East Magazine, July 2000

The Rise and Rise of Bali style

by Made Wijaya


THE WORLD 'BALI', as in ‘Bali stone’, ‘Bali garden’, or even ‘Bali belly’, has lately entered the Southeast Asian parlance—meaning anything natural, decorative or of undisclosed ethnic origins. At the same time, “nothing Balinese!” is the catchry of urban warrior architects from Surabaya to Saigon! Why all the fuss? Is it a case of professional (regional) jealousy? And if so, how does this tired old prima donna still manage to steal the limelight?
New Asia may be tiring of the ‘ Bali look’ (far too wholesome) but the flood of designers to the fabled isle over the past decade has resulted in a fresh cutting edge. Not since the 1930s, when Le Tout Hollywood discovered Bali as the ‘last paradise on earth’, has the dream-home movement been fed by such talent. Any walk to the local bookstore will testify to this. Books on tropical garden design and ‘Bali Modern’ shout out from the shelves, heralding a new era in Asia’s architectural life.

Long a parade ground for the best work of top architects—Geoffrey Bawa, Peter Muller, Kerry Hill, Grounds Kent Architects, Cheong Yew Kwan—and interior designers—Jaya Ibrahim, Ed Tuttle, and Terry Fripp, to name a few—Bali is now home to a full complement of furniture designers, lighting consultants, bamboo queens, landscape designers, industrial designers, ceramic artists and paint specialist who, together, complete a constellation of design talent that few Southeast Asia capitals can match. And Bali is by no means your typical Asian capital! It is a thriving medieval culture (complete with Godkings and feisty feudalism) which annually absorbs the effects of two million tourists!

The lifestyle of the Bali expatriate still revolves around a celebration of Bali Style—that special mix of tropical living, glamorous culture and island charm. The fantasy about the ‘Bali-based’ is of a somnolent, sarong-clad lifestyle amongst a benign art-loving people: native bungalows, swaying palms, the gentle rhythms of exotic gamelan music picking through leafy courtyards. The real story is a bit different. After 30 years of ever-increasing tourism development, the island-dwellers are more pumped-up. The expatriate populance has grown from 50 to 10,000; most are flat-out managing tourism, design, fashion or lifestyle-related business. Design and service-wise, Bali business is top notch; five Bali hotels-the Four Seasons Resorts, the Amandari, the Amankila, and the Grand Hyatt—recently made it into the world’s top 10, according to Conde Nast Traveler (December 1999).


The basket-traders of the legendary ‘60s have returned as jewelry magnates, spa-operators and furniture export czars. These high-fliers want high-style homes for their houte mondaine lifestyle. Yesterday’s thatched hut haciendas are today’s estates and rental villas, replete with swimming pools, audio-visual studios, lavish interiors and ‘ethnic architecture’. The expatriate population is fiercely competitive on the “GLORIA SOAME” front; fights regularly break out over the tightness of one; alang-alang (thatch) roof; family fortunes are spent on securing a pole position in the ‘distressed finish’ and ‘modern-ethnic’ stakes. In this design battlefield, housing trends emerge and standards are set that influence the entire tropical design world.
But is it all really ‘ Bali style’? Has the banana skin envelope been stretched out of shape? If anything the expatriate dream-home building boom-there are now some 500 rental villas across the island, most in glamorous rice padi or beachside locations—has propped up the flagging indigenous building industry. Sadly, Bali’s indigenous architects have, since the ‘70s, followed the example of their Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur confreres, eschewing traditional styles and materials in favor of concrete, chrome and black glass, Real Balinese architecture is not exactly on its back however. There are some 100,000 temples in Bali, all built traditionally. But pressures on space and economy in the modern age are making traditional courtyard architecture less affordable and less practical.

Over the past 30 years there have been a few notable thresholds in the evolution of Bali style. Peter Muller’s garden bathrooms, invented for the Bali Oberoi in 1973, have inspired a host of exotic indoor-outdoor bathhouse. His re-working of the traditional Balinese courtyard, in a compact architectonic way, with good garden interface, gave comfort to minimalists and romantics alike.
Muller’s next marvel, the Amandari (1988) with its revolutionary re-working of Balinese pavilion style and timber treatments, became the benchmark for a generation of New Asian and new age architects. Add to these recent dynamic trends in Mediterranean-Bali Style, Moorish-Bali Style and the Singapore-bred neo-fascist. And then you might start to get a picture of the diversity of Balinese architecture today.
The Balinese garden fad, now so popular across Southeast Asia, started in 1979 with the renovation of the vast Bali Hyatt Sanur grounds by Ketut Marsa, aided by this writer. Due to the handy work and dedication of a legion of Balinese master-gardeners, and a handful of international designers, such as Belt Collins International and the Bill Bensley Group, Balinese landscape design has blossomed. Traditional Balinese landscape elements like water gardens, natural stone pools, decorative spouts, fecund foliage and mossy artwork accents are today mixed with English ‘artful naturalism’ and Hawaiian landscape traditions with considerable success. The Balinese love gardens: as a result today; Bali villas have some of the most spectacular private gardens in the tropical world—petically sculpted and lovingly maintained.

The Bali of the new millennium attracts more crowned heads, pot heads, rock stars, film-producers, Miller girls and dream home-makers that ever before. It is one of the last places on earth where, in an inspiring cultural setting, one can have a palace custom made: talented craftsmen and artisans are available and affordable. Most dream-homes are owner-designed with the help of a local contractor or architect. The results are generally highly original, in style and in their adaptation of traditional architecture.
The island has been cushioned from the rest of the country’s troubles by its more modern, more middle-class, and more international way of life. It has a built-in ‘compactness’, being the only Hindu island in the world’s biggest Moslem country. Like its Caribbean cousin Mustique, a big part of Bali-style is people coming to the island to ogle the star makers: Garbo at the Amandari; Dame Edna at Taman Bebek; Fergie at Villa Batujimbar. The list could go on and on. Check in and check it out. But some check in for good. And it is their influence, and interest in the island’s heritage, that are helping to preserve and recreate Bali style.

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PT. Wijaya Tribwana International
Jln. Pengembak No.9B Mertasari, Sanur 80228, Bali - Indonesia. Ph: (62-361) 287668, Fax: (62-361) 286731
Email: ptwijaya@indo.net.id

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