Architecture: The light touch of Sri Lanka's simple genius: Geoffrey Bawa's work might seem folksy to Western architects, but it could yet win him a Royal Gold Medal, says Alex Wijeratna

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GEOFFREY BAWA sits in a director's chair on the edge of a building site flanked by 15 builders and assistants at Lunugunga, his country house set in 40 acres of gardens in Bentota, Sri Lanka. He gives instructions like a film director as work on his new summer house gets into its dusty stride. The architect is working without drawings, using his eye and nearly 40 years of experience to build. 'Often on paper you do what you think is right,' he says. 'When you see it being made, a fraction of change one way or the other can improve a building enormously.'

The foundations of the summer house are only waist high, but Bawa has a visualisation of where the walls and windows ought to be. 'Move that frame slightly to the right,' he orders. 'Higher, that's it.' This is an ancient and seemingly rough and ready way of building - yet it works.

Geoffrey Bawa is the grand old man of Sri Lankan architecture. He was one of the contenders for this year's Royal Gold Medal for Architecture (to be announced today), but his sensitive work looks too ethnic, a little too simplistic, for the judges to have been able to agree on his particular genius.

A major exhibition of his work at the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1987 won him many friends, yet his work is considered more charming than great or influential. The Royal Gold Medal, still the world's most prestigious architectural award, is reserved for architects with more obvious gravitas and technological sophistication. This might also explain why other such architectural 'primitives', including the Hungarian Imre Makovecz, have yet to be awarded the medal despite the importance of their contribution to building design.

Such architecture as Bawa's is, however, immensely sophisticated. The materials he chooses and the style of his buildings might seem folksy to Western architects steeped in modern technology and materials. However, he designs his buildings in such a way that interiors blur into surrounding landscapes: in Sri Lanka, such an open way of building is ideal for the climate. Bawa could certainly teach many Western architects a lesson or two not only in architectural delight but also in energy conservation and appropriate design.

For a man whose work bridges the gap between the East and West, it is fitting that he was born of mixed-race parentage. Born in 1919, he grew up in the world of Colombo high society at a time when Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers freely intermingled.

He was sent to England, graduating in English literature and law from St Catharine's College, Cambridge, in 1941, but his real passions were travel and architecture. He visited the United States and the Far East before making his own version of the Grand Tour, criss-crossing Europe in a silver 1933 Rolls-Royce convertible. (This now takes pride of place in the entrance hall of the house and studio he designed for himself in Colombo).

Bawa was called to the Bar in 1943 but decided some years later at the age of 39 to retrain as an architect, graduating in 1956 from the Architectural Association in London. Since then he has designed 35 buildings - about one a year during the course of his career - mostly in Sri Lanka. These range from private houses, hotels and universities to temples and the 1986 parliament complex in Kotte, near Colombo.

Throughout his career as an architect, Bawa has made it his mission to produce an appropriate architecture for his native country without resorting to historical pastiche. 'There was a period in Ceylon,' he says 'of tremendous copying of Scandinavian architecture, with huge picture windows which were totally unsuitable. We have our own rich sources to draw on.

'When the island was known as Ratnapida ('island of gems'), it was a trading post between Rome in the west and China in the east, so the influence on the design of buildings came from both ends of the world.'

Later influences that interest Bawa include those of Muslim Arabs who settled from the ninth century and Portuguese traders who arrived in 1505. Both left a legacy of loggias, courtyards, Roman tiles and verandas that inform Bawa's work today. Such sources can be seen clearly in buildings such as the St Bridget's Montessori school he designed in Colombo in 1964 and the open colonnaded corridors of the grand Triton Hotel in Ahungulla (1981). Their use is neither pastiche nor regressive.

He says he learnt the real value of indigenous styles and local building methods when the supply of imported materials dried up in a national drive for self-reliance during the early Sixties. 'The country was turned in on itself. What materials we had here were used brilliantly in history, so we picked them up again - we were forced to - and adjusted their use to contempory function. We used just the simplest materials, such as wood, timber, brick and stone.'

The acclaimed Ena de Silva house in Colombo (1964), hewn from the finest woods and granite with an internal courtyard as centrepiece, is an example of Bawa's reinterpretation of historical forms. 'So many people misinterpret this house,' he says. They talk of old temples and haciendas, but that's not right. Basically, I've taken the inner courtyard from Rome's tight urban setting and transposed it, as a haven of peace, to spacious Colombo.'

His own house and studios in Colombo (1968) are a labyrinth of rooms and corridors. The concept of indoors and outdoors is delightfully blurred as garden courts interlock with light wells and rain wells. 'I design from the inside out,' he says. 'The play of light is vitally important - after all, it makes the greatest difference to one's quality of life.'

At the age of 74, Geoffrey Bawa still runs a thriving practice. He is finishing two hotel projects - Triton 2 at Bentota, and Kandulama in the jungles of Sigiriya - that respond to the current tourist boom (despite the Tamil separatist war in the north-east, there were 400,000 visitors to Sri Lanka in 1992). The new hotels place an emphasis on stunning vistas, access to nature and quality of light. Both are due to open next month. Inspired by the island's past craftsmen, they are sure to define not just the shape of Sri Lanka's future hotels but the architecture of the island itself.

(Photograph omitted)