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Geoffrey Bawa exhibition at NGMA: The importance of being present


An exhibition at NGMA, Delhi, celebrates Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s enduring legacy

New Delhi,ISSUE DATE: Apr 17, 2023 | UPDATED: Apr 7, 2023 21:25 IST

Geoffrey Bawa (inset) and displays at the ‘Geoffrey Bawa: It Is Essential to Be There’ exhibition. (Photos: Domonic Sansoni & Geoffrey Bawa Trust)

A wander through the National Gallery of Modern Art’s (NGMA) latest exhibition—Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential To be There—is a rewarding experience. Over his life, the celebrated Sri Lankan architect, who passed away in 2003, was involved in a prolific series of projects, from hotels, houses, schools and universities to offices, factories and public buildings, going on to the new Sri Lankan Parliament building.

The exhibition showcases a rich vein of work, from architectural sketches and drawings to photographs and models of his buildings. It’s immediately obvious why Bawa was so feted—his work is, in a word, beautiful, exuding a sense of wholeness as though the buildings are somehow natural parts of the landscapes they sit within. There’s also a skill to the sketches on display that makes them much more than technical drawings—many could well be called works of art.

Visiting the exhibition is a largely short and sweet affair—some 20 minutes of perusing from end to end, perhaps 45 if you’re dedicated—but what can be occasionally annoying is the curation, which leans more towards style than substance. The five or ten photographs and drawings on any given wall might share between them a terse caption or two, and the lighting, while dramatically subdued, often makes it difficult to see the fine details of the displays—one of which appeared to have rather unhelpfully been mounted upside down.

That being said, there’s a lot to appreciate. Another of the displays is a huge, gloriously vivid photo of Lunuganga, a former rubber plantation that Bawa purchased in 1948 and spent the next several decades developing into an idyllic paradise. Delhi-based architect A.G.K. Menon says this is his favourite among Bawa’s works, highlighting the essential wholeness of the developed estate: “The landscape, architecture, everything fits in. I have seen almost all his works in Sri Lanka—whether it is nature, climate, landscape, it is all reflected very profoundly in his work.”

Even today, 20 years since his passing, Bawa’s work remains tremendously influential, not just for its beauty but also its simplicity and holistic completeness. Architect Gautam Bhatia puts it this way: “Bawa’s work is critical for our times because in every project there is a clear resolution of multiple ideas—natural materials, sustainability, climate-conscious design, green building, water and landscape…And he did it all without the self-conscious fuss we make about these things now.”

(Geoffrey Bawa: It Is Essential to Be There is on display at NGMA, New Delhi, till May 7)

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