A Civilized Wilderness

Which English landscape garden is this?  Some lesser known Capability Brown site? Or perhaps one by one of his contemporaries?  Off the beaten track somewhere or just a hidden corner of a better known one?


Wherever you’ve guessed I suspect you’re probably wrong. It’s not Brown or indeed even 18thc….


The photos are mine unless otherwise credited

…in fact it’s not even in Britain, although it has British links because the creator was an architect who went to Cambridge and fell in love with the classically inspired gardens of Georgian England.

Geoffrey Bawa

I was reminded of my visit to this garden when I was sorting through old photographs recently, and turned up a whole stack from a holiday a few years ago  to Sri Lanka.

The garden is called Lunuganga and was designed and built by Geoffrey Bawa who was probably the greatest architect of his era in southern Asia and renowned as the father of tropical modernism.

Bawa was born in Colombo in 1919, to an ethically very diverse family headed by a successful lawyer  Benjamin Bawa, and his wife Bertha Schrader. He had a brother, Bevis, 10 years his senior, who will be the subject of another post soon.  Their father died in 1923 when Geoffrey was only 4 but as so often it was expected he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer.

Geoffrey was sent to Cambridge in 1938 where he soon gained a reputation for eccentricity wit and taste. His circle of friends included the offspring of many wealthy landed families and prominent. amongst them was Guy Strutt, whose father, Lord Rayleigh, owned Terling Place in Essex and Beaufront Castle in Northumberland.

Bawa visited both and said afterwards “it was during my time in Cambridge that I grew to love the English country house and its landscaped park.”   After graduating he moved to London to study law at Middle Temple. He lived an extravagant life, buying a Rolls Royce, sharing a flat in Belgravia with Strutt and as soon as the war ended driving to Italy where he fell in love with the architecture and gardens.

Unfortunately the war had affected the family fortunes and his mother’s health, and he was persuaded to leave his European life behind and return to Sri Lanka or Ceylon as it was still called, taking  his Rolls Royce with him.   

detail from a 1985 plan of Lunuganga

His mother died shortly afterwards and Geoffrey sold his share of his inheritance, stopped his legal practice and decided to go travelling. First he went to the Far East, then drove across the USA before heading back to Europe.  After unsuccessfully trying to buy a house and settle down in Italy, at the age of 30,  he admitted defeat and decided to return temporarily to newly independent Sri Lanka.  His brother had started a landscaping business based around his own estate, an abandoned rubber plantation near Aluthgama in the south west of the island.

Geoffrey was impressed by what Bevis had done [as you will be when I get round to writing about it] and decided that instead of leaving he would look for a home where he too could create a garden.  After some weeks  fruitless searching by chance he heard of a bungalow and small  estate for sale sitting on a promontory  in the Dedduwa Lake, just 2km inland from Bentota. He immediately saw its potential and bought it, renaming it Lunuganga or Salt River.   Now he determined to make a garden that would rival – indeed outdo – his brother’s.

His ideas were  not just inspired by Italian Renaissance gardens and the English  Landscape garden, but by others  he had visited on his travels, including  the great gardens of Suchow in China, the Moghul gardens of Northern India and the Moorish gardens of southern Spain.  He also had a sizeable collection of garden books with two of the most influential being George Sitwell’s On the Making of Gardens [1909] and Shepherd and Jellicoe’s Italian Gardens of the Renaissance [1925].  Nor did he forget the long tradition of garden making in Sri-Lanka which, as I shared in a recent post about Sigiriya,  stretched back for centuries.

1994 edition

The problem was that no sooner had he begun than he realised he simply didn’t have the technical knowledge and skill to carry through his ideas and so he got himself apprenticed to  a Scottish architect H. H. Reid, who had emigrated to Ceylon in colonial days and stayed on after independence in 1948.  After Reid died in 1952 Bawa decided to return to England to  study at the Architectural Association in London gaining his membership of RIBA in 1957, after which he returned to Sri Lanka.  Now aged 38 he  began to practice as an architect in Colombo.

He leased a small house in a narrow side street in the city  then bought up the neighbouring properties and  converted them into a single residence for the working week returning to Lunuganga nearly every weekend for the next 50 years  to create  “a civilised wilderness set within the greater garden of Sri Lanka”

The Sri Lankan Parliament Building by Bawa

His architectural work was , according to his Guardian obituary in 2003 ” a blend of both modern and traditional, of east and west, of formal and picturesque, that broke down the barriers between inside and outside, between building and landscape, and that offered a blueprint for new ways to live and work in a tropical city.”  You can find plenty of references to his work on-line but it included the Sri Lankan Parliament buildings. According to the foundation he later established,   his work is  ” instinctively, rather than self-consciously, sustainable…and he characteristically links a complex series of spaces—rooms, courtyards, loggias, verandah—with distant vistas in a single scenographic composition.”

Nowhere is that more clearly seen than  at Lunuganga, where the links between inside and outside were seamless, although life was generally lived outside. Meals were taken in different parts of the garden depending on the time of day. The indoor dining room was rarely used, and the sitting room even less so. The interior of the house was beautiful, but  reserved for his collections and for sleeping. Even his private suite  opened onto directly onto courtyards with pools , with one also having an outside shower.

Lunuganga originally stretched to about 15 acres, but when some adjoining paddy fields became available Bawa leased them as well, and also managed to add two  islands  to his holding taking it to about 25 acres  in total. It seems much bigger  because from the outset Bawa decided it would be “an extension of the surroundings – a garden within a larger garden”. It blends in so well that it is an outstanding exemplar  of a borrowed landscape. Architectural historian Shanti Jayewardene thinks that even calling Lunuganga a garden is a misnomer arguing instead that it is “an ambiguous landscape of forest, field, garden and park that resists classification”.

The chronology of the site is difficult to determine because Bawa avoided interviews, didn’t have a master plan or indeed make many notes and destroyed the greater part of his own office records in 1997.     That might explain why I can only find one plan of the gardens, in formal landscape architectural style and dating from 1985. The books and articles I’ve tracked down about the gardens don’t help much either as they are more concerned with Bawa’s philosophical approach than describing what he did and how he went about it so I’m going to rely on my photographs and patchy memory to do a quick tour.

The approach to the estate is via a meandering maze of small village roads, through fields and thickly wooded patches before turning into a shady corner rather like a forest clearing.  No big signs announcing you’d arrived, in fact nothing other a pair of gates with plant-topped piers.  No obvious way of attracting attention either apart from a a bell on top of the gate. Once admitted there is a walk through  dense greenery uphill towards the main house with no sense of what it is to come.   No plans, no information boards, nothing really to distract . It was like visiting someone’s home when they were away on holiday. We had the luxury of being the only visitors that morning but these days things are much busier and there are regular guided tours. It’s also possible to stay as the estate is now run by a trust which has turned many of the various buildings into a boutique hotel.

The first building one passes  used to be his workspace with his table carefully positioned so he could look out over  the gardens sweeping down towards the lake.  It’s a double height building with clerestory windows, and looks gently weathered  despite being only built in 1983. That’s because the doors and windows, in genuinely distressed colours,  had been save and recycled from old houses in Colombo that were due for demolition.

To his delight  a party of Japanese visitors arrived just after it was finished saying “So ancient, so beautiful – how old Mr Bawa?” . They must have been a little surprised when he replied “About 6 weeks”.

When he bought the estate  the whole area around the house was covered in rubber trees. All the nearby ones were quickly removed and work started on redesigning the house and adding the north terrace. The house itself stands on a mound and is at first sight unremarkable.

Described by Anna Pavord as  “a low series of Modernist cubes, crowned with a shallow, traditionally tiled roof” it doesn’t take long to see how special it is, with airy high-ceilinged rooms flowing smoothly both from one to another, and through lots of lattice windows and double doors, usually standing open, also to the outside.  There is an extraordinary long vista that runs  from the highpoint on a hill at the southern extremity of the estate through the centre of the house all the way to the lake on the north side.




The planting areas round the house are complex, fitted in around and between the collection of linked buildings, verandahs and courtyards.  It’s typical of  Lunuganga’s design which  is more about the way space is manipulated than it is about plants, and certainly than it is about flowers.  Indeed there are hardly any flowers at all.

The overwhelming  colour, not just here, but everywhere  is green of every shade and hue and as Bawa himself noted  the most beautiful thing about Lunuganga was “the effect of sunlight filtering through the leaves”.



On the northern side of the house is a wide terrace which has gnarled and contorted specimen frangipani trees providing shade and scent. These were probably planted  in the 1940s or 50s  contemporary with the terrace.

From there  there was once a gentle slop down to the water but Bawa accentuated the drop  cutting  away the bank to form steep steps and walkways down to the lower  level.  He used the spoil to build up the previously floodable ground at the base of the slope and then created the Broad Walk which was lined with more frangipani trees planted on mounds.

The Frangipani Avenue from Robson& Sansoni, The Bawa Gardens

Frangipani are one of my favourite trees, and probably the one I most envy  gardeners in warmer climes. I’d guess from the number of them they must have been one of Bawa’s favourites too.   Unusually for a sub-tropical tree they are deciduous and  their strongly scented waxy blossoms appear on on bare stems. As they age they form a complex system of branches which can be exaggerated, as Bawa did by weighing down some  to force them into even more splayed shapes.      Normally multi-stemmed rather than single trunked they make for an odd but strangely effective choice for an avenue.

One wing of the butterfly wings, with pathway serves as its body, and the seat as its head

Coming down from terrace at the eastern end of the avenue is the Butterfly Pond. Two small wing shaped ponds on either side of a “body shaped” walkway.

Next comes a grid of paddy fields, where agriculture and horticulture blended. Some are still used for rice, others as water gardens filled with the stunning blue lotus.



Right on the lakeside is a formal Italianate terrace with broad steps leading down to the water and a couple of classical statues




Turning west the ground rises up to another terrace and way beyond it more paddy fields, and then the Field of Jars,  which takes its name from carefully placed large ceramic pots which just highlight man’s light-touch intervention in the landscape.


The last area of the garden is probably the largest, and certainly the closest to the English landscape garden in spirit.  When Bawa arrived the whole area was covered with the rubber plantation trees which had themselves replaced an earlier plantation of cinnamon trees.  He embarked on a complicated and ambitious scheme reminiscent of the 18thc landscaping movement which he admired so much.  Firstly a massive clearance operation removed the rubber trees. This opened a long wide vista which falls away southwards from the house before rising again gently to the highest part of the garden, renamed Cinnamon Hill in honour of its past incarnation. 

Next came an ingenious move to hide the public  road that runs across the site, luckily at the lowest level, surrounding it with thick barrier of shrubs and at one point even bridging over it for easier access to the other side. Equally clever was putting a building  on the bridge which visitors  pass through without realising they are crossing a road, or that the garden is actually in two separate parts.

When all that work was completed Bawa  realised that the view from the the house still lacked a suitable eye catcher because Cinnamon Hill  blocked the view of the distant hills and the lake.   Like many of Capability Brown’s schemes it required earth moving on a grand scale.  He had 3 meters removed from the hilltop with the result that,  as if by magic,  there was now a  glimpse of the water  and the hills beyond, topped by a white Buddhist stupa.

Looking back from the top- of Cinnamon Hill

The clearing leading to the summit is lined with dense indigenous planting  and once again there is the lightest of touches to show it is a man-made landscape: a large ceramic vase sits underneath the tree that crowns the summit.

Tucked away in the trees is Cinnamon Cottage.

Everywhere around the garden, often half-hidden but occasionally very visible are eye-catcher objects – beautiful pots, statues, and sculptures, which develop a real sense of theatre. But equally omnipresent are the wide open panoramas of the broader landscape and it’s the interplay between the two that helps make Lunuganga so beguiling.


Sri Lankan author Michael Ondaatje , a friend of Bawa’s,  says of Lunuganga, “It is in every way a life work….You discover you wish to be at one location at noon, another at twilight, some when you are young, others that you will appreciate later in life.  It is a complex and also a subtle place, so subtle that there is the famous story about the visiting guest who said, looking over the landscape, ‘But Mr. Bawa – wouldn’t this be a lovely place to turn into a garden?’  It was, said Geoffrey Bawa, the best compliment he ever got.”

Lunuganga is now in the hands of a Trust, and for more information the best place to start is their website. The best book on the garden is David Robson and Dominic Sansoni’s Bawa: The Sri Lankan Gardens, and there’s a good article by Katie Campbell in Hortus [No 95, 2010] but just for more photos google Lunuganga and you can spend a pleasant afternoon dreaming about going there yourself!


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4 Responses to A Civilized Wilderness

  1. Pingback: Bevis Bawa @ Brief | The Gardens Trust

  2. Pat Webster says:

    Wonderful piece. I’ve heard of the garden but never taken the time to search out photos. Yours show me what a special place it is.

  3. sallysmom says:

    Very interesting.

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