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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Mahawella - The Last House

Tangalla, Sri Lanka

At the end of his life, Geoffrey Bawa was still working at the same astounding pace he set when he first gave up law and turned to architecture. Projects such as The Lighthouse (qv), Kandelama and Blue Surf hotels absorbed much of his time but he always retained a great passion for the private house.

In 1996 Bawa was approached by a Hong Kong based businessman Tim Jacobson, and his wife Sarah. The Jacobsons had visited Sri Lanka several times previously and decided to establish a house on the south coast. While staying with the American artist Douglas Johnson at Tangalla’s Beach House (qv), they were alerted to a scrubland property overlooking the beautiful, sandy beach of Mahawella.

The Jacobsons were familiar with Bawa’s work from the spectacular Lunaganga country estate in Bentota. Indeed it was the Cinnamon Hill House at Lunaganga that inspired them to commission a simple, clean house suitable for beachside living. Bawa surveyed the site in 1998, producing a design concept shortly before a stroke ended his working career. His principle assistant Channa Daswatte took on the remainder of the project, carrying drawings down the corridor from his office to Bawa's bedroom for nods of approval or rejection. The project was finished in 2001. Bawa managed to make one last visit south to see its realization before his death in May 2003. Tim Jacobson recalls the great architect beaming with pleasure at the result. And indeed Jacobson maintains that he and his wife are never more content than when they are together in The Last House.

The Last House is indeed one of Bawa's greatest works. The villa is approached either across a lawn from Mahawella beach or by escalating a series of steps from the inland side. In either instance, Bawa has deliberately ensured the building reveals itself in gradual stages. The villa effectively revolves around a series of generously proportioned open-air rooms, loosely connected by colonnaded walkways and sensual, grassy courtyards. The cool sea breeze is about as constant as it gets, circulating with ease through carefully designed air channels. Every room offers an alternative view to the ocean, the strong vertical and horizontal angles of the building itself serving as a frame.

Under Sarah Jacobson’s discerning eye, the interior combines antique doors and windows with Anglo-Dutch colonial planters’ chairs, tea chests, four-poster beds and cast-iron bathtubs. However, modern Sri Lankan furnishings are also very much in evidence with the cubed, cement side tables and butterfly chairs. The contemporary ambience is enhanced by the addition of stunning cement shelving units and worktops in the kitchen and a Philip Stark style washbasin in the bathroom. The traditional colours of saffron and white walls and gray floors contrast favourably with the more arresting palette of colours used in the cushions. A massive copper-hued tub of polished cement recalls the splendour of Sri Lanka's ancient kings yet simultaneously imbibes the bathroom with a sense of functional modernism. And that is the essence of Bawa’s work – a combination of utility and brilliance.

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