The only evidence of my clandestine visit to Geoffrey Bawa’s Colombo house at No 11, 33rd lane is the panorama pictured below. Its made up of photos I quickly shot from the upper level of the roof top terrace – “The Tower” as its called. An interactive version is on my profile at dermandar.com – the site that made creating this panorama utterly simple.
Much has been sighed about this place, its creator and the architectural significance of both. It is futile for me, with my piss puddle shallow knowledge of architecture, to attempt that sort of thing. For those without the requisite coffee table books to visualise the place I’ll lazily suggest these delicious photos by the three blind men.
I visited on a blend of luck and curiosity (for security reasons I won’t be more specific). As with all most Bawa related sites, I found myself outside the expected Bawa devotee demographic. I wasn’t a student or professionally associated with architecture. I’m certainly outside the stereotypes traditionally mocked during the GLF bashing season (constraints of finances, time, sensibility).
My curiosity was driven by two thoughts (an achievement for a mono thought mind):
- What did the place really feel like outside all those gorgeous photos
- How has it held up in pollution and humidity of the urban tropical soup
The place smaller than I expected. Being within the house gave a sense of its maze like nature more than any photo or drawing ever did. The house is also showing its age. My simpleton’s eye would have missed that if not for the facts about the maintenance needs detailed by the helpful guide.
The impact of today’s Colombo life was most poignantly visible in the small pools and water features scattered through the house. They were all dry. Dengue and it’s resulting government restrictions about bodies of water in the house I was told.
The much vaunted Bawa signature of courtyards and Frangipani trees was a major let down. They are moss slathered spaces. Made mildly claustrophobic by the lumbering Frangipani trees that ate usable space. It confirmed my notion that Bawa’s unusably weathered built-in out door furniture was more for show than use.
Its part of an undercurrent of disjointed-ness running through the place that’s not in photos. Perhaps I am being ignorantly harsh and disrespectful towards the master. But it’s an unavoidable result of the true purpose of the place — a laboratory. Where many iconic architectural Bawaisms were prototyped. As I scampered along with the tour I caught glimpses of details or shapes that felt like baby picture of the more matured finished worked that are much admired. If I was a true devotee I would have paused, cooed at each detail and unfurled my knowledge with the flourish of a peacock.
There’s much more I can reminisce about the visit. But I’m time poor now as I was on the visit other than to say its worth it. You’ll learn more about the politics of preservation as well as the atmosphere of the place than from any book.
The strongest memory stays with me about the house is the calmness of the place. The white of the floor, walls and ceiling cools the mind. Just as the air that discretely wafts about calms you when you enter from the afternoon’s blaze. At the tour’s end you are expelled into the sun and eventually the traffic. The contrast is brutal.
Hopefully Practical info
To visit you have to book yourself on a tour. The Bawa Trust website has a tour booking form. No idea how well it works. I booked the old way — by phone.
The price is not cheap and most likely will have increased as with most things. If you got something proving you are student, bring it. Pupils of institutions such as the school of life or the college of hard knocks are not eligible for discounts.
Parking – I found an strip of all important shaded space where Bagatalle road meets Kumaratunga Munidasa Mawathatha (Thurston road for you old fogeys).
To make this post a proper geobloging one I have embedded a Google Earth view of it. The house is the white rectangular shape in the picture. Well, I’m sure that’s the one anyway. Naturally the comment box awaits your inevitably superior insights.