by David Robson

It is a very dangerous thing to allow a builder, especially a failed one, to review a book by an architect. We builders are sworn enemies of architects the world over, because it is we who always get the blame when their designs go wrong. So I positively rubbed my hands with glee when this book came my way!

But I am absolutely gutted. All too often, the architecture books you see on other people’s coffee tables allow you to wallow self-indulgently in the sheer sensuousness of the pictures, and the thinly worded script might as well not exist. Don’t get me wrong. I like to wallow just as much as the next man, but this is something Robson does not allow you to do. This is not to say the pictures in the book are bad. On the contrary they are extremely beautiful – and beautifully laid out – but they are very much a supporting act to Robson’s detailed analysis of where modern Sri Lankan architecture came from, and where it seems to be going.

As you would expect, Geoffrey Bawa is present in a big way. But Robson does something far more complicated here than just list Bawa’s achievements: he traces the bloodlines of Bawa’s architectural descendants all over Monsoon Asia, defined by him as stretching from India’s Malabar coast in the west to Irian Jaya in the east, right across the Indian Ocean. Descendants there are many, and the sheer extent of Bawa’s influence over the length and breadth of this area is simply staggering.

Monsoon Asia is warm and wet and the single most important element of its buildings is the roof. Monsoon architecture relies on the apparently random placing of pavilions and pools, to achieve a harmonious whole that must look as if it has been there a thousand years. Robson explains how the volumes of these pavilions and spaces in between blur into each other, bringing the jungle into the house, so that the architecture disappears into its surroundings. The ‘artless simplicity’ of this arrangement in fact takes a great deal of forethought. The natural materials used – wood and clay and stone – age and discolour naturally, and this organic decay is built into the design. Modernism on the other hand relies for its effect on the pristine condition of its product.

Geoffrey Bawa’s particular genius lay in being able to marry these two dramatically opposing styles. The Modernists loved him simply because he was modern. The traditionalists loved his pioneering use of vernacular regionalism.

Robson believes that Bawa never consciously introduced regional elements into his work. “If you take the local materials and the general feel of the place into account, then the resultant building automatically becomes regional,” Bawa said. “I just build what I am asked to build.” Was he being a little disingenuous here? Probably. He was a clever man and it seems likely he knew exactly what he was doing. But it took great courage because regionalism was a dirty word back then, considered somehow a lessening of civilization.

Robson then goes on to introduce the people around Bawa: a fourth, human dimension to this architectural tale which I, as a writer, found enormously interesting. They developed their own distinctive style – that particular, very beautiful, method of plan drawing for which Bawa became famous, where every tree is as important as every building

One of the absolute delights of this book is Robson’s limpid prose, which effortlessly conveys quite difficult architectural concepts without resorting to technical jargon.

Robson ends with a description of the East Coast Park McDonald’s in Singapore – the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world! – which surprisingly incorporates Bawa’s signature motifs: clay tiled roofs, open-sided pavilions and reflecting pools. When Bawa’s method and philosophy are reduced like this to fashionable gimmicks and stylistic formulae, Robson notes, architecture flies out the window. When the global appropriates the local, the local loses its raison d’être. But this McBawa is merely the price he has paid for his enormous success: it is the architectural equivalent of the striped curtains in the farmhouse. Any love is good love, as the song goes, and I am sure Bawa would have been appalled and flattered in equal measure. Who knows, even as I write this, there is probably a township springing up in the deserts of Arizona called Bawaville.

I quiver with anticipation.

Reviewed by Ashok Ferrey

Published by Thames & Hudson; available at leading bookstores