Colombo, Sri Lanka- If you know where to look, you can find the numbers all over Ena de Silva’s house.
Faded yet still legible, the white scribbles mark each tile in the parquet floor, each pebble and boulder in the sunny interior courtyard. Under their layer of paint, the bricks are numbered, and so are the columns and the latticed windows.
The numbers are sequential, grouped according to their location in the structure. The whole system relies on thousands upon thousands of components falling into place. Standing there, one might suspect to be surrounded by an enormous jigsaw puzzle – which isn’t all that far from the truth.
This same house once stood in a small plot nearly 90km and an hour-and-half away, in the Colombo suburb of Cinnamon Gardens.
It had been created for the artist and designer Ena de Silva and her husband Osmund in 1960 by Geoffrey Bawa , a man now widely acknowledged as the foremost architect of his generation in Sri Lanka, if not in all of South Asia.
‘The most important house’
Ena’s house was utterly unconventional for its time. Anchored in the rich multicultural traditions of the island, yet responding ever to the present, Bawa would become known as the Father of Tropical Modernism. And in this house, one of his earliest designs, one could find many of the elements that would soon become synonymous with his work.
First, there was the interior urban courtyard, for which Bawa made room in a relatively cramped city plot. With it, he revived a forgotten tradition which had until then been largely confined to old colonial homes.
He then connected this interior space to a constellation of five subsidiary courtyards, all bounded by a high wall. Now, light and air poured into every room, with notions of inside and outside blurred nearly beyond distinction.
His raw materials – plastered bricks for the walls, deep red terracotta tiles for the roof, columns of gleaming satin wood, and floors made of solid, rough granite – were all familiar to Sri Lankans, though they had seldom seen them assembled quite like this.
At Ena’s request and in defiance of modernist trends, he used no glass.
“It is probably the most important house in the history of contemporary South Asian architecture because it changed the way we looked at ourselves and our past,” says Channa Daswatte, an architect and trustee for the Bawa Trust.
Bawa’s aesthetic shaped an entire generation of south Asian architects and today in Sri Lanka particularly, his influence is ubiquitous.
“His spirit has become a part of the way Sri Lankans think of themselves,” Daswatte tells Al Jazeera.
It is also worth preserving as the home of a remarkable woman. As the daughter of Sir Richard Aluwihare, the first Ceylonese Inspector General of Police and Lucille Moonemalle, Ena was part of the Sri Lankan aristocracy.
Unabashedly flamboyant and boasting impeccable taste, she is remembered for her work in reinvigorating traditional crafts such as Kandyan embroidery and batik prints – perhaps most famously decorating Sri Lanka’s parliament building with fabric banners patterned in batik.
Though she would grow to love her home, when Bevis Bawa first proposed she hire his younger brother to be her architect, Ena was reportedly skeptical.
“To Ena, Geoffrey was this frivolous playboy who ran around in a Rolls-Royce convertible, with his silk scarf and long blonde hair trailing in the wind,” recalls Daswatte. But they bonded over this house, and Ena would later tell journalists that they built it together.
“If there was such a thing as a soul mate for Geoffrey, she was it,” Daswatte adds.
Ena was likely responsible for the interiors of the new house, which she filled with a mix of antiques, and furniture of her own design.
She joined two bedheads together to make a long seat, and then added several of her densely patterned Kandyan embroidery cushions for comfort; she bought blue and white pottery bowls and embedded them in a decorative pattern in the wall above the bathtub; she eschewed a traditional dressing table for one made with cement, and stored her saris in horizontal cupboards built into her bed.
She even had a secret door that opened into a storage room installed behind a display case.
In essence, Ena was avant-garde, as were the people she surrounded herself with.
There was the handloom designer and painter Barbara Sansoni, and the gardener and sculptor Laki Senanayake who, along with performers such as the dancer Chitrasena and the painters who made up the 43 Group, were together driving a kind of renaissance in Sri Lankan art and culture.
‘Sometimes the conventional methods aren’t enough’
In her new home, Ena earned a reputation as an eccentric yet impeccable hostess, throwing parties where formal tables were abandoned for dining under the night sky in her open courtyard.
Ena was finally forced to sell the house owing to health concerns, mounting bills and the need for a multi-million-rupee roof repair job that was beyond both her wallet and her stamina.
Her land in central Colombo was immensely valuable and was quickly snapped up by an adjoining hospital. But the public outcry that followed news of the proposed demolition saw the Urban Development Authority insist that the house itself be preserved.
This is when the Bawa Trust proposed their unusual solution, says architect Amila de Mel. De Mel helped coordinate the project, liaising between the teams of architects, archaeologists, engineers and contractors recruited to move Ena’s house.
Working closely with her was conservation specialist Nilan Cooray, who brought to the task his twin interests in archaeology and architecture.
It was Cooray who produced hundreds of glass paper drawings and devised the system that would allow them to shift the house.
Unlike examples from Japan and Norway, where timber structures had been relocated successfully, Cooray knew he would have to work with masonry, some of which was falling apart. They kept everything they could and where they could not, they commissioned research plaster analysis to replicate the mix Bawa used in the 1960s.
Daswatte, who watched Cooray work, says he was meticulous – every pebble in the courtyard was numbered before he was done. Working from the roof down, they then began dismantling the house, which was boxed up and loaded on to lorries to be carted off to a plot next door to Lunuganga, Bawa’s world-famous garden home.
De Mel says she learned a lot from seeing one of the master’s homes stripped down to the skeleton.
They paid particular attention to replicating the structure’s orientation to the Sun, because that was essential to Bawa’s original palette of light and shadow. She loved the way the scale changed throughout.
“Another thing I hadn’t realised was how well it engages the garden all the time,” she says. “It’s just fantastic.”
Though the move was a smooth one, building stalled when funds became an issue. In the end, it took six years from start to finish.
“I was unsure till the very end that we would pull it off,” de Mel confesses.
Unfortunately, Ena who passed away in 2015, did not live to see it completed. But Cooray thinks she would have approved. “We captured the spirit and feeling of the house,” he says.
Cooray thinks the project could set a new template for how Sri Lanka approaches the conservation of its heritage buildings.
“Sometimes the conventional methods and practices aren’t enough. If you really want to conserve architecture you have to think out of the box,” he says.
Relying on black and white photos and surviving furniture, the Bawa Trust intends to return Ena’s house to a spitting image of how she had kept it, even replanting the garden with her choice of plants. There are plans for an exhibition in October and eventually guests will be allowed to occupy the rooms.
All this will mean that Ena’s house “won’t be an art installation or a museum, but rather a kind of archive”, proposes Sean Anderson, an associate curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York.
As the space evolves, he believes it will allow visitors to truly inhabit Bawa’s legacy, in a way that seems most fitting.
“For me, what I have learned from Bawa’s buildings is that beyond context and formal design you experience his architecture in a very different way. It almost feels to me that he is carrying you through a story that he wants to share with you, and that story is very particular to Sri Lanka,” Anderson tells Al Jazeera.
“He is setting up a framework for experiencing the world, and he has done it in a way that no one has ever successfully copied, which is lovely.”
Follow Smriti Daniel on Twitter: @smriti_daniel