuna and Kandalama Hotel, the author describes in great detail how Bawa had incorporated prominent characteristics of ancient Sri Lankan architecture into them. For instance, the author observes with meticulous details Bawa’s famous work, Kandalama Hotel:

‘The hotel design draws upon several sources. Conceptually, at the first level, the design abstracts the essence of the strange and spectacular “guarded” gallery at Sigiriya – the “elevator” to the summit that links the gardens below with the Lion Plateau situated half-way up the rock.’

The Kandalama hotel was greatly influenced by cave monasteries such as Kudumbigala, Dowa and Dambulla. The author points out that Bawa may have used ancient design principles and features such as a series of viewing podiums in the direction of the horizon and spectacular panoramas of forest, mystic lakes and breathtaking mountains. The author also draws remarkable parallels like that of Kimbulapitiya, Bawa’s childhood house with Lunuganga.

Bawa has used several architectural sources in the design philosophy of the Ruhuna University in Matara. ‘The pavilions have small paned glass doors popular in Dutch structures in Ceylon. Windows are surrounded by a raised painted fifteen-centimetre-wide cement architrave, part of the artistic vocabulary of medieval Portugal and the British in Ceylon. The placing of the stairways in verandas and corridors, moulded masonry seats with volutes and columns and parapet walls with mouldings could refer to indigenous precedent. Panelled walls pilasters, and columns and elaborate capitals, are features familiar in Polonnaruwa, which very likely continues early practices. The panelled parapets at Ruhuna are a tacit complex glance at a colonial presence – Renaissance Europe and Church Architecture.’

The author has explored several pathways to arrive at her conclusions and draws remarkable parallels in the process. She  backs up her extensive field work with theoretical strands to justify her conclusions. She has not even left the possible strands of thoughts and the rich worldview of Bawa, which Bawa creatively sought to recreate in his legendary architectural marvels that include commercial buildings and significant edifices that define the very spirit of the nation, such as the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

She points out that Bawa’s complex worldview has been created by his wide readings and his continuous attempt to devise a Sri Lankan vocabulary in architecture enriched by motifs and designed principles from ancient Sri Lankan architecture and modernist trends. Bawa has incorporated myriad of architectural influences into his works. Some of them are English, Dutch and Portuguese architecture that have become part and parcel of post-colonial Sri Lankan architecture before Sri Lanka developed its own vocabulary of architecture, which is modern at one level and reflects the country’s architectural heritage at another level.

In further examining Bawa’s legacy the author states, ‘Bawa’s work tells the “fascinating story of the encounter between a world-conquering Western thought and the intellectual modes of the non-Western cultures”. It necessarily bears the imprints of historical contradictions of nationalistic thought which situate in anti-hegemonic, anti-colonial content and its, at times, oppressive contents.’

A large body of work that Geoffrey Bawa left always provides his deep philosophy of architecture which has been canonized as Tropical Architecture. At one level, his works bear imprints of almost all the major traditions of architecture; at another, Sri Lankan ancient architectural traditions and their defining features.

The author has contextualized his body of work and examined it from an entirely new perspective. What is most striking is how Bawa decolonized the colonial architectural legacy and thereby not only gave birth to a rich modern Sri Lankan architecture but also produced a body of indigenous knowledge which has been internationally acclaimed. The book is a valuable contribution to Bawa literature and growing body of writing on his work. Apart from giving a comprehensive account of the life and times of Bawa, it also provides in-depth case studies of Bawa’s signature creations and the myriad influence of diverse architectural traditions on them.



Ranga Chandrarathne is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction and has contributed articles on a wide range of subjects including culture, politics, economics, and religion to Sri Lankan newspapers and international publications.

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