Lunuganga - An artist’s legacy -By Andre Camara
Set on a secluded 25 acre property, nestled away from the hustle of the city of Bentota, is this masterpiece by one of my most revered architects, Geoffrey Bawa. On the shores of the Dedduwa lake, Bawa has crafted a personal tropical Eden along the waters of the salt river of Lunuganga - a few kilometers inland from Bentota. Bawa named the estate Lunuganga, which in Sinhala means Salt River. Lunuganga is, quite simply, a work of art, and it was with this project with which Bawa’s personal odyssey began.
Having landed in Colombo, I visited another of Bawa’s famous works ‘The Gallery’. In this I had a glimpse of the design philosophy with which I had associated Geoffrey Bawa. Open to sky courtyards, indoor-outdoor connects,
and use of natural materials were some of the main elements you could associate all his projects with. The clever use of landscape and its elements in a building was what drew me to Bawa as a student of architecture. The ‘gallery’ in Colombo was a fine example of these elements assembled in the perfect proportion. But even this, and the countless articles I read about Lunuganga, would not prepare me for the phenomenal display of architecture that I was about to witness.
As I made my way down from Colombo to Galle, I stopped over in Bentota to get a glimpse of this much talked about spectacle. It was the month of October and the monsoons had just retreated, leaving every bit of ground covered with a carpet of green. As my vehicle pulled to the entrance of
the estate, I was welcomed with a very simple, yet detailed moss covered compound wall. The weeds sticking out of the triangular shaped niches that were etched into the wall were an indication that the landscape had caught on well and was very much in its prime.
As I entered the gate, a slim dirt track gradually ascended, winding its way though thick vegetation on either side. A small clearing in the landscape gave a partial view of the tiled house that I was so eager to see. On reaching the top of the climb, we were welcomed by what I can only describe as the most beautiful set of steps. Emerging subtly from the ground below, I thought to myself, ‘this is what makes the man such a marvel!’ These steps were fitted at unusual angles connecting the accentuated levels of the courtyards. Sometimes when I think about it, the approach to the estate produces the necessary prelude to the entire experience. From the minimalistic compound wall, to the overwhelming tropical greenery, Bawa orchestrated the spoiler for what lies atop the emphasized hill. It was a powerful introduction to the place.
Bawa thought of Lunuganga as “an extension of the surroundings – a garden within a larger garden.” A bunch of low blocks, capped with traditionally tiled roof sits on top of a mound forming the main structure, which in true ‘Bawa style’, seemed to be erupting from the ground. The bungalow lies at the centre of the composition and it is the only point from which all of the garden’s separate elements can be comprehended. Although Bawa never kept a systematic record of the evolution of the garden, each room was said to have been constructed during a different period in his career and in turn, reflects a different phase in his life. The room’s interior spaces flow seamlessly into the courtyards outside which in turn open out into the grand view of the river in the distant. Bawa was a very ambitious man. To create the perfect perspective of the artistry surrounding the estate, he would lower hills and add weights to bring down branches and trees in order to better frame sunsets & views of the river from these rooms.
It was not only the views that were adjusted to create that perfect vista, but the topography on which the building stood was also altered. The slope below the bungalow was accentuated, so that the ground below the terrace drops steeply towards the lake. The waterfront itself is an apt example of the brilliance in the landscape. At the foot of the slope just before touching the river, a grid of paddies line the shore. Some are planted with rice, some flooded and filled with waterlilies and some just left to kiss the waterfront. The sheer randomness in the grids demonstrate the organised chaos Bawa loves bringing into his work. Just beyond the paddies, the edge of the lake is framed with large, graciously branched out frangipani trees on square platforms. The frangipani, although not native to the region, has been trained to branch out creating these natural masterpieces that are by far the only bit of organised landscape in the entire estate.
Today the garden seems so naturally erupting out of the ground that it is hard to fathom the details and thought that went into the making of it all. The landscape was an extension of its surroundings and urges you to leave your refuge of the bungalow and experience the civilized chaos the garden had to offer. A brisk walker could probably cover the expanse of the property in around 15 minutes, however, to truly experience what Bawa left behind for us to discover, it would take a good part of the day. Each part of the 25 acre estate was designed with a different, unique experience that could not only be seen through the length of the day but also through the soft changing nature of the seasons. The civilized wilderness, play of ever changing light and shade and a series of hidden surprises and panoramas demonstrate the theatrics that were playing in the mind of Geoffery Bawa over the 40 years he spent designing the grounds. Little did Bawa know when he began the estates metamorphosis in 1949 that he would transform this once cinammon estate turned rubber plantation into one of the greatest architectural landscape interventions in the world.