Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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The following story is extracted from 'Living in Sri Lanka' by Turtle Bunbury and James Fennell (Thames & Hudson, 2006)

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No. 87, Bentota

Sri Lanka

No. 87 Bentota is a secluded country retreat set in a splendid ten-acre garden just off the busy main road between Galle and Colombo. The principal buildings consist of two early 18th century Portuguese style pavilions adapted to serve contemporary needs by Geoffrey Bawa in the late 1970s. The project was commissioned by the Italian sculptor, Lidia Duchini, and her Sri Lankan husband, Dallas Gunasekera. Duchini had worked with Bawa on several previous occasions, most notably when she carved the gold leaf bishop for the Bishop’s College in Colombo. The present owner, Rohan Jayakody, acquired the property in 1996, and has since added his own unique flair.

Initially, No. 87 involved two houses, built in 1720 and 1740, facing one another across the main road. The earlier house remains in situ but was rotated by Bawa so it no longer looks onto the road but now faces inland onto the lush garden. The change of orientation was the first major structural adjustment. The walls at the front and back were entirely replaced with sheet glass, enhancing the effect of the antique wooden doors that now seem to almost float. A Cubist influenced staircase was subsequently erected to reach the otherwise inaccessible upper floor, previously a storage space for rice. Walls were removed and a verandah added to the east side, inviting the morning sun to light up the building. Jayakody has now converted this pavilion into an art gallery, displaying ever-changing exhibits of Sri Lankan photographers and artists. The one constant is a rare collection by the Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt (1900 – 1944) on the upper gallery. Amongst the other assorted works on display is a replica of Tui Malila, a Galapagos tortoise presented by Captain Cook to the Tongan royal family in 1777 which lived until 1968.

The 1740 house on the west side of the road was dismantled and rebuilt within the garden at right angles to the first house. All salvageable material, such as the jakwood columns and framed doorways, were carefully reinstalled in the new incarnation. To balance the composition an Italianate pavilion was added just inside the main entrance gate. Finally, a high stonewall was erected around the boundary to successfully block out the sound of traffic. The result is an intimate arrangement of three pavilions grouped in a U-shape, beautifully choreographed around a semi-enclosed garden with views running down to a horizon of rice paddys.

Jayakody describes his Bentota estate as “a manicured wilderness”. Certainly the landscaped jungle sets the tone for the entire property. Facing east, the lake-centred garden clearly thrives with the sun’s auspicious, early morning glow. By night the silhouettes of mara and banyan trees arise across the skyline, broken occasionally by the various follies erected by the original owner (a ruined chapel), Bawa (a crumbling grotto) and Jayakody (a moon observatory on the lake). The magic of No. 87 comes from a powerful combination of natural synchronicity and human genius.

Click here to view James Fennell's Sri Lanka photographs.