Inland from the south coast of Sri Lanka are two exquisite gardens, the personal legacies of the brilliant Bawa brothers, reflective of them as men and as artists.
The island nation of Sri Lanka, colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, has a diverse cultural identity, with Veddas, Tamils, Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics calling it home. The Bawa brothers, Bevis and Geoffrey, born 10 years apart, were members of the wealthy and privileged Burgher society and of mixed Muslim, British, Dutch and Sinhalese heritage, both impressively self-directed in their incredible pursuits of architecture, landscape architecture and design.
Lunuganga, near Bentota, is the more formal beauty, in which nature has been tamed to mirror the restraint and urge for perfection that drove Geoffrey Bawa, the celebrated architect dubbed the ‘father of tropical modernism’. Brief Garden, in Beruwala, is spectacular in its flamboyance and somewhat untamed splendour, the personal estate of Bevis Bawa, a landscape architect often described in the same vein.
Geoffrey Bawa (1919–2003), the younger sibling, is far better known than his brother. He studied law in England and travelled around Europe and America before returning home to Sri Lanka. His travels ignited a deep interest in architecture and he turned his back on law to pursue this new career. His practice of combining local materials in a modern style brought him global renown.
Lunuganga, the garden and home of Geoffrey Bawa, was a small rubber plantation of 10 hectares when he bought it in 1949. As it stands today, the beautiful estate appears perfectly formed by nature, but this is far from the truth. Yes, the lake at the bottom of the hill remains the largest feature, but back then it was hardly visible through the tangle of trees and vegetation that surrounded the house above.
In keeping with Geoffrey’s more formal tendencies and the influence of the English landscape movement, trees were moved or removed, earth was reformed to allow a long view, water was restrained to create miniature rice paddies and vegetation was cleared to provide flat open spaces on the hill. Nature was tamed.
“The long view to the south ended with the temple, but in the middle distance was a ridge with a splendid ancient moonamal tree and when I placed a large Chinese jar under it, the hand of man was established in this middle distance.”
Peep through the window of a guest bungalow and it reveals an interior like that of a movie set: tasteful, a little surreal, all black and white tiles, a bare concrete staircase with a delicate sculptural metal handrail hugging the wall. It speaks of a restraint that is almost painful in its elegance.
Move along the path and look down at the folly, with its carved sundial, and enjoy the view of the checkerboard mini rice paddies and water gardens covered in water lilies. Wander the border of the lake around to the long expanse of lawn where groupings of trees have been strategically placed so they don’t obscure the long, wide landscape. Large Chinese urns placed under a tree or at the water’s edge remind us of the presence of the guiding hand of man.
Walk over the covered bridge, running under which is a track still used by local villagers, and you arrive at the southern end of the garden, a shining white stūpa of a Buddhist temple in the distance. On the way back to the house, a loggia featuring colourful murals by artist Laki Senanayake reminds us we are very much in Sri Lanka despite the English-style formality of the estate. Back on the steps of the house, the eye is drawn across the expanse of lawn that rolls gently away, towards a Greco-Roman statue of a young man standing languidly and extends out towards the lake and island beyond. The house, with its inviting wraparound terraces, is now a boutique hotel, the elegant interiors of which include the signature mix of black and white floors, metal candelabra and antique wood.
Bevis Bawa (1909–1992) was the elder of the Bawa brothers and cut an imposing figure at six foot seven. He joined the Ceylon Light Infantry and served in the British colonial administration with distinction before returning to the family rubber plantation bequeathed to him by his mother in 1929. Acknowledging that he lacked the self-discipline or interest to run the plantation, Bevis sold off the majority of the land, leaving just enough to carve out the spectacular Brief Garden, named after a legal brief won by his father.
Walk up to the ornate gateposts with their male and female figures, and it is clear there are both Eastern and Western influences at play here. The path, almost oppressively overhung by abundant palms and ferns, invites visitors to veer left towards the garden or right through a black and white door set in an apricot-hued wall that will take you inside the house via a smoothly curving passage.
“In the land where the jaggery grows and the skies are raucous with crows Years ago on a pastoral hill which was left to him in a will. A young man was heard to declare ‘I will build my own kingdom there I will proclaim myself its chief as the one and only Bawa of Brief!’”
We choose the garden path, which is narrow and winding, where the jungle has been restrained just enough for the eye to alight upon an occasional sculpture or appreciate the splendour of the tropical foliage. Look back along the terraced ponds or the stone staircase and marvel at the time, effort and skill it took to achieve this harmonious beauty. Along the way, homoerotic sculptures seemingly strategically overtaken by foliage or lichen, cheeky gargoyles and hidden grottos delight with their unexpectedness.
The house is a study in timeless simplicity—terracotta tiles, painted concrete floors, metal, wood and linen. Then your gaze catches on a risqué sculpture or painting and you find yourself chuckling at the irreverence. I suspect this sums up Bevis Bawa, a free spirit ahead of his time. Wander past the patio with its wall of bottles into the private, enclosed back garden that is home to exotic species including the coca plant and the striking black bat flower, back out into the open, and realise you have progressed through a series of outdoor rooms that felt every bit as considered and intimate as the spaces inside the house.