- Shayari de Silva talks Geoffrey Bawa, curatorial work, and exploring ideas collectively
Growing up in Sri Lanka, it’s hard not to cross paths with one of Geoffrey Bawa’s builds at least once in your lifetime. And when you do, even if you’re not a lover of architecture, you’re sure to be lured in. For Geoffrey Bawa Trust Art and Archival Collections Curator Shayari de Silva, Bawa was a reference point for home when she was exploring the world of architecture in the US. “For most people growing up in Colombo, there’s so much of his architecture in our public realm,” shared de Silva. “In the seven years I was studying architecture, Bawa was never in any course I studied, the curriculum was Western-centric for the most part. For me, Bawa was a reference point for home.”
De Silva grew up in Colombo and studied at Yale in the US, where she majored in architecture and also pursued a professional Masters in architecture. She tried, from a distance, to understand the Sri Lankan architecture landscape and Bawa’s work was an inevitable part of that. After working as an architect for four years between Colombo and New York, she made the switch to being a full-time curator. She calls her introduction and initial involvement with the Geoffrey Bawa Trust “serendipitous”, explaining that she had decided to move back to Sri Lanka in 2018 for other reasons when a friend told her that the Trust was looking for a curator. Three years and some months later, de Silva is still here doing what she loves the most – studying Bawa’s work and engaging with it collectively through shared experiences.
My introduction to de Silva happened when the Lunuganga Trust launched ‘Bawa 100’ in 2019, the year that marked the centenary of Bawa’s birth. The famed and influential architect’s legacy was celebrated through a programme of events scheduled from July 2019 to July 2020. De Silva seemed to mostly work behind the scenes of the various exhibitions and events, so naturally, I was thrilled when she agreed to speak with me about the upcoming two-month-long exhibition titled ‘Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There’, the first major exhibition to draw from the archives to look at Bawa’s practice and more. Ever the soul who wants to keep the spotlight on the exhibition and its motivations, it proved pleasantly challenging getting de Silva to talk about herself. Here are some excerpts from our chat, which also shed some light on what drew de Silva to become a curator and what Bawa’s work means to her.
Any reason why you chose curating?
I knew I loved architecture and I knew I especially loved the moments in which it overlapped with other disciplines like the arts and history and I felt most engaged when architecture became public and was experienced in a shared way, so that kind of inevitably led to curatorial work. Throughout my studies, I was working at the university museums or teaching, and that was great training for this role!
What would you say you like most about being a curator?
I really enjoy it when work becomes public and ideas are explored collectively. Working as a curator in Sri Lanka is interesting because it’s not a very saturated field. A lot of the things we do are experiments – we’re doing them for the first time. That can be very challenging but it’s also very inspiring. With this exhibition, we’re sharing a lot of this material in this way for the first time.
Tell me about ‘Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There’. What’s the idea behind it and how did it come about?
One of my jobs, when I started working with the Trust, was to continue the cataloguing and digitising of the archives that had been done at various points before I joined the Trust. I also had to consolidate all of that. I had studied Bawa’s work through books at university or through images online and also by visiting his work, but to see the drawings in person had an incredible effect on me. There were things I was noticing by handling these sheets of paper that I hadn’t noticed when they were scaled down into reprinted images in a book. I did this series of oral histories with people who’d worked with GB (Geoffrey Bawa), or knew him, or were friends with him because I didn’t know him. You can’t go by just the account of one or two books when you’re trying to consolidate an archive. You want to get as much primary information as possible. In that process, a lot of people spoke about how important it was for Geoffrey Bawa to be on site and there were multiple letters where he writes to a client and says: “Yeah I can’t really say anything until I see the site”. You have that on one hand and then you have the drawing which is an antithesis to being in a place and coming up with this idea divorced from the place, and one thing I realised was that there were many of the drawings that were clearly not meant to be used on site. They were not construction drawings. Architectural drawings are often technical drawings that are tools for telling you how something comes together and a lot of the drawings in the archive were clearly done after the project. People verified this. Almost like the photographs contemporary architects would take to portray the building a particular way.
Then there are some other portraits that are clearly part of the process of figuring out the building. Trying to reconcile that was very interesting for me. It made me question – what is the relationship between drawings and places and ideas? That’s what we are trying to look at together with this exhibition – what do the drawings tell us about placemaking?
I understand this is the first major exhibition to draw from the archives to look at Bawa’s practice. Why do you think it’s taken so long to have an exhibition of this nature?
There was one major exhibition in 2004 in Frankfurt after GB passed away in 2003 but it wasn’t based on the archives. I think the reason for that is that in the museum world, works on paper are the most fragile. They’re sensitive to temperature, they’re sensitive to light and there are lots of challenges to taking something like these drawings out of the country and bringing them and insuring them and packing them. At the exhibition in Frankfurt, they did take some objects but they had to reprint the drawings. There have been sporadic shows of a much smaller scale in the years since. Doing an exhibition on an archive is a very challenging thing from the material point of view – just in terms of conservation that’s required.
Interestingly, there is going to be an exhibition in New York that is going to show some of GB’s work and in Hong Kong. I think it’s interesting that more than 15 years after the architect’s passing, the interest in his work is rising rather than dipping. For the Trust, it was a matter of having the resources in place to have a structure to allow a curator and a curatorial team.
I think there was also the desire to do something like this for a while. I don’t think this is going to be the last by any means. It’s just a very expensive and effort-filled exercise and one that needs to be undertaken with a lot of consideration.
What are the challenges in the work that you do?
The challenges are mainly because there aren’t a lot of precedents in the local context. We have an amazing team of around nine young people working on this exhibition along with the trustees and there is a lot of training involved as a result. Most of our team is working on a project of this nature for the first time. With a lot of the things we’re trying, we’re using a first principles sort of approach which is always a good place to be – it’s not doing things out of habit.
I think there are other structural challenges in terms of the difficulty in relation to the conservation materials we need, the kinds of framing we need – insurance, transportation – the kind of things I really took for granted until I moved back because those kinds of requirements are extremely specific in a museum context and we’ve had to improvise a lot.
Our audience is also nascent in the museum-going sense. We’ve been very lucky with the kind of involvement that people have shown with what we’re doing. Every time we do something though, we have to consider how this material would be experienced by someone who’s really not encountered something like this before – for someone who’s never seen an architecture drawing on a wall before, and that’s probably a lot of people, and that’s something that has to be considered carefully.
Do you have any recommendations of what our Government/figures in authority can be doing?
I think in Sri Lanka our state-owned museums have some incredible collections. It would be wonderful if there were more ways to involve them in people’s everyday lives. Most of us are taken from school maybe once or twice, but the idea that you can keep coming back to see something and that each of those times, there’ll be new things to see is important. This is generally also supported by programming and we take programming very seriously. How we take up that challenge at the Trust, for example, is to say: “Let’s do events to engage with this material together; let’s do tours, talks, and workshops, so we can ask questions together.” What’s needed is to create the kind of access and engagement with collections even from antiquity to understand how they fit in our contemporary histories.
Secondly, there are structural things. It’s very, very hard to get support – financially. This type of work is so new that there are no comparison points. We are very aware of the economic realities of Sri Lanka but there are things that could be done – like tax breaks to encourage people to donate privately which is what a lot of countries do, to incentivise people to donate to charitable organisations and nonprofits. There’s a lot of drawbacks to that kind of system as well but given that we don’t have state funding at all for institutions like the Trust, we need to rely on structural, systemic things that could catalyse a vibrant and contemporary network of institutions and practises in the creative field.
Things like insurance, valuation, transportation, framing, and conservation – these could all be developed further.
If there were three things you’d like Sri Lankans and others around the world to know about Bawa’s work/influence on architecture in SL, what would they be?
One is to understand the range of work that he did. There was a lot of public work. There were projects that were not just one building but a cluster of buildings. When you look at it collectively, what you see is there is a great sensitivity to architecture as something that is experienced by people. That’s a really inspiring approach. It’s very easy to focus on the hotels and the houses. While they’re all amazing, I think there are a lot of public buildings – early school buildings, offices, universities that are his as well. The fact that designs don’t get repeated is also a fact that’s incredible – every project was seen as its own thing.
The second aspect is the dynamics of making architecture, which is a collective pursuit. It’s not just Geoffrey Bawa drawing the buildings and doing it himself. He worked with an amazing group of people and it’s important that we talk of architecture in that way. And then it still begs the question – what is the role of somebody like Bawa? He did still play such an essential role in bringing those people together and crafting these projects but it is a complex process. It’s not something done by one person. Each person has a very important and individual role.
Thirdly, the way he did something he loved and he did it with everything he had. Even illness didn’t stop him. Not unlike the present situation, he worked at a time where imports were restricted, where materials were scarce. If you look at Sri Lanka’s history as a backdrop to that practice, he persevered through a lot of really difficult times. He started working in 1958, a few years after independence and continued into the mid-nineties. It was a very tumultuous time. Despite every opportunity to leave, he chose to stay – I don’t mean to say that in a patriotic way – I think it was something else. He just really identified with this place and working in this way. We don’t talk enough about that. There’s something that has happened in Sri Lanka right now that’s almost recursive – it’s a similar moment where there are a lot of challenges and the choice to stay and work is a choice and finding ways to keep working is also an effort. Bawa encountered that many times in his practice as well and that’s a benefit of looking back at historical figures like him as we weigh these choices ourselves, I suppose.
What is your hope for ‘Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There’? What do you want the guests to experience?
To me, this material is just so fascinating and inspiring and I hope that the visitors would feel that way too when they see the work. On a broader level, there are so many aspects to his career and work because it is very multifaceted and very nuanced. I hope that it will also introduce his work to people who aren’t familiar with it. I hope that we will have more of this kind of archival study and the collective sharing of it as a result of this exhibition in the future. I hope it will open up this kind of project because there are certainly other architects who practised during Bawa’s time – Minnette de Silva, Valentine Gunasekara, Pani Tennekoon, and Justin Samarasekera to name just four – whose work is really important and innovative. Understanding these practises would make us more attuned to architecture and cities because in the end, our built environments impact each of us so profoundly.
Can you tell me more about the programming part of the exhibition?
We’re very excited to go through the material together and share it with a wide range of people, not just for academics, not just for architects, not just for adults but to really bring a lot of people into the show and engage with the work, and in all three languages. Programming has already started for the show. We started on 15 December. It ties more into this idea – let’s talk more about architecture and be engaged with it a little more. It’s not always directly tied to the exhibition, but it is an opportunity to have conversations that will affect how you will look at the show and also at the built environment more generally.
If you had to choose one of Bawa’s works to be your favourite, what would it be and why?
That’s really hard. I think Lunganga is a really special place. It was special to him and it is perennially amazing and different. As a child, my family would frequently spend holidays at the Neptune Hotel so I have a very personal connection to that place. It’s such a great place. I also think Kandalama is an amazing space he designed at the end of his career. Three off the top of my head but it’s very hard. I can keep going!
‘Geoffrey Bawa: It is Essential to be There’ is scheduled to take place from 1 February – 3 April 2022 at Park Street Mews, Colombo, The Stables, 48 Park Street, Colombo 2. The exhibition is free and open to all. It will be presented in three languages; English, Sinhala, and Tamil. For more details, visit bawaexhibition.com