Sri to shining Sri: South Asia’s rising style superstar

Sri Lanka conjures images of heavenly sunsets, fisherman gracefully balancing on stilts and feel-good moments of Buddhist Zen. Yet for many, the devastation of the 25-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami kept the Indian Ocean island off itineraries.

Now, new resorts and tourists are bringing the island (formerly Ceylon) back into focus.

“People often think of Sri Lanka as “India light” and they come for the beach and hot weather,” says James Jayasundera, a Sri Lankan by birth and the founder of UK-based Ampersand Travel. “But Sri Lanka also has a strong modern design and architectural history that’s often overlooked.”

In particular, design enthusiasts will revel in the legacy of Sri Lanka’s foremost architect, Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), who over his nearly 50-year career imprinted his own unique interpretation of Tropical Modernism onto the island.

David Robson, an architect, scholar and Bawa friend, has written extensively about the Ceylon-born architect whose privileged, colonial heritage — Arab and British on his father’s side, and Dutch Burgher and Sinhalese on his mother’s — afforded the tall, debonair gay man, who drove a Rolls Royce and favored boldly colored shirts and ironed slacks, a British education at Cambridge where he was known for his strikingly designed suite of rooms.

In Robson’s two latest books, “In Search of Bawa: Master Architect of Sri Lanka” and “Bawa: The Sri Lanka Gardens,” he continues to explore Bawa’s passion for a modern vernacular architecture in an island landscape.

Robson compared Bawa’s influence in Sri Lanka and beyond to Frank Lloyd Wright’s here in the states and says, “Bawa created architecture with a soul strongly linked to Sri Lanka’s past that intimately involves you with the tradition of his culture.”