Few architects are so associated with an island’s style as Geoffrey Bawa is with Sri Lanka. A master of tropical modernism, Sri Lankan-born Bawa spent the latter half of the twentieth century designing remarkable public and private projects, experimenting with how open areas and light can create flowing spaces in buildings.
Originally trained as a lawyer, Bawa qualified as an architect in 1957, at the age of 38. An impressive series of inventive local and international projects followed, as did acclaim and renown. Informed by a rich cultural heritage – both in his lineage and his country’s history – he developed an eclectic style that continues to be lauded, aped and celebrated today.
Not all of his creations have been properly preserved, but of those that remain in Sri Lanka there exists a small portfolio of iconic hotels. Most are dotted along the island’s south-western coast, with one notable exception in the heart of the Cultural Triangle. Stay at one and you’re sure to gain a real sense of the late architect’s vision – or, better yet, hop from on to the other for an immersive architectural tour of Bawa-inspired bliss.
The Villa Bentota by KK Collection
From £99 a night | Check availability here
Smart, slick and very grown up, The Villa is a haven of marvellous design, situated an hour-and-a-half south of Colombo – and walking distance from vast Bentota beach. Originally built as an ancestral family home, the hotel – then known as the Mohotti Walawwa – was purchased by Geoffrey Bawa in the 1970s and extensively renovated in order to create Sri Lanka’s very first boutique hotel.
The Villa has more recently been transformed by George Cooper’s reputed KK Collection into a chic retreat with style in spades. With 14 well-appointed rooms hidden around the property, it manages at once to feel both spacious and secret – a striking ode to the brilliance of Bawa.
Though significant changes have been made since Bawa worked his magic, the property retains many of his signature architectural flourishes: there’s a real inside-outside feel, with countless cosy nooks inviting visitors to perch in secluded comfort whilst catching glimpses of well-framed frangipani trees through clever archways and strategically placed windows.
Two pools – one tucked away in a leafy courtyard, the other placed boldly front and centre – a mangrove-fringed beach and superb specialties on the restaurant menu, not to mention cracking cocktails at the hotel bar, make this is a seriously luxurious retreat. With such atmospheric and enticing surroundings, the hardest part is choosing where to relax.
Club Villa, Bentota
From £163 a night | Check availability here
Directly adjacent to the KK Collection property and hidden behind wrought iron gates, laid-back Club Villa oozes trademark Bawa charm. Designed around an existing late-nineteenth-century house which had fallen into disrepair, Bawa added kitchens and bedrooms, as well as the courtyard and loggia, to create lovely nooks and airy, open-sided spaces in tune with the natural environment.
Seventeen brightly decorated rooms and suites now centre upon a leafy garden where little tables spill onto the grass for relaxed afternoon tea beside a pool fringed by those familiar frangipani trees. The property is lovely and worth visiting for a sense of Bawa’s signature style, but guests should be aware that it could benefit from refurbishment.
Beyond the railway tracks at the foot of the garden lie the golden sands of Bentota beach, but Club Villa itself feels like a barefoot oasis, well-suited to cosy family getaways. Dutch-era antiques and tiled-floors ensure simple, high-ceilinged rooms are brimming with character, whilst the joyfully painted doors and columns of open communal areas give the property a light, whimsical feel.
Venture to nearby Ambalangoda to discover traditional mask-making, explore the gardens of Lunuganga – Geoffrey Bawa’s country residence nearby – spot wildlife on a river safari, or simply while away an afternoon in the shade with a cup of tea and a good book.
Heritance Kandalama, Dambulla
From £134 a night | Check availability here
Wrapped around a rocky outcrop fifteen kilometres from the world-famous Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Heritance Kandalama is a tour de force of sympathetic design. Accessed by a jungle path which gives little hint as to the wonders that await new visitors, the hotel is nestled above the picturesque Kandalama Tank, an ancient reservoir.
Originally commissioned to design the hotel on a piece of land close to Sigiriya, Bawa relocated the project to create a dramatic modernist masterpiece that seamlessly melds nature and architecture, with spell-binding views of the lake and of Sigiriya rising from the mist in the distance.
Constructed in 1991, the hotel boasts 160 bedrooms in two wings, connected through a cave-like corridor hewn from the rock. Spacious rooms are luxuriously appointed, with huge windows ensuring mesmerising vistas. Spot elephants sauntering to the edge of the tank, unwind with an Ayurvedic massage at the spa, and head out to see the sights – from the cave temples at Dambulla to wildlife at nearby National Parks, the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and, of course, spectacular Sigiriya itself.
Lunuganga Estate, Bentota
From £250 a night | Check availability here
No exploration of Bawa’s architectural legacy could be complete without a stay – or at the very least a visit – to Lunuganga, his beautiful country estate. Carefully crafted over decades, Lunuganga was Bawa’s personal retreat and therefore embodies many of his design principles in their purest form.
Set amidst lush gardens with striking vistas over the nearby hills and the lake, the estate displays a host of the architect’s design hallmarks in a stunning natural setting, with guest rooms scattered throughout the verdant grounds, in addition to Bawa’s striking, multi-layered main bungalow.
Preserved as they were during the architect’s lifetime, the estate’s rooms and suites are brimming with eclectic contemporary artwork and unique vintage pieces. Relax, unwind and be inspired in Bawa’s own artistic realm.
Daily guided tours of Lunuganga’s gardens are now also available. Time your visit for tea or lunch to break up the drive between Colombo and the south. And don’t miss the chance to visit Brief Garden in nearby Beruwela, once the home of Bevis Bawa – Geoffrey’s older brother – a magnificent idyll of art and nature.
Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, Galle
From £191 a night | Check availability here
Just minutes from gorgeous Galle Fort and the neighbouring international cricket stadium resides another Geoffrey Bawa classic – the imposing Lighthouse Hotel. Rising from a rocky hillock on a dramatic stretch of southern coastline, this is a seriously special spot for a tropical sunset.
Designed by Bawa in the mid-1990s for Herbert Cooray of Jetwing Hotels, the property was one of the architect’s last major projects. Placing the surrounding landscape at the heart of the hotel, Bawa’s large windows and open-sided dining area offer sweeping views over towering boulders and the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean, whilst nods to Galle Fort are evident in the building’s high-walled structure.
You can’t miss the show-stopping central copper and bronze spiral staircase, created by local artist Laki Senanayake, which delves into island history by depicting the Portuguese and Sinhalese in the Battle of Randeniwela.
With smartly appointed rooms, two swimming pools, a tennis court, a luxurious spa and six dining spaces, the Lighthouse offers guests a sumptuous stay in the quirky surroundings of an architectural marvel.
The Last House, Tangalle
From £102 a night | Check availability here
Laid-back beach hotel The Last House is a small, six-bedroom hideaway with a seductive seaside vibe, perfect for couples, families or groups keen to book out the whole place. One of Bawa’s final commissions – hence the name – the property is characterised by flowing open spaces, a wrap-around verandah and picturesque vistas which draw visitors to gaze out over the gardens, artfully framed through open windows and doorways.
Bright, bold oranges, yellows and greens create a breezy tropical feel, counter-balanced by antique planters chairs and almirahs in spacious bedrooms, with polished concrete floors and pitched, wood-panelled ceilings.
Paddle in the pool, amble along the beach and take a long soak in your freestanding tub, before kicking back with a cool drink on the terrace as the sun sets and shadows play across the garden, ready for another serene evening in paradise.