Sri Lankan architecture: The works of Geoffrey Bawa

Explore Sri Lanka through the works of the country’s most celebrated architect.

Inside Number 11 at Colombo. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust
Inside Number 11 at Colombo. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust

Despite its troubled past, Sri Lanka is a favorite destination for travelers who enjoy sun-kissed beaches, tree-clad lush mountains, and mouth-watering local cuisine. 

Sri Lanka is also home to unique architectural marvels, including those by one of Asia’s most influential architects, the late Geoffrey Bawa.

From the age of 38, when Bawa left his role as a lawyer to become a qualified architect, until his death in 2003, the celebrated figure designing more than 30 hotels, schools, and private residences across the country.

Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Image credit: Lunuganga Trust
Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust

Bawa was also the pioneer of tropical modernism, a global design movement that focuses on increased natural ventilation, open spaces, and local resources, blending modernist architecture with nature and locality to adapt to hot, humid tropical conditions.

Independent architect Ruchira Wickremasinghe, who had the opportunity to meet with Bawa, said the famed architect championed modernist designs and integrated it into traditional Sri Lankan components. 

“His designs encompass global modernism and local elements,” Wickremasinghe said. 

“Bawa worked together with Sri Lankan artists and craftsmen to highlight the authenticity of the island.”

This year marks the late architect’s 100th anniversary to celebrate his design aesthetics, which can still be seen throughout the country.

We’ve curated a list of places to visit in Sri Lanka for those who want to get a glimpse of Bawa’s modern, contemporary architecture. 

Number 11 – Bawa’s residence in Colombo 

The entrance to Number 11. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust
The entrance to Number 11. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust

Start your architectural journey in Sri Lanka’s commercial capital of Colombo at Number 11, which was once the residence of Bawa. 

While the three-story villa is open for pre-arranged visits, only the two-bedroom suite is allowed for overnight stays.  

Walk past the main entrance into the carport where a couple of old vintage cars — a Rolls Royce and Mercedes Coupe – are parked.

Inside, beautiful courtyards and long verandas are adorned with houseplants. You can see Balinese wall hangings and skylit gardens guarded by pillars resembling South Indian Hindu architecture. 

Bawa’s office room, with light-infused walls, sits on the ground floor. The room’s interior is designed with local arts and crafts, and the furniture designed by the architect himself. There’s also a rooftop with tropical houseplants open for the visitors. 

Geoffrey Bawa's home. Image credit: ©  Lunuganga Trust
Geoffrey Bawa’s home. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust

Lunuganga Trust art and archival collections curator Shayari de Silva said Bawa was “consistent in treating every project as his own”.

“It’s hard for me to pick favorites out of his work as each design is unique, but Number 11 is quite remarkable,” de Silva said. 

A beautifully designed colonial bungalow, The Gallery Cafe is now one of the go-to fine dining restaurants in Colombo.

The restaurant space is housed in one of Bawa’s former offices. In 1988, designer and hotelier Udayashanth Fernando transformed Bawa’s workspace into a chic, cozy restaurant that has preserved the vernacular design and timeless character of the building.

Walk along the corridors and you’ll see an intimate courtyard and open dining spaces with Bawa’s aesthetics.

The Gallery Cafe features an extensive menu, inspired by both local and international flavors. Diners frequent the space for the Sri Lankan black pork curry and desserts infused with “kithul”, palm syrup. 

Heritance Kandalama – a luxurious hotel in Dambulla

A dramatic architectural marvel, Heritance Kandalama sits in Dambulla, 21 kilometers south of Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In keeping with the aesthetics of the remote location, Bawa designed the hotel with no earth-moving machines and made sure the rock formations at the original site weren’t removed.

The hotel features long, exterior walkways and wooden lattices with climbing vegetation. The multi-story resort is adjacent to a steep rocky outcrop and has three main sections.

The center of the building houses common spaces such as the main lobby, public pools, and restaurants while the eastern wing houses guest rooms, with outlying views over the sweeping Kandalama Reservoir. Nestled in thick, green foliage, the southwest wing is allocated for other guest rooms. 

Lunuganga Estate – Bawa’s country home in Bentota

Arguably Bawa’s most famous work, Lunuganga Estate is located in Bentota, a quaint beach town 80 kilometers south of Colombo.

The 15-acre expansive, lakeside garden location was a former rubber estate before it became the country home of Geoffrey Bawa. It was here Bawa spent four decades carefully crafting his tasteful, exquisite designs. 

Inside the sprawling estate is an Italianate garden with stone statues, a halcyon cottage, six independent visitor suites, and lotus ponds.

Around the garden are elaborate, intimate pavilions with views of the Dedduwa Lake and the subtropical jungle. On the gatehouse verandah is a mural by local artist Laki Senanayake, which was pained over three decades. 

Lunuganga Estate. Image credit: Lunuganga Trust
Lunuganga Estate. Image credit: © Lunuganga Trust

Bentota railway station – A glimpse into village life

Apart from residential properties and upscale accommodations, Bawa also designed public spaces.

One of his most noted public spaces is the Bentota Railway Station, which sits on the country’s southwest coast. This charming little railway station resembles an old Sri Lankan village house, with a large veranda and a terracotta roof.

The windows of the railway station are similar to railway compartment shutters of the ‘60s and a footbridge takes travelers directly to the public beach at Bentota. 

Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle – An extraordinary hotel near Galle Fort

Head further south to Galle where you’ll find Jetwing Lighthouse, a luxury hotel that sits on seven acres of land overlooking the Indian Ocean.

The old wing of the hotel features Bawa’s extraordinary design. As you climb the main staircase, you can’t miss the bronze-and-brass masterpiece crafted by artist Laki Senanayake, which portrays the first Portuguese arrival to the island in 1505. In the main bar, ceilings are decorated with batik coat of arms of ancient Sri Lanka.