An architecturally significant textile artist’s cottage has been painstakingly moved, brick by careful brick, from Colombo to a hotel estate on the Sri Lankan coast. Hotelier Henry Fitch tells Carolynne Dear why the move came about.
Ena de Silva's cottage now takes pride of place on Sri Lanka's Lununganga country estate.
Sri Lanka’s Teardrop Hotels group recently announced a partnership with The Geoffrey Bawa Trust. The collaboration came about to revitalise and relaunch the late architect’s Lunuganga country estate, which is now part of the Teardrop Hotels collection.
Geoffrey Bawa was among the most influential Asian architects of his generation and was the principal force behind what is now known as ‘tropical modernism’. Examples of his work can be found all over Asia, including Mauritius, Japan, Pakistan, Fiji and Singapore. His projects included houses, hotels, schools, clubs and government buildings, most notably the Sri Lankan Parliament building.
In 1960 he designed a house in Colombo for textile artist Ena de Silva. De Silva had worked with Bawa on many projects, providing artwork that became integral parts of the buildings. Notable examples include the ceiling at the Bentota Beach Hotel and the batik banners and flags that decorated the Sri Lankan parliament.
Ena de Silva was a self-taught artist and has been credited with reestablishing the Sri Lankan batik industry. She started Ena de Silva Fabrics in the 1960s and began working with renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, creating tablecloths, canopies, flags, wall panels and furnishings for Bawa’s interiors. Along with batik, she is also credited with the resurrection of traditional Kandyan-style embroidery.
She established the Matale Heritage Centre in her childhood home of Aluwihare in the 1980s and from here, taught carpentry, needlework, brass foundry and batik production to locals.
After the death of her husband, she spent two years as a Commonwealth consultant on handicrafts in the British Virgin Islands and on her return to Sri Lanka, she moved back to her ancestral home in Aluwihare.
In 2011 she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Geoffrey Bawa Trust. She died in 2015 aged 92.
“The house was iconic in that it was designed at a moment when Geoffrey Bawa created a clearly Sri Lankan vocabulary within the wider modernist architectural ideas,” says Henry Fitch, managing director of Teardrop Hotels. “It was therefore a key house in the history of Sri Lankan architecture.”
The cottage was moved, piece by piece, from its original location in Colombo.
Originally flagged for demolition, the cottage had a stay order placed on it by the Ministry of Culture following opposition to its destruction from the Sri Lankan Institute of Architects.
But by this time, de Silva was 89 and needed to sell the property. A buyer who was happy to preserve it proved elusive and it was at this point that the Lunuganga Trust volunteered to dismantle and move the house into the grounds of Bawa’s estate on the southwest coast.
“This was an incredibly complex operation, says Fitch, involving architects, engineers and archaeologists. “Each removable part was numbered and dismantled and put together on the new site at Lunuganga.”
In all, the process took six years to complete. The project was led by architect Amila de Mel and conservation specialist Nilan Cooray.
“The most challenging aspects were the storage of materials at Lunuganga and ensuring the marked-up numbers did not disappear in the intervening time,” says Fitch. “Constant attention was needed. Reassembling the tiny pieces of parkett, consisting of thousands of six inch by two inch bits, was also quite remarkable. That it fitted was a tribute to the conscientiousness of the workers and contractors.”
One of the light-filled bedrooms.
Lunuganga is an important part of Sri Lanka’s cultural and design heritage in itself. It was bought by Bawa in 1947 as a house and gardens on a derelict rubber estate. He went on to transform it into one of the most beautiful gardens of the twentieth century, melding Italian Renaissance gardens with English landscaping, Japanese garden art and water gardens of ancient Sri Lanka.
The house itself was a former 1930s plantation bungalow. Bawa blended antique and modern furniture with traditional and contemporary art, which was to become a trademark of his eclectic signature style. The Bawa Trust and Teardrop Hotels have kept changes to the house to a minimum, allowing guests to enjoy the space as Bawa had intended his guests to experience it.
The cottage has been painstakingly restored and enjoys sweeping views over the estate.
As for Ena de Silva’s newly added, three-bedroom courtyard cottage, even the outdoor is exactly as it was in its original location, with the garden replanted in exactly the same way as the original. Everything from the frangipani tree in the front courtyard to the slabs of river stone remain just as it was in the original house.
The cottage now offers additional accommodation alongside the main, nine-bedroom house.
“Lunuganga is one of the most treasured properties in Sri Lanka and Teardrop Hotels is thrilled to have been entrusted with its management,” says Fitch.
As for Sri Lanka, it has put-back its plans to reopen until the autumn while the government prioritises repatriating Sri Lankans before opening up to foreign tourists. “We’re now eagerly awaiting the reopening of the airport, which, according to the local press, may be in September or October,” says Fitch. Airports have been closed since March, other than for people departing or repatriating back to Sri Lanka.
The country has opened domestically and, internally at least, is operating relatively normally.
“Schools are opening, public transport is being used and supermarkets, cinemas, hotels and restaurants are all open. Everyone is wearing a mask and regulations have been put into place to ensure social distancing in restaurants and so forth,” says Fitch.
The exterior of the cottage.
None of the Teardrop Hotels properties officially closed during the pandemic.
“A small team of dedicated staff were onsite throughout the lockdown and curfew period in April and May to keep the properties well-maintained,” explains Fitch. “We welcomed back domestic tourists from June 1 and the tea bungalows and Kumu Beach have seen good occupancies in June, July and August. Fortunately all of our hotels are small, have plenty of outdoor space and are generally quite remote.”
The company committed to retaining its employees and the guest-free time was used to expand and improve fruit and vegetable gardens and further develop the brand’s sustainability programme, as well as carrying out health and safety training and audits.
A night at Lunuganga, either in the nine-bedroom main house or three-bedroom Ena da Silva cottage, starts at US$265 for two people sharing, inclusive of breakfast. Teardrop Hotels is offering guests a 20% discount on all rooms booked before November 30 2020, for stays until April 30, 2022, teardrop-hotels.com.