The father of 'tropical modernism' has a cultish following, writes Andrew Stone.

Nothing prepares you for the sight at the end of the dusty Sri Lankan track.

Our van emerges from trees overhanging the path and we are thrust into a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. A soaring cliff has been transformed into a monumental building which seems to be simultaneously escaping from the jungle while tethered by thick vines.

The place is Kandalama Hotel, a masterpiece created by the acclaimed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.

Completed two decades ago, the 160-room building clings to a vertical rock face and stares out across a reservoir towards the ancient ruins of Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka's celebrated cultural drawcards.

Advertisement

Kandalama is a hotel like no other. Visitors enter past a slanting rock slab and slip alongside huge boulders before the view stretches out from an open-air lobby.

A warm breeze floats up from the shimmering lake, a vast man-made water body known as a tank and home to wading birds and crocodiles. Watched by a sculpted concrete cobra cast on the smooth polished lobby floor, guests sip on chilled drinks and refreshing cups of tea. Below them, two dozen swimmers laze in a infinity pool that juts out towards the tank from a rock terrace.

The stunning design creates the impression of being in the humid jungle while embracing the sweeping views across Kandalama basin, 150km from Colombo.

For Bawa, the hotel was a departure from his many other projects in Sri Lanka and other Asian countries. Such is the legacy of the architect that itineraries can be arranged to include sidetrips to Bawa's creations, which are faithful to Sri Lanka's climate, landscape and culture.

The son of a wealthy Muslim lawyer and a mother of mixed descent, Bawa had a privileged childhood, wanting for nothing. Born in Colombo in 1919, his early career was spent in the law. A restless man, he loved to travel and spent two years driving a 1934 Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce around Europe.

Switching to architecture in his late 30s, Bawa put such a stamp on the profession that his style came to be called "tropical modernism".

Kandalama Hotel, Sri Lanka.
Kandalama Hotel, Sri Lanka.

Rooms in Bawa designs are large and breezy. Interior courtyards provides contemplative spaces, covered pathways link buildings, and overhanging pitched roofs offer shelter from tropical downpours.

Besides boutique hotels and commissioned houses, Bawa's designs include resorts in India and Bali, and his most celebrated creation, the Sri Lankan Parliament in Colombo.
Having visited Bawa properties, it's easy to see why he attracts a cultish following. His designs invite exploration and imagination. He left little in the way of explanation, and shunned interviews. The best way to discover his genius is to embark on a tour.

A sense of Bawa's embrace of nature can be found at Lunuganga, an hour and a half's drive from the capital on a bend in the Bentota River called Dedduwa Lake. Bawa bought the abandoned rubber plantation in 1948 and set about creating his own arcadia, drawing on time he had spent in Italy. Now run by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, the 4ha property offers accommodation, high tea or four-course meal and tours.

Lunungana house in Sri lanka.
Lunungana house in Sri lanka.

We had a meal and a tour. The menu pays homage to Bawa, with a mix of spicy Sri Lanka curries and a cool coriander and cucumber soup.

The serene property is where Bawa thought about "how to connect with nature". An hour-long wander through blue olive trees, mahogany, balsa, ebony and frangipani specimens, and alongside symmetrical ponds reveals how he undertook the task. In places, large brass bells hang from branches. These, we learn, were used by the architect to summon a servant when it was time for an afternoon gin.

A leopard sculpture guards the lakefront, Roman statues stand on garden walls, lichen-covered smiling face planters are scattered through the property and a cast head of Bawa is protected in a plastered shelter.

He is buried, unobtrusively, on the grounds.

The rooms all bear his stamp. Colonial furniture sits on black-and-white floors, ceramic Dutch tiles decorate balconies and windows open to reveal tranquil views. Six suites are available for accommodation, including a glass-walled room which spans an entrance.

Kandalama Hotel, Sri Lanka.
Kandalama Hotel, Sri Lanka.

Later this year, all being well, another Bawa house will be added to the Lunuganga inventory. This is a striking home he designed for his friend, the artist Ena de Silva. It was dismantled, brick by brick, in Cinnamon Gardens, a Colombo suburb, and has been reassembled in a secluded part of the property.

If Lunuganga fails to satisfy your Bawa urge, two quite different properties are open to view in Colombo.

His own house, called Number 11 and hidden away in a narrow backstreet behind a unassuming white wall, is filled with artefacts from his personal collection. The trust makes rooms available for a stay, with preference given to enthusiasts of Bawa's endeavours.

In another Colombo suburb, Bawa's office is now a gallery and cafe. It too is a beautiful destination, hardly surprising as the architect gave his blessing before he died in 2003 to its sympathetic conversion. Just the place for an afternoon gin.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Colombo.

Architecture: See geoffreybawa.com for more on Geoffrey Bawa's work.

Further information: Holidays by Design offers a 10-night Sri Lanka tour.