March 10, 2015

A Brief Visit

Sri Lanka boasts the works of famous Architect Geoffrey Bawa. I had heard of him in college, but barely knew anything about his work or styles. I definitely did not know that he had a brother who was a landscape architect who designed his own home on a 5 acre estate near Bentota that he's named 'Brief'.

Two brothers, the offspring of Sri Lanka's elite society, initially educated for non-design careers but both of them have created masterpieces; each an obvious imprint of their personalities.

I am glad I visited this before Geoffrey Bawa's estate 'Lunuganga'. Although in overview, I preferred the grandeur of Lunuganga, Bevis Bawa's approach to create an intimate design is far more relatable. As soon as I entered the iron gate with those Narnian stone gate posts and through the archway to ring that bell to announce our arrival, I was instantly a wide-eyed nine year old again.

We began our walk through the gardens first. I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt like Mary Lennox when she first discovered the secret garden. Little paths winding almost unnoticed through the trees and shrubbery, making acute turns, up and down staircases, opening up unexpectedly into little clearings of refuge as if to say 'No, you are not lost. You were meant to find this'.  

I am so glad this wasn't a guided tour. It would have totally cut out the fun of discovery. The walk through the gardens was not meant to be hurried through. We had to slowly meander through this maze otherwise we may have missed spotting the stone frog and other little sculptures perfectly camouflaged in the foliage, the turtle shaped fountain spout, the earthen pots collecting rainwater from the trees above them, the little circular ponds and stone slabs for seating, stone mandalas, and of course those huge stone ball newel caps at the ends of the stairs; but those were not hard to miss!

The seemingly unruly garden design is obviously intentional. It seems as if it is an attempt to bring a human scale and understanding into the expanse of a dense forest of rubber and cannon ball trees. I especially loved how natural patterns were used in the man-made constructions. The stepping stones, table tops, walls and tiles all imprinted with leaves and other things from the garden.

And then, suddenly through the maze of staircases and terraced lawns we reached the bottom of a long stretch of tiered waterway leading up the house so perfectly framed by the bamboo thicket.

The architecture of the house itself is not iconic. There isn't really a striking feature that makes the structure a landmark in the tropical forest. But it is designed with such skill that the house is built to become part of the landscape in some sort of symbiotic relationship and if one transplants the house anywhere else, it would simply be lifeless.

Creepers and potted plants adorn the side of the house and the lawn becomes a patio. Lichen and moss are welcoming finishes to the stone and brick. It is hard to find the edge where the garden ends and the house begins. To me the obvious line was the yellow walls and blue doors- a playful touch to the house.

The main bathroom was quite unique. An open to air space bounded by a high wall with bottle wall segments and mosaics and fountains on the periphery. A pool in the centre acts as the focal point. The house and gardens have many art pieces. Some of them are done by a visitor of Bevis Bawa, artist Donald Friend who had an extended stay of five years and helped with the design of the estate. 

The interiors of the house are quite simple but with a large collection of paintings, antiques and interesting furniture. The rooms open out into covered verandas which all overlook parts of the garden. A large staircase that curves around to the front of the house is the main entrance to the house, but also serves as a gallery for other sculptures. Unfortunately most of the house is closed off to visitors as the home is often rented out to guests since Bevis Bawa's death about 22 years ago.

To end the tour of the estate, we were served ceylon tea and lemon puffs on the lawn under the trees. It was quite a treat.

You've probably noticed that most of my pictures are of details in the design. For the holiday I spent in Sri Lanka a few years ago and the year I spent there after, what awed me most about tropical architecture in this country was the attention to detail. This approach to design is evident in almost all the works of notable current day architects in Sri Lanka and I think I can safely say that it's the Bawa brothers that are to thank for that. 


Nen is fine said...

I loved reading this! Love the way you describe it :) can't wait to read about Lunuganga too! Although personally i prefer the Brief Gardens :)

Tanisha Christo said...

Nen, thank you so much for taking me there and to Lunuganga! Was such a fun day.

I have so much to say about Lunuganga. That write up may need two posts! It's a bit daunting. :)