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The Lighthouse Hotel, Galle, Sri Lanka

Photos: James Fennell

A deep, yawning cavern on the southside of the main Galle – Matara road forms the principal ground floor entrance to the Lighthouse Hotel, one of Geoffrey Bawa’s last great architectural triumphs. The hotel was commissioned in 1995 by Herbert Cooray, chairman of the Jetwings travel company. Cooray’s father had worked as principal contractor on some of Bawa’s earlier projects in the 1960s. The site, overlooking the Indian Ocean, had once been occupied by a magistrate’s bungalow, but was otherwise a mere extension of a coastline that is constantly weaving around rocky promontories and rugged bays. Under Bawa’s guidance, the boulder-strewn landscape was converted into a profoundly stimulating and distinguished hotel.

A doorway to the rear of the entrance hall leads to a vertical drum which confidently spirals upwards three flights, connecting the principal reception, dining and drinking areas. The Sri Lankan artist Laki Sennanayake, a colleague of Bawa since 1960, was commissioned to create a balustrade running along the inside of the staircase. His remarkable copper and brass creation originated with a drawing he etched in 1961 entitled “The Portuguese Arriving in Ceylon Under a Cloud”. It depicts of the Battle of Randeniya during which the Portuguese overwhelmed the native Sinhalese, ushering in a century of Portuguese dominance in the island.

The main reception hall occupies the first floor, a vast arena of polished floors and sturdy columns, its southern rim open to the ocean. Such a courteous approach to Sri Lanka’s erratic weather pattern fitted with Bawa’s adamant belief that all senses should be stimulated by a building’s composition. Hence the open-side, which extends to the dining area (the Cinnamon Room), encourages guests to confront the elements, to acknowledge the restful beat of breaking waves and inhale the fresh sea air.

To the north of the reception room, another open space directs the way to the principal bedrooms and swimming pools. A grass lawn, dotted with the original boulders, is dramatically flanked by two wings running towards a central service block and the pool area beyond. These broad sweeping three-storey ranges, enriched by a samara coat, are roofed in Bawa’s innovative style; a sheet of corrugated cement overlaid with a single layer of half-round “Portuguese” tiles. Open balconies run the length of each wing, providing access to all bedrooms. Simple elevations between the pillars of the colonnaded walkway create a sequence of alternating framed views. No single space is self-contained, but rather each runs consecutively into the next, creating a visually invigorating sense of space, while simultaneously serving the functional needs of ventilation and accessibility. The overall effect is to create something distinctly Sri Lankan yet dreamily familiar. The Lighthouse has the ability to stir in its guests fragmented memories of a past they never actually witnessed – staggered images of Roman atriums, Moorish souks, Kandyan manor houses and colonial club houses.

At the far end of the residential wings, steps lead down through tropical landscaped gardens to a health spa and swimming pool, designed by Bawa’s principal assistant Channa Daswatte. Just as Bawa invited the elements to cross the threshold into the main reception hall, so his anointed successor teases the ocean by placing the calm, freshwater swimming pool just beyond its grasp.