In early 1996, when Geoffrey Bawa first asked Pradip Jayewardene what kind of home he wanted, he replied: “My perfect house would be a garden.” Pradip knew that if anyone could do this, it would be Bawa. He had visited the architect’s Lunuganga estate in Bentota, and had fallen instantly in love with what was already one of Asia’s most famous gardens. Nature and constructed form merged so seamlessly there that Lunuganga stood like a creation out of time, a place filled with secret corners that opened unexpectedly onto sweeping vistas of water and rolling green earth.
Now, Pradip wanted Bawa to build on the site of his grandfather’s old holiday home, high up on the red cliffs of Mirissa.For David Robson—Bawa’s best-known biographer and the author of the recently published book In Search of Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka—the Jayewardene House, as it came to be known, is simply one of the most important homes in the architect’s oeuvre. By the time he died in 2003, Bawa was widely celebrated as one of South Asia’s most important architects, and hailed as the ‘Father of Tropical Modernism’.
The Jayewardene House offers stunning views of Weligama Bay. Commissioned in 1996 by Pradip Jayewardene—the grandson of former Sri Lankan president and prime minister JR Jayewardene—the house was designed to be a retreat for the family.
The Jayewardene House, coming as late as it did in his career, was proof that he was in no danger of running out of ideas. “It was as if Bawa had worked for 40 years to distil the tropical house to its bare essentials—an umbrella roof floating in a copse of casuarinas and coconut palms,” says Robson. “People talk about minimalism; here was just about the most minimalist statement you could make.”
Pradip recalls that he drove Bawa down to the site himself. Another structure once stood on this land; an old colonial bungalow that belonged to Pradip’s grandfather JR Jayewardene, who had held office as both president and prime minister of Sri Lanka in the 1970s and ’80s. His family had loved the holiday bungalow, but towards the end of 1980, it was burnt to the ground, by, some believe, political insurgents. “My grandfather dealt with that as he did with any difficult thing—he simply did not talk about it,” Pradip says.
Now, just off the Galle-Matara highway, a steep road winds to the top of the cliff, and a final bend reveals a breathtaking view. The approach to the house, over a flat lawn speckled with small woody cones from the casuarina trees, is full of promise. The boundaries of the property fall away steeply and all around is the wide sweep of Weligama Bay, glittering blue under the noonday sun.
The slender columns that hold up the thin, horizontal ‘floating roof’ could be mistaken for the trunks of coconut trees. There are three rows of them, and that is all: no walls, no doors and no windows. The living space is anchored by a large dining table, the top of which rests on an antique electricity generator—one of the few objects to survive the torching of the old bungalow. A glass-enclosed stairway leads down into a lower level with a small living room, bedrooms and service areas. The rooms look out onto a lower courtyard.
Pradip’s favourite time in the house is split between hot afternoons, when you can see for miles out over the bay; and the early morning, when the sun is coming up and the red cliffs come ablaze. He quotes the German naturalist and philosopher Ernst Haeckel, who visited the site a century ago, and wrote of the cliffs: ‘They seem to burn like live coal.’
To the Jayewardene family, this is an idyllic holiday home. When they feel like a dip, they follow the steep road down to the base of the cliffs, which leads to a private beach. Their guests have included their relative, the writer Michael Ondaatje, who wrote a poem meditating on the sound of the wind in the trees around the house: “the sea is in the leaves / the waves are in the palms / old language in the arms of the casuarina pine.”
The experience of this house shifts with both season and time of day: at noon, you can see the lighthouse at Dondra Head; come sunset, the sky and the cliffs are awash in shades of orange, pink and gold.
“It is a house that demands you are active. It changes with the seasons,” says Channa Daswatte, a member of the Bawa Trust and a protégé of the architect himself. Describing watching the monsoon come charging through the bay, he says: “It is not a house of safety and quiet but an open house. It catches life.”
Using steel and glass, the design flew in the face of everything people had come to expect of Bawa’s ‘vernacular architecture’, and yet it was undoubtedly a masterpiece. “It was a precursor to the kind of work Sri Lankan architects are doing now,” says Daswatte. “Goodness knows what Bawa would have accomplished if he had lived another 10 years.”
The very last site visit Bawa ever made was to the Jayewardene House, in 1998, and both Robson and Daswatte kept him company on that trip. The family had just moved in and the architect was pleased to see the building occupied. Later that same night, Bawa had a stroke that left him paralysed and unable to speak. He died in 2003, five very difficult years later.
Bawa had planned for two additional rooms to be built, and Pradip has plans to complete the architect’s vision. He has come to treasure his unconventional house. “It grew on me. It was such a radical design. We are used to thinking of houses as offering security; but very quickly, I came to love its openness.”
He remembers standing in front of the completed structure with Bawa, and the architect turning to him and saying: “How come you let me do this? I don’t think any other client would have.” Pradip tells me that he still doesn’t have an answer—but he has no regrets either.
Published in Architectural Digest, Jan-Feb 2017 Issue (Cover story). By Smriti Daniel. Pictures by Sebastian Posingis.