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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Galle, Sri Lanka

Although his maternal grandfather owned a substantial tea and rubber plantation near Bentota in the days of British Ceylon, George Cooper did not visit the former colony until 1999. Just four days after his arrival, he purchased a rambling ten-acre tea plantation some nine kilometres inland from the port of Galle. A dilapidated hill-top walauwa crowned the property, its views encompassing the surrounding jungle and Koggala Lake below. The following year Cooper teamed up with the Australian architect Bruce Fell-Smith to design a new villa on the site of the walauwa. Cooper was determined to create an ambience that would stand in utter contrast to his somewhat hectic life as an interior designer in Gloucestershire. He was also anxious to preserve the existing coconut trees surrounding the property. A decision was made to construct a villa that would gently wallow along the crest of the hill and incorporate the outer world.

Kahanda Kanda, meaning “Yellow Moon Mountain” in Sinhalese, is amongst the most inspired of the new villas to have been built in Sri Lanka. A steep rocky path leads to a set of steps flanked by two walls, one the colour of aubergine, the other of saffron. “Originally I was going to leave the walls white”, says Cooper, “but then I decided it might look more welcoming if they were different. The colours represent those worn by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka - aubergine for the highland monks, saffron for the ones you see in cities”. The saffron wall particularly stands out, running some eighty metres in length through the property. Glassless windows are symmetrically placed along the wall offsetting any feeling of aloofness and providing alternative vignettes of the newly planted tea and cinnamon fields that lie beyond.

The principal area of the villa consists of three detached open-air rooms that run adjacent to the southside of the saffron wall. The first is the master bedroom, a simple yet sumptuous room with high ceilings and four separate double door entrances. One of these doors leads east from the bedroom, past a garden pond, to the main drawing room. This stylishly decorated room is imbibed with a distinctly oriental theme, embellished by elaborate windows crafted from old timber egg crates. A polished cement floor and exposed timber ceiling strike a sensual balance between contemporary desire and tropical harmony. All sofas, chairs and tables were designed by Cooper and built at The Workshop in Bentota.

Fell-Smith’s signature – a series of stepping stones similar to those used at Apa Villa and Victoria (qqv) – runs across a second garden pond connecting the drawing room with the dining pavilion. Here again the designers’ courage is rewarded with a stunning teak tabletop set upon two moveable stainless steel cubes. As a dining table, it is sleek and functional, capable of seating sixteen when fully extended. As with the drawing room and the master bedroom, the colour scheme is almost exclusively black and white. The great saffron wall running past the northern doors provides ample cheer while terracotta pots of fresh orchids merge with the fragrance of the tropics.

To the west of the dining room lies the infinity pool, sedate and alluring, its fresh waters blooming against a dark green polished cement finish. At the far end of the pool, another aubergine wall brackets the edge of the villa, again casting an encouraging hue over its immediate environs. A thoughtful alcove, situated beneath a lush jak tree, provides shade for poolside diners. Behind the saffron wall, to the north of the property, three terraced pavilions offer accommodation for a further eight guests, each bedroom featuring an open-air bathroom.

The genius of Kahanda Kanda is undoubtedly its architectural layout, a design that unwinds with a near sacred serenity. The dominant colours of the main walls provide the warmth. The geometrical precision of the three main rooms shows a tremendous mastery of utility. And surrounding this magnificent villa, the verdant jungle and tea estate supply the scent and sound that is unmistakably Sri Lanka.

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