Mr. Bawa I Presume

Mr. Bawa I Presume
Giovanna Silva
Hatje Cantz, August 2020

Paperback | 8-3/4 x 12-1/2 inches | 160 pages | 125 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-3775747141 | $46.00


His home in Lunuganga, sixty kilometers south of Colombo, was his “journeyman work”, and the five-star hotel in Kandalama was one of his masterpieces. In Europe the name Geoffrey Bawa is still only known to insiders, but in the Asian region he has long been one of the most celebrated cult figures in architecture. Anyone traveling through Sri Lanka will find themselves unable to avoid his much-copied architectural style. Bawa developed what is known today as “tropical modernism”: minimalist, reductionist concrete structures that feature traditional craftsmanship and natural materials, while also leaving as much room as possible for nature. Bawa practiced what has now become a global trend since the 1950s: green architecture, environmentally friendly construction. One of his most important architectural principles is the fascinating sightline. The photographer Giovanna Silva impressively documents the private houses, schools, and hotels Bawa designed, which we encounter on the way through Sri Lanka’s jungle.

The photographer Giovanna Silva lives in Milan. She has been a photo editor for Domus and Abitare and participated in the 14th architecture biennial in Venice with her project Nightswimming: Discotheques in Italy from 1960 to Today. She is founder and director of Humboldt Books.


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I'm not sure exactly how I learned about Kandalama Hotel, but photographs of the exposed concrete frame covered in vegetation have stayed with me ever since I first saw them more than twenty years ago. Designed by Geoffrey Bawa and completed in 1995, the building is a masterpiece of tropical architecture and "green" architecture, the latter due to it being shrouded in plants but also in the way it was built into a rocky cliff to minimize excavation and destruction of the natural landscape. I have not been fortunate enough yet to visit Sri Lanka and stay at the hotel, but I did write about the project on my blog in 2003, about a month after Bawa died at the age of 83, and years later included it in my book 100 Years, 100 Buildings. Researching the building on those occasions led me to also learn about Bawa's home, Lunuganga, another masterpiece, but more of the landscape than building variety. In turn, I included it in 100 Years, 100 Landscape Designs, marking 1947 as the starting point of his five-decade cultivation of 25-acre site jutting into Dedduwa Lake. Since learning about it, Lunuganga has joined Kandalama on my list of must-see places.

One person who has visited these two places — and other buildings designed by Bawa, all in Sri Lanka — is photographer Italian photographer Giovanna Silva. At the age of 38, the same age at which Bawa's career shifted from law to architecture, Silva ventured to Sri Lanka with her father, visiting and photographing 16 projects designed by the country's greatest architect. Their trip is presented in Mr. Bawa I Presume, chronologically from 1948 to 1998, the year Bawa suffered a debilitating stroke that limited but did not stop him from designing. Logically, the two projects given the most space in the book's roughly 130 pages of photographs are his two masterpieces, Lunuganga (third spread below) and Kandalama (fourth spread); the former comes immediately after Silva's helpful text on the trip and the latter falls near the end of the book, alongside a slew of other hotels designed by Bawa. Sri Lanka's tourism boomed in the 1970s, when Bawa started designing resorts and hotels, but civil war from 1983 onward led to an obvious and dramatic reduction in people vacationing there. A lull in fighting in the 1990s led to Kandalama alongside a few other hotels, none though as distinctive as his magnum opus.

In his introductory essay for Mr. Bawa I Presume Luca Galofaro says that Silva "did not photograph Mr. Bawa's architecture all, but rather she traveled through her imagination ... to tell us quite another story altogether." I'm not exactly sure what he means by that, but I see clearly that Silva is not interested in shooting buildings like other architectural photographers. Many of her photographs are stunning, but many of them are also fairly straightforward, documentary captures of moments and features that caught her attention. The whole is then an expression of her explorations of Bawa's buildings and landscapes. Some photographs find Silva exploring beyond the usual path of tourists, most explicitly in the service zone between the lowest floor of Kandalama Hotel and the rocky landscape beneath. Most pages find Silva pairing photos and the juxtapositions work well together, both formally and in drawing the reader's attention to certain features of his buildings. With so few books devoted to Bawa, Silva's book of photographs is a welcome documentation of his architecture.