Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa was a designer known for his sensitivity to context. Drawing from the colonial aesthetic and lush environment of the island nation, Bawa’s enchanting brand of 20th-century “tropical modernism” serves up a distinct blend of Sri Lanka's local foliage and construction techniques; its influence on the contemporary architecture of South Asia is undeniable. But while his pioneering vernacular style has become widespread, the architect’s penchant for collecting—seen in his disparate yet exquisite displays of furniture, art, and antiques—is inimitable. In the Number 11 Residence in Colombo, Bawa’s home and studio, this wholehearted love of design is most acutely expressed.
A Saarinen Coffee Table in the corner of the guest living room at the Number 11 Residence. Photography courtesy the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
Managed by the Geoffrey Bawa Trust after the architect’s death in 2003, the house has been described as "an essay in architectural bricolage," built from four smaller bungalows that Bawa bought and combined over a period of years. The labyrinthine dwelling is punctured by a series of skylights, its spaces varied by changing textures of building material.
A painted door by artist Donald Friend by an interior courtyard at the Number 11 Residence. Photography courtesy the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
Bawa filled the house with beloved possessions: in the foyer, a massive batik tapestry provides a backdrop for the architect’s vintage Rolls-Royce. Salvaged Chettinad columns and tribal antiques frame small courtyards and shallow pools of water. An interior door painted by Australian artist Donald Friend, an acquaintance of Bawa, seems to grow out of the wall as naturally as the frangipani trees that surround the home.
A Saarinen Coffee Table on the terrace of the Number 11 residence. Photography courtesy the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
Bawa’s aptitude for design was not limited to architecture. Subscribing to the Bauhaus ideal of the gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, the architect scrutinized every detail that went into a project, seeing chairs and trees as indispensable extensions of an overarching vision. He often fabricated all the furniture that went into a project, tailoring its appearance to match the architectural envelope. Bawa's private residence, however, strays from this totalizing approach. It celebrates a diverse array of furniture and art that, instead of generating friction in its differences, results in a pleasing sense of congruity.
Left: A Saarinen Tulip Arm Chair in the guest living room. Right: More Tulip Arm Chairs in the dining room. Photography courtesy the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
A BKF chair, designed by Jorge Ferrari Hardoy and originally produced by Knoll in the 1950s, in the living room at the Number 11 Residence. Photography courtesy the Geoffrey Bawa Trust.
Amongst Buddhist relics, contemporary art and colonial cane furniture, pieces from Eero Saarinen’s 1958 Pedestal Collection stand out as sleek indications of a distant but parallel modernism. On the terrace, a well-worn Saarinen Coffee Table sits beside a wrought-iron bench and steel-frame chairs that Bawa and his collaborators prototyped. In the guest living room, the smooth finish of a Tulip Arm Chair is offset by an intricate Balinese wall-hanging; a Coffee Table in the corner displays another assemblage of curiousities. Yet more Tulip Arm Chairs can be found in the dining room, part of a continuum of objects that each suggest their own intriguing provenance. In Number 11, decades of collecting remain extant in layers, its cross section revealing an intercontinental love of design.
Design: Geoffrey Bawa
Photography: Geoffrey Bawa Trust