Lunuganga - An artist’s legacy -By An­dre Ca­mara

The Luxury Collection - - Contents - -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.

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