A shard of light flickered like a firefly in the distance as we meandered along a seemingly endless road fringed with jungle. A canopy of towering trees hid the stars from view, while a droning chorus of invisible insects hung heavily in the humid air. As we neared the source of the light, we swung through a set of wrought-iron gates that would not have looked out of place at an English stately home. They marked our arrival at Lunuganga, the country estate of the late architect Geoffrey Bawa, hidden amid the verdant jungle on the south-west coast of his native Sri Lanka.
The legacy of Bawa, a man regarded as the father of modern Asian architecture, is scattered across Sri Lanka's landscape, from universities and government buildings to more than 20 hotels and 50 private houses. But it was Lunuganga that proved to be his enduring passion and that, today, offers the most intimate insight into the personal world of Sri Lanka's most prolific architect.
For more than 50 years, Bawa shifted forests, moved hills and directed armies of gardeners in order to fulfil his vision of a perfect Italian garden in a tropical setting. Now, three years after his death, the property has been opened to the public for the first time as an exclusive six-room boutique hotel, which will operate for five months every year. For the remainder of the year, it will revert to a retreat for artists under the auspices of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
After an 11-hour flight from London, two hours wrangling over missing luggage, a two-hour traffic jam caused by a religious festival, and a further three-hour drive, I was elated to finally arrive. A line of white candles paved the way through the darkness to the main house, where Bex, the friendly manager, produced a light supper of warm soup before packing us off to bed with supplies of toiletries, pyjamas and mosquito repellent.
One of the advantages of arriving in the middle of the night is waking up the following morning to see the sun rise over the unexpected and the unimaginable. Feeling a little like an intruder in a private home, I wandered along the hallway and into the lounge of the main building. It is an open, modern space in which antique Dutch furniture sits elegantly alongside striking modern sculptures beneath a high ceiling marked with a geometric black-and-white grid. A covered terrace with a hanging artichoke lamp bursts with rich, green plants and has an open wall that seems to invite the outside world indoors. As I ventured on to the southern terrace through one of many doorways framing a view of the gardens, it became clear that the jungle stopped abruptly at the gates.
An early-morning haze hung across the perfectly manicured sloping lawns, still wet with dew and scattered prettily with white frangipani flowers. But taking centre-stage was the vista across Dedduwa Lake, whose serene waters are fringed with verdant jungle. The lake eventually melts on the horizon into the azure waters of the Indian Ocean, where the crashing surf hits the coast less than a mile away.
Sipping tea at a wrought-iron table on the lawn, I began to understand the words of Geoffrey Dobbs, the man responsible for transforming Lunuganga from home to hotel, and the owner of a string of boutique properties in Sri Lanka. "The word everyone uses in attempting to describe this place is 'magical'," he said. "Lunuganga enchants everyone who visits. It is the most special place."*
*When Bawa first stumbled across Lunuganga in 1948, there was little to enchant even the most imaginative of minds: a simple bungalow sat on the abandoned rubber estate and former cinnamon plantation. Today, the main one-storey house comprises a network of plant-filled courtyards, loggias and corridors, all of which conspire to shift your focus towards the views outside. There are four double suites, each elegantly quirky.
The Guest Room, where I was staying, is the only suite in the main building, and is a refined space filled with sculptures, antiques and an intricate architectural etching of Lunuganga by Bawa. A moss-walled courtyard and a bathroom with an oversize tub and vast windows complete the package. Then there is the Gallery, a two-floor suite that was once a cowshed and is now filled with intriguing objets d'art. The Long Room is defined by two parallel walls of glass spanning a sun-filled space above the entrance loggia, and providing leafy treetop views. The fourth suite, named after Bawa's friend and a frequent visitor, the Australian artist Donald Friend, has the ambience of a comfortably furnished tree-house. For total privacy, a two-bedroom ochre-walled cottage known as Cinnamon Hill, a two-minute walk from the main house, is also available to rent - along with a personal butler.
Nothing has been changed at Lunuganga since Bawa's death. "It is a wonderfully quirky place and we wanted to preserve that," said Dobbs. "Geoffrey was eccentric and this keeps his spirit alive." He added, tentatively, "I just hope he is smiling down on us...".
His caution may well be justified. Speaking to staff, colleagues and friends of the late architect, it was soon apparent that Bawa was the most demanding of perfectionists. A common sight was Bawa sitting in the gardens with a cigarette and gin-and-tonic in one hand, and a megaphone in the other, shouting instructions at his team of gardeners. And then there is the story of the Buddhist temple Katakuliya, which, framed by jungle, can be seen in the distance from the front of the house.
"First, Geoffrey arranged for the hill in the garden to be lowered to open up the view," explained Bex. "Then he claimed that the temple spoilt the view because it was unpainted. So he contacted the temple and said that he would donate money for it to be painted white. But he would only cover the costs for the top part to be painted - the part he could see from Lunuganga."
Bawa was fond of stating that the garden planned itself, but one of his great achievements was the way he artfully combined influences as varied as the Italian Renaissance and 19th-century England into a tropical vision of horticultural perfection. And, as in all of his properties across Sri Lanka, his clean-lined architecture plays its role: there is a constant feeling of the outside world coming inside and vice versa, as barriers between buildings and nature are broken down. An exploration of the gardens might take you down a moss-covered staircase to a string of lily ponds framed by frangipani trees. Or you could stumble across a lakeside loggia painted in warm red hues, home to a weathered bust of Bawa himself. Or you might find two curved chairs, sitting face-to-face in the middle of untamed jungle. Wherever you wander, an element of fantasy pervades the grounds. Bawa called it "a place of continually varied sensations" and "a place of many moods".
An amble around the grounds in the morning sun with Attila, one of the stewards, highlighted the diversity of the plants, trees and vegetation used to create the gardens. "There are more than 200 different types of tree here," he explained. "This is tamarind, over there we have mahogany." We crossed a tree-shaded courtyard, empty but for a round table and a bell, where Bawa would enjoy his 11am lime juice as part of his daily regime. "This tree is very special," continued Krishna. "It is a blue olive tree, which is very unusual here. Mr Bawa loved his trees. He built around the trees."
The atmosphere at Lunuganga is that of a relaxed house-party as opposed to that of a hotel, with an interesting mix of guests - honeymooners from Sydney, a young couple from east London, and an expatriate British businessman and his Italian wife - all sharing dinner around a communal table. But the sense of Bawa's presence lies heavily in the air. Even the staff who formerly worked with Bawa seem to lower their voices reverentially when talking about him. "Mr Bawa was a good man, but he knew what he liked," said Krishna, another steward. "Everything had to be perfect. He didn't like us to polish the copper because he wanted it to change with age. When he became ill at the end, he would be in tears if he saw that one of the ashtrays on the table was not in the right place. He liked everything to be in the right place."
It's just as well that the place is being so faithfully preserved, as Bawa is never far away: after his cremation on Cinnamon Hill, his ashes were placed in a giant black urn under his favourite tree. The urn sits proudly at the apex of the north lawns with a direct view of the front entrance of the house - ideal for enabling the father of Asian architecture to keep an eternal eye on his most fantastical and idiosyncratic creation.
The writer travelled with SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2000; www.srilankan.aero), which flies non-stop from Heathrow to Colombo from £544. Qatar (020-7896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) flies via Doha from Heathrow and Manchester. To reduce the environmental impact, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org).
A taxi transfer from the airport to Bentota costs roughly 4,500 Sri Lankan rupees (£25) and takes around three hours.
Lunuganga, Dedduwa Lake, near Bentota (00 94 91 438 0275; www.srilankain style.com/lunuganga.htm). The house is open as a hotel each year between December and April. Suites start at $250 (£144), including breakfast. For the remainder of the year, garden tours are available by appointment.
Geoffrey Bawa Trust (00 94 11 258 9212; www.geoffreybawa.com).
Geoffrey Bawa: The Complete Works by David Robson (published by Thames and Hudson, £45)
Sri Lanka Tourist Board (020-7930 2627; www.srilankatourism.org.uk).Reuse content