Lunuganga — an extension of the surroundings “a garden within a larger garden.” — Bawa
Set aside a full day or better still, two full days if you want to fully explore Lunuganga and Bevis Bawa’s The Brief Garden. These gardens by the brothers Geoffrey and Bevis are two very different experiences, but the central message is the same — harmony with Nature. Not surprisingly, all of Geoffrey’s works reflect an intense relationship with Mother Nature and Planet Earth.
Geoffrey Bawa has designed buildings all over the world, but there is one creation that embodies his very heart and soul. It is an architectural masterpiece and garden rolled into one. I recently had the opportunity of visiting this famed oasis of tranquillity on the Southern coast.
If fate had not intervened otherwise, I could have been admiring the view from Lake Garda in Italy, where Geoffrey Bawa once wanted to buy a villa and create a garden. Having decided that a career in law was not for him, he wanted to travel around the world and see what it had in an offer for him. But he could not fulfil this dream due to various legal constraints in Italy. However, Italy’s loss was Sri Lanka’s gain as Bawa returned to his native land and built a garden that is second to none in the world, Italy included.
Acting on the advice of his brother Bevis, he bought an abandoned rubber estate near Bentota and set out to transform it into a tropical version of an Italian Garden. It was this garden project that eventually awakened his interest in architecture. Today, “Lunuganga” the Italian-inspired garden in the tropical wilderness, is often cited as one of the greatest works of Bawa. It has a house and garden, but you cannot separate the two.
Bawa once said that he thought of Lunuganga as “an extension of the surroundings” a garden within a larger garden. Bawa said that, for him, the most beautiful thing about Lunuganga was “the effect of sunlight filtering through the leaves”. Geoffrey’s genius was to create a landscape so naturalistic that it could hardly be identified as man-made. Once a visitor to Lunuganga exclaimed, “Mr. Bawa, wouldn’t this be a lovely place to turn into a garden?” Geoffrey said this was the best compliment he ever received.
It lies about 60 kilometres south of Colombo and some three kilometres inland from the coastal resort of Bentota. It is a beautiful landscape infused with the marvellous architecture of Bawa. The garden is open to the public every day between 9 am to 5 pm by appointment. Lunuganga also functions as a country hotel and maintains the special ambience created by Geoffrey Bawa. There is only one guest room in the main house. You can also stay in one of the five Bawa buildings scattered through the garden. Room rates vary according to the time of year. According to the Geoffrey Bawa Trust “As he went on to become Sri Lanka’s and one of Asia’s most prolific and influential architects, the garden at the Lunuganga estate remained his first muse and experimental laboratory for new ideas. He continued to change and experiment with its spaces and structures throughout his life until his final illness in 1998. Left to the Lunuganga Trust on his demise in 2003, the gardens are now open to the public and the buildings on the estate are run as a country house hotel.”
If you can tear yourself away from Lunuganga, there is another place that you must admire in Lunuganga itself. It is only now coming under the spotlight -the renowned and rebuilt Ena de Silva House which was a Colombo landmark now rooted in Lunuganga. It took six years for the relocation and rebuilding. Architect Channa Daswatte, member of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust said that the Ena de Silva house will become a guest house and people will be able to stay in the two rooms and the studio room. “The public area will be open for the people to admire. It will be also for architectural students. It will be a place of education and inspiration for the future generation. The Geoffrey Bawa Trust has spent approximately 30 million rupees to reconstruct the Ena de Silva house. The Trust should continue and be able to do things like this in future,” he said.
He further said that Ena de Silva who was originally from Matale wanted Geoffrey to build her house in the Colombo suburb of Cinnamon Gardens in 1959. He was introduced to her by Bevis. Bawa had just returned to Sri Lanka after his studies at the Architectural Association in the UK. “Ena said that she wanted a traditional house which she was used to living in coming from an old Kandyan family. She did not wanted glass like in all modern houses but she also wanted a touch of modern houses,” he said.
The Ena de Silva house was completed in 1963. The house was constructed at №5, Alfred place which is right next door to what is now the Durdans Hospital. It was built on a 30 acres landscaped garden. It was the first contemporary house in Sri Lanka and regarded as one of the extraordinary dwellings in the country. This remarkable building was the result of the creative relationship between Ena and Geoffrey that resulted in the design of a radical house that is calmly influenced by such diverse strains as 20th Century modernism, Sri Lankan Buddhist courtyards, tropical regionalism and perhaps most surprisingly architecture from the Italian Renaissance. Durdans was a small nursing home at that time in a half acre of land. Ena lived for 15 years in that house and then she went to her hometown after her husband’s death. The house was vacant and then she rented it — it was her chief source of income.
It was first rented out by Bawa himself to have an office for the drawings of the new Parliament. Most of the draftsmen lived upstairs. Afterwards, it was rented to many artists. Ena decided to sell it to her neighbouring hospital as they needed to expand. The authorities wanted to demolish it but the Geoffrey Bawa Trust stepped in to protest. A stay order was obtained to the effect that the house cannot be demolished. “The trust made an appeal to the then Minister of Culture and the Director of the Urban Development Authority to look at the human side of it. A decision was then taken to dismantle and rebuild it. The buyer wanted the house in two weeks and the dismantling was to be done in that period which was a very challenging task. The house was recorded like an architectural monument. Each section was numbered and tacked together in boxes and was transported to Lunuganga, Bentota,” said Daswatte. This is one of the very few such projects undertaken in the country, to demolish a building and rebuild it somewhere else. And while in the area, do not forget to check out the Brief Garden, a creation of Bevis Bawa.