Made Wijaya is in his element, riding his weather-beaten motorbike through the surviving jungle of backstreet Sanur, the sun reflecting off his gold helmet. A man most long-time Bali residents love to hate, he is rapid, torrid and idiosyncratic on social occasions, though at work his soul seems to cleave to the gentle rhythm of Bali, an island he calls home after twenty-three years. A self-proclaimed “Baliophile”, he has attained the kind of notoriety reserved for mavericks and outspoken achievers.
Red hair blazing, he orchestrates the goings-on at Villa Bebek, his labyrinthine, courtyard-style office. Frenetically racing round its many rooms, interspersed with pools and ponds, crazy paving and stone carvings, hidden away in sprawling residential South Bali, he conducts his 500-strong staff autocratically, in fluent Balinese.
Made Wijaya then Australian Michael White, first set eyes on Bali in 1973, having deserted ship and swum ashore to an inhospitable rainstorm and marauding tourists. “I forsook Bali and fled to Surabaya. Bali wasn’t bush enough for me.” However, the island had a magnetic hold over him, and he returned, bought his first Balinese drag, joined a procession and went with it to nearby Turtle Island.
“Education by submersion” is how he describes his experience on the island, where he lived, ate, slept, bathed, worked and prayed with a Balinese Brahmin family. He learned to respect the work ethic in the Hindu concept of divine duty, and completely assimilated into Balinese culture. “My relationship to time changed. I became comfortable with the uniquely Balinese relaxed approach to life.”
Emerging from his self-imposed exile, he made his way to Sanur. He recalls rushing to the homes of his friends, the artist van Wieringen and film-l maker John Darling, for white bread and vegemite. Van Wieringen introduced him to secluded Sayan, perched atop the gorge of the Ayun River. Year later, Wijaya used the same site for his weekend retreat, the Taman Bebek, an ingeniously created maze of organic houses, which today is an enchanting boutique hotel.
He tried scores of professions: Balinese dancer, tennis coach, poseur and journalist, churning out the audaciously snappy column Stranger in Paradise. However, it was with the completion of his dream house in Sanur that the landed gentry began noticing his work. He received his first commission to design a private garden in the fashionable Batujimbar complex. This was quickly followed by the large Wantilan Lama, covered in the book The Tropical Garden. His big break came in 1979, when Peter Muller, architect of Bali’s secluded Oberoi hotel, asked him to revamp its already famous gardens. Wijaya turned them into an empyrean landscape, secret and alluring, full of covert nooks, mysterious crannies and contrasting elements: patches of wild amid manicured grasslands; light and shade; stoneware and water features. He proceeded to transform the landscapes of many of Bali’s most prestigious hotels, including the Bali Hyatt horticultural gardens, a masterpiece of ordered naturalness.
Infatuated with English gardens, he melded their use of color, braveness and texture with the structured expanse of Balinese temple gardens to develop his own carefully careless rambling courtyard style. His signature, richly textured look, executed with a full palate, created a space that would henceforth be known as a “ Wijaya Garden”. His courtyard gardens looked inwards into pergolas – elegant Balinese multi-use pavilions, their roofs cross-hatched with creepers – that could be converted into dining-room at a moment’s notice. Above all, he wanted to achieve a rhapsodic feeling, where the gardens, hugely important for the tropical-style, wall-less architecture, became an integrated part of the building.
Each space had a different appeal, crafted through the clever twenty-four hour manipulation of light and generous use of artwork – Wijaya’s forte.
He refuses to be stereotyped and rejects the epithet “Balinese gardens” for his designs. “Anything vaguely natural became known as a ‘ Balinese Garden’” he scoffs. “Ours is a romantic look, which clients have to be nature lovers enough to appreciate.”
Acutely aware that his creations required tremendous maintenance, Wijaya trained “commando squads” of gardeners. ‘We would send our Balinese green berets to the trenches,” he says jocularly. “One could simply let them loose with only vital supervision.” Wijaya and his team style more than 300 gardens around the equator, including the US ambassador’s residence in Jakarta, David Bowie’s house in Mustique, the Amandari Resort in Ubud and the Four Seasons Resort Bali in Jimbaran. At the Four Seasons, he turned thirty-five acres of barren, limestone landscape into an ingenious web of meandering pathways through a tropical moor, bounded by a rocky foreshore. “It’s wonderfully Balinese baroque and stylish in an era when blandness is in,”he says with pride.
Wijaya cites the key ingredients for a successful garden as point of view, drama poetry, theme composition and lighting, adding, “A landscaper is part mid-wife, part botanist, part sculptor and part architect.
This is particularly true in the case of tropical gardens that are violently kinetic by nature.”
In Singapore, Wijaya has been asked to work on many prestigious properties including Mitsubishi House, British Petroleum House and the Hyatt and Goodwood Park hotels. His joint-venture company became the unofficial in-house design firm for the Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority, responsible for remodeling several bungalows. His greatest personal honor was being asked to design the concept for Fort Canning Park.
His success has climaxed with the lunch of the Wijaya Classics range of garden furniture lights and artworks made in Villa Bebek by six master craftsmen. Having scoured the archipelago for primitive stone carvings, he has created his own distinct brand of the “modern primitive” look, characterized by strong silhouettes and traditional lines.
Currently the company is working on a folly and garden for Le Meridien Hotel in Jakarta, the first major project which will indulge his passion for architectural design.
Paying homage to Ratu Dalem Kapala, the resident god of Turtle Island, Made Wijaya thanks providence every day for the strange coincidences which brought him to Bali and allowed him to stay. He feels blessed, living with his Balinese family in Villa Bebek, in an environment that sustains the artist in him.