Expression Magazine, August/September 1993

A Rake's Progress
Tropical gardens are his specialty: resplendent arenas of Balinese sculpture, jungle creepers and classic English stone. Landscape architect, Michael White, is a garden Messiah, an eccentric Australian whose green thumb has worked creative magic at some Asia's most prestigious hotels.

Text by Ron Gluckman | Photographs by David Paul Morris



Hooded Balinese beasts snarl in the direction of stone gods in the back garden, where a huge pool is fed by water-cooled naturally inside a four- storey tower. There is a certain rough edge to the landscaping, although quick inspection reveals jungle foliage, which has been meticulously pruned, prodded and preened.
The gin and tonic on the tray comes chilled in a tall tumbler. The hand extended in stubby, but strong. The wit flows fast and the mind battles to reel in the wild and far-ranging repartee.
This is the realm of the grand duke of tropical landscape architects, the Jolly Green Giant among a new generation of guerilla gardeners. Michael White goes by the native name of Made Wijaya, but merrily refers to himself as "Truman Capote with a machete".
Both admired and attacked for his flamboyant excesses of artistic ego. White hit 40 in March. His birthday was celebrated with glowing magazine articles praising his grandiose gardens at David Bowie's retreat in Mustique. He also completed his biggest project to date, the dazzling Four Seasons resort in Bali, began work on the Bali Westin and started sketching ideas for renovation of Surabaya's Majapahit Hotel, built by the same brothers who created Raffles in Singapore.
Yet White doesn't limit the conversation to his landscape techniques or any other particular talent. He talks enthusiastically about his photography, much of which will appear in his 1994 Andy Warhol-style desk diary, depicting "beautiful people from Merauke to Kathamndu". Or his life's work, Encyclopedia of Balinese Architecture, a weighty and impressive tabletop tome of xeroxed pages and pasted-on snap shots. Or his collection of written columns, Stranger in Paradise, which one of his many companies plans to publish this year.

Enfant terrible to his workers and employers, debutante and dreamer to his detractors and remarkable renaissance man to his many fans, White is nothing short of ambitious.
After all, he points out, rather immodestly, his native name, Made Wijaya, means, "desire to rule the world".
His birthplace of Australia has an expression, "gone troppo". It means throwing up everything and taking a holiday, preferably in the tropics, preferably without any end in mind.

Melbourne's Michael White went totally troppo at the age of 19. He dropped out of architectural school and sailed to Bali with a pair of sandals and few plans beyond suntan. He spent seven years with Balinese holy men, learn the local language and studied island customs, gardening methods and architecture. He supported himself by teaching English and giving tennis lessons. This man of the world was once junior tennis champion of New South Wales and first Young Master of Australian in 1969.
After returning to Australia just long enough to obtain his architectural degree from Sydney University, he bounded back to Bali, where he has remained a self-described "Stranger in Paradise" ever since.
His knowledge of Balinese culture led to the roles as film adviser for the like of Philip Noyce and David Attenborough. "I'm really a jack of all trades, a rough," he says. "I have no training. It comes out of that hippy thing. I just have this passion to create."
Landscape design became his outlet. His first break came in 1979 when architect Peter Muller asked him to help revamp the first Bali's boutique hotels, the beachside of Bali Oberoi in Legian. White had just been seen on a visit to England and its country gardens heavily influenced his now famous "ruinscape" style. Using Balinese statue and stonewalls, he created an evocative tropical blend of jungle plants and Cotswolds style order.
In the next decades, White worked on the most of the important Balinese and many other Indonesian developments. These included gardens for the Hyatt hotels in Jakarta, Surabaya, Bali and Singapore and the world famous Amandari resort in Ubud. Also, the Bali Hyatt in Sanur has been recognized as having one of the finest tropical gardens in the world.
White takes even greater pride in his creation of the formal Balinese gardens at the Hotel Saba, built on a beach near Gianyar in Bali in 1989. Blending influences as wide as the water gardens of Japan and the courtyards of the ancient Majapahit Empire in Indonesia, White realized his life's dream in creating a garden on a palatial scale.
The call from the Four Seasons was something special. Known for establishments such as Ritz-Carlton in Chicago and the Inn on the Park in London, the chain had big plans for its first Asian venture. "Normally, in the past, I had gone in so many times after the hotel was built to fix the mistakes done by others," he recalls. "Here was a chance to start at the beginning, and do everything perfectly."
White's team worked around the clock to create hundreds of original sculptures, influenced by Balinese styles. "Everything was hand-done," White says. "We had an average of 3,500 workers on this project for a year and a half. Every stone was hand-chipped." The result was a world-class resort that ranks as a work of art in its own right. Thatched villas use local stone and grasses. Paths, influenced by White's boyhood infatuation with Sydney harbour, present stunning views of Jimbaran Bay. The resort, which features private swimming pools and 2.100 sq ft of space for each villa, has already been adopted by the jet set. More importantly to White, it feels completely integrated into the surrounding Balinese landscape.

"It's a rare first this century as an integrated work," he says. "My fist project on that scale and I'm pleased to say, it's successful. Few landscape designers ever work on a project on that scale in their lives."
However, White isn't one to rest on his laurels. He's already at his work on the Westin project at Nusa Dua, a villa resort that he says will be "pre-Hindu coastal chic". White is even keener about restoration of the Majapahit Hotel. He describes Surabaya as "the Alexandria of the East", and is planning a fitting "museum piece of 19th century courtyard cozy".

Although glib about his gardens – he describes two other projects as "Gidget goes Gianyar" and "Romancing the Hambone" – White remains intensively protective, even confrontational about his work. He snears at several former clients, who readily concede that White's gardening skills are considerable but they are dwarfed by his enormous ego.

"I'm very bitter," White says of one recent dismissal. "This is a kinetic art form. Gardens in England take 300 years to solidify. Here, they're unrecognizable in one year. You have to work hard to protect you babies."
However, White is now intending to go it alone. He plans to publish his 50 of his Stranger in Paradise columns this year, as well as the diary of photographs in a calendar form for 1994.

He certainly doesn't plan to bury his pick and shovel just yet. He claims to have completed more than 300 gardens and has trained, by his count, "thousands of guerilla gardeners" who are spreading his revolutionary gospel of greenery.
"You must start with a point of view, a philosophy. It must invade every thing," he says. "Landscape architecture, decorative accents, plant types, everything (results in) integrity of design and the way it must speak to and be soul mates with the architecture."
Then he brushes back a stock of boyish reddish hair, sips his gin and tonic, and allows himself another smug smile. "I intend to remain a terror at my profession, disregarding all rules," he promises.

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