Panorama: Geoffrey Bawa’s 33rd lane house roof top


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.

Bawa House 33rd Lane roof top panorama

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):

  1. What did the place really feel like outside all those gorgeous photos
  2. 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.

5 comments

  1. Interesting take on the subject. Like you, I am both a fan and detractor of Bawa…beautiful spaces not necessarily that practical. Form over function perhaps. However Bawa is a legacy to this country and in a way I wish we made more of his contribution to the field of tropical architecture but I am also proud that more is not being done at a state level to exploit this.
    Anyway lovely pic and glad to see you are back pecking at the keys🙂

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  2. I would dearly love to visit his house, having seen it in so many books and read about it countless times in articles.

    Whatever the condition of house, there is no doubt the man arse-kicked SL architecture in to the ‘modern’ world.

    I think the term for this style is ‘Critical Regionalism’ and as much I admire Bawa and his contemporaries I feel that there only has been more of the same ever since, in fact, more of the same but not as good.

    I would like to see an appreciation of that whole generation and its influence on Sri Lankan culture in some sort of book – Bawa, Ena de Silva, Barbara Sansoni, Laki Senanayake &etc.

    Ena de Silva completely rejuvenated the batik industry but now she only does work for large hotels and her craft workshops are closed. (I managed to find her place in Matale a few months back). I feel she’s been forgotten about even though there is a whole industry profiting form her work. She’s over 80, the woman should be a national treasure.

    In fact, to be brutally honest, I feel almost all our ‘native’ (batik is from Indonesia I think) crafts and talents are only ever appreciated for their value for overseas commercial exploitiation. There are works of stunning quality made here but only for ‘export’ and not only that, the crafts person is removed from the final ‘export market’ product through multiple middle-people.

    So, I read the articles in the English newspapers on Colombo Fashion Week and Colombo Crafts Fair and get depressed. I go to middle-class homes and I see no arts, no crafts, no batik, not even books. It’s so strange, because in richer countries the middle-classes sustain the arts and crafts – they go to the galleries, they buy the items.

    I could go on and rant. Sorry to be a little off-topic, it’s something that has been nagging me for a few months.

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  3. Maf : Thank you : good to hear from another person who shares my view of Bawa’s work which you’ve summed up quite well. I see influences of his work in a lot of newly built houses specially out in the outer outer suburbs. I think those manifestations are a good balance. Glad you liked the pano🙂

    chamira Always happy to see you vent🙂 so insightfully. I agree that he did transform architecture quite fundamentally. Particularly in sweaty climates. I sort of see him like the Wright brothers of SL architecture. Which makes me feel quite guilty about being loudly critical of his work. Sometimes I hold back because I feel I’m whining about the Wright brothers’ first aircraft not having inflight movies.

    Still there is an element of the inspiring even in his private spaces. Like this on. Hope you do get a chance to go.

    Your “vent” about the lack of art in everyday things is spot on. Particularly that whole export quality thing. Partly economic I think but still sad. Specially when you consider the artistry of the things like combs in the museum.

    Hmm that triggered of the idea engine🙂

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