Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bah, Bawa.

Bought an interesting book over the weekend: Beyond Bawa. A fairly
comprehensive catalogue of architecture throughout Asia that has in
some way been influenced by Geoffrey Bawa. Interesting to read that
he didn't even become an architect until he was 38, having been a
failed lawyer up until then.

Some of the earlier stuff was interesting. But it seemed that he (and
his protégés) were pretty useless at designing homes for the common
man. Their work for large houses was always superb, airy, gorgeous:
but houses and villages for tsunami survivors and social housing for
Sri Lankan government projects were boxy and cheap, with almost no
windows, and looked as if they came from the drawing board of someone
totally different. Why couldn't they have taken their learnings from
their prestige jobs and applied them to their more down-to-earth
projects? All they would have had to do was do things on a smaller
scale. Or was it something to do with the fact that Bawa and his ilk
were determinedly upper class, living in plantation houses and
gadding about in Rolls Royces, and they thought the lower classes
wouldn't be able to appreciate (or simply didn't deserve) their best
work? Some of the world's most exciting architecture is designed as
social housing. So I can't help but think of Bawa and his school as
failures when it came to really making a difference to Sri Lanka's

If I had survived the tsunami only to be billeted into one of their
airless, stuffy boxes, I can imagine wanting to slit my wrists and
join my dead compatriots in the next world – where, hopefully, better
architecture was available for the plebs.

Noticed that WOHA – started by Richard Hassell (Jon Hanson's
housemate in Singapore all those years ago) and his partner – had
some major entries in the book. But their work looks terribly
unimaginative. The same old white walls, glass, airy staircases.
Nice, and perfectly acceptable to live in I'm sure, but zero
character or originality. Feels uptight and claustrophobic, and
depressingly derivative. Give me something from 30 or 40 years
earlier any day of the week, when that kind of modernism hadn't yet
set into something overly polished, scrubbed, and still had some room
for individual architects' expressions. Perhaps it's something to do
with Singapore land values, and the fact that everything is just so
damned expensive. The developers want to be interesting, but not so
interesting that they can't squeeze 12 houses onto what was supposed
to be a single block.

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