Kandalama Hotel in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka by Geoffrey Bawa, 1991.
Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa passed away last Tuesday, the 27th of May, at the age of 83. Paralyzed and unable to speak after a stroke in 1998, Bawa remained active with his design practice until his final days. Spanning five decades, his career was marked by a sensitive approach to the environment and a unique balance between the modern and the vernacular.
Recipient of the Chairman's Award from the Aga Kahn Award for Architecture (the highest achievement from a group honoring architecture in countries with a strong Muslim presence), Bawa was widely recognized in his home country, as well as surrounding countries, but very little in the western hemisphere. A recent monograph, published by Thames & Hudson, finally brought some belated attention to the architect's buildings, which consist mainly of houses and hotels. The Kandalama Hotel is a fine example of the latter, made possible via Sri Lanka's popularity as a tourist destination, starting in the 1960's.
Completed in 1991, the Kandalama Hotel is indicative of Bawa's environmental sensitivity and contemporary/traditional balance, mentioned earlier. Confronted with a site at the foot of King Kaspaya's rock citadel, the architect persuaded the client to choose an alternative site, approximately 15km south on rocky terrain. The striking natural features proved a design challenge that the architect addressed by minimizing the impact of construction on the site. No earth-moving machines were used, and the sizable rock formations were kept, becoming an important element in the final design (click for section).
Other important elements of the design include its siting along the existing ridges (click for plan), exterior walkways along the cliff face of the hotel wings, and wood trellises with climbing vegetation. These elements help to blend the building into the site, create a relationship to its surroundings through exterior space, and blur the distinction between the natural and man-made, respectively. The masterful siting, spatial ambiguity, and facade articulation combine to create a one-of-a-kind experience for the traveler that is not common in an age of chain hotels and contextual ignorance.
The loss of Geoffrey Bawa is not the loss of his ideas. Expressed through his many buildings, these ideas embrace both the natural and the man-made through thoughtful intervention into the beautiful landscape of his native country. His was an architecture that embraced the modern, especially through space, but was grounded in the traditions of Sri Lanka, creating a unique synthesis that future architects can learn from.