Despite his late entry into architecture, Geoffrey Manning Bawa explored modernism and its cultural implications and created a unique, recognizable style of design which had a lasting impact on architects across the world.
Well versed in Modernist theory, Bawa was one of the original proponents of Tropical Modernism, a design movement in which sensitivity for local context combines with the form-making principles of modernism. Bawa’s architecture led to the formation of a new architectural identity and aesthetic for many tropical environments, and won him recognition and awards, including the Chairman’s Award of the Aga Kahn Special Chairman’s Award for Architecture (2001) and the title Deshamanya, in recognition of his contributions to his country by the government of Sri Lanka.
Bawa was born in Ceylon (which would become Sri Lanka in 1972), and began his professional career in the legal field after studying at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He worked in law in England for several years, but left to travel the world after the death of his mother. In 1948, Bawa purchased the Lunuganga rubber plantation, and developed an interest in gardening and architectural design.
In his practice, Bawa tried to achieve what The Guardian has called “a new, vital—and yet essentially Sri Lankan—architecture.” Bawa’s search for a way to combine the traditional and the modern attracted the attention of other artists and architects, most notably Ulrik Plesner, who worked with Bawa from 1961 to 1967. After the social and governmental changes of the 1960s and ’70s that ultimately led Ceylon to become Sri Lanka, Bawa received commissions for even larger projects. Bawa’s design for the Sri Lanka Parliament Building (1982) was a continuation of the investigations he began earlier in his career; it uses pitched roofs and other examples of elements from local architecture to embody the government’s lineage. At the time, the Parliament building was the largest of Bawa’s projects, and brought even more international attention to his approach. Around this time, Bawa designed several new buildings for the University of Ruhuna (1988). His use of traditional building materials and architectural elements adapted to the local climate proved to be useful, as it helped keep costs down in addition to referencing local context.