“The reaction won’t be indifference!”
– Channa Daswatte talks reconstruction of Bentota Beach Hotel
By Jennifer Rodrigo
My visit to the newly reconstructed Cinnamon Bentota Beach Hotel was brief, but the few hours spent there, walking down its corridors and halls, and exploring its rooms had me thinking about the importance of design and art in hotels – how they add, often very subtly yet hauntingly, to one’s stay. Waking up in a hotel room, sipping your morning coffee in the verandah/balcony, having your meals at the restaurants, enjoying time in the pool – everything is touched by the architecture that surrounds us, although we may not consciously think about it that way.
Bentota Beach was originally built in 1967 as a part of tourism development encouraged by the Government of Sri Lanka. It was designed by famed Geoffrey Bawa, said to be the principal force behind what is today known globally as “tropical modernism”. In 2017, 50 years after it first opened to the public, the hotel was closed and all parts that could be removed were dismantled; in completing the building, it was decided that the original finishes used by Bawa including its terrazzo floors and timber doors and windows will be preserved.
The afternoon of Sunday, 5 January was spent strolling through the hotel. Whilst the hotel staff were kind enough to take me through each of the 16 suites and explain, in detail, the concept behind them – eight artists were commissioned to depict and record what they felt the name of the suite meant to them – the crowd I was a part of suddenly became intrigued by a presence in the reception area and I turned to look. A buoyant Channa Daswatte was talking with a group of people who were visiting the hotel as part of The Lunuganga Trust celebrations of 100 years of Bawa in Sri Lanka – Bawa 100. The reconstruction, whilst being so sensitive to preserving the essence of what Bawa built, was done by Daswatta, one of Sri Lanka’s leading architects, who was also a friend, confidant, and the principal assistant to the influential Bawa.
The challenges of visualising and creating
“Engaging, exhilarating, and fulfilling experience,” shared Daswatte, when I asked him how he would describe the entire experience in three words. “I was able to work through many of the ideas and issues that are close to me; conservation of our 20th Century architectural history while having the opportunity to add an extension that is hopefully respectful of the original but holding its own as a piece of contemporary culture, and of course engaging through all the people I had to deal with.” Many have referred to Daswatte as the spiritual successor of Bawa, but Daswatte maintains that his friend is a hard act to follow.
In the reconstruction, it was decided that the famous ceiling by Ena de Silva that adorned the entrance will be remade; and the handloom fabric ceiling designed by Barbara Sansoni and Barefoot be reinstated. The reception ceiling of multiple batik panels was recreated as a copy of the original under the guidance of Aluvihara Heritage Centre Director Chandra Aluvihare, architect Amila de Mel, and designer Roshan Rajapakse.
Using old photographs and drawings from the Geoffrey Bawa archive, the concierge table was replaced and the art re-drawn by Ismeth Raheem. Copies of the initial furniture designed by Bawa were used to furnish the lobby and lounges.
The most challenging part of the entire process, according to Daswatte was the co-ordination with the many consultants involved in the project, and then seeing it through. “It’s not always a pleasant experience, until everybody sees the big picture which results in something special which is often only seen by the architect.”
The amount of detail given to preserving what Bawa envisioned, was heartwarming, to say the least. Even the brass panels on the copper backdrop of the lift doors, similar to the then fashionable designs of the Scandinavian designer Marie Mekko, and designed by architect Anura Ratnavibhushana, are a copy of the original made in the 1990s. The ceiling of the Peacock Salon and bar formerly covered in handloom, was recreated with the aid of designer Marie Gnanaraj using the archival records of both the Bawa Trust and Barefoot to closely match the original. The Peacock at the top of the main staircase made by Laki Senanayake is the original that has stood there since the hotel’s inception; it was protected by a steel box during the demolition and rebuilding process, and then cleaned and repaired by artist Pradeep Manampari.
Many minds coming together
Daswatte said that it has been a pleasure working with this many artists on this project, which is also a way of providing opportunities of having art embedded in the public realm. “With the severe injustice to contemporary artists and with the lack of proper modern and contemporary art galleries in the public realm, opportunities such as these are to provide for it, though of course, in a very small and limited way.”
Each suite in the hotel has a main piece of artwork on the wall of the living room and some others in the bathrooms and dressing areas. Six archival Barefoot fabric designs have been selected to be displayed behind the bedheads while the cushions were specially woven by Asanga Godamune.
“As in all projects, seeing the reality come to life and seeing the others begin to see it as the architect does, and make their own important contribution towards it is always the greatest pleasure,” commented Daswatte, adding that in this case, the ability to bring back to life an icon of modern architecture in Sri Lanka, was an added pleasure. “A building which from its very outset embodied the core ideas behind what is known today as ‘tropical modernism’ and went on to influence generations of Asian architects to be comfortable with making a modern architecture of their own; and of course to bring back to life the work of a whole series of iconic artists such as textile designers Ena de Silva and Barbara Sansoni and artists Laki Senanayake and Ismeth Raheem.”
I asked Daswatte what emotions he wants evoked in a guest who enters Cinnamon Bentota Beach and he responded that different people will react to the hotel in different ways. “Those who have memories of the hotel in the 1970’s and ’80s will no doubt be nostalgic with much of the return of the elements that defined the style and design of 1970’s Sri Lanka. The addition made by us, contemporary style and architecture is clearly evident. I hope every person walking into it will have some kind of emotion and I am certain it will not be indifference!”
What upcoming projects can we expect from Daswatte? He replied that his work is not extensive and that he is hoping to see the conclusion of a hotel being built in Sikkim, India this year and commence a couple of other small ones in Kandy which will see the light of day in a couple of years. “A small museum I built for a close friend in Gujarat is proving very exciting as we come to a close with the internal design and understanding the story of the lady in whose memory it is being built.”