It was while I was sitting in the courtyard of my newly rented house in Bali that I came to really appreciate the new book by Made Wijaya, Architecture of Bali: A Source Book of Traditional and Modern Forms.
Flipping through the coffee table book of over 200 pages, I began to recognize in the photographs, illustrations and descriptions of elements that I had seen in my own home without understanding their significance or context. Much more than just another coffee table book on what has become known as "Bali Style", Architecture of Bali is as good a reference to the history and modern representations of Balinese architecture as there is.
The author has produced several other books, including Tropical Garden Design and At Home in Bali. In addition to producing Poleng magazine, Wijaya has spent the past several decades building a highly respected and successful architecture and landscape design firm. Having lived in Bali for nearly 30 years seems to have given Wijaya not only a deep love for Balinese culture and society but a deep insight into the soul of Balinese architecture, something that has been missing in so many of the design and style books produced on this subject in recent years.
The best way to describe this book is as a fun and accessible encyclopedia. In fact, its predecessor was called Balinese Architecture: Towards an Encyclopedia. The large book is divided into eight chapters with titles that include the Balinese Village, Courtyard Elements, Building Materials and Architectural Hybrids. Each chapter has as many as 13 two-page subchapters, which go into detail about the elements that make up Balinese architecture.
"I hope that this book will remind some, and inform many, of the wonder that is Balinese architecture. It is arguably the perfect architectural language, in terms of scale, beauty and functionality, that ever evolved in the tropical world," Wijaya writes in the preface of the book.
The book travels from the general to the specific, giving the reader a context to understand both how the forms of Balinese architecture arose as well as how they are implemented and have been interpreted through the centuries. As a newcomer both to Bali and to architectural design, the book impressed upon me how important the minute details are in this design form, something that the author points out is becoming increasingly lost with the modern overdevelopment of the island.
The soul of Balinese architecture lies in the village, where many of the architectural forms sprang from. Many know this island as an intensely spiritual place and much of life revolves around that part of life. The layout of villages as well as homes and public spaces within the framework of Balinese architecture centers around proportion and balance. This is where the book begins, in the traditional mountain villages where the heads or important structures of the village are aligned with the holy mountain and the legs or temples of death and graveyards are directed toward the sea. In this first chapter we see the traditional examples of public buildings as well as hotels based on that theme.
Each chapter begins with a short essay on the topic that gives context to the further subchapters, which are expanded in shorter essays on the elements of the chapter's topic.
The bulk of the book has over 600 photographs, including wonderful double-page spreads that come before each chapter. This is one of the places where the thoroughness of the author and his design staff truly stand out.
Hundreds of photographs as well as dozens of illustrations fill the pages. But they are not just of well-lit and composed color interiors and exteriors. The book also contains many old black and white images showing Bali and its people, which have, if not completely disappeared, been pushed aside in the rampant development of the island into the number one tourist destination in Southeast Asia. It would be reason enough to buy the book just for these images. Each page includes brief but descriptive captions of the photographs that add meaning to what might be otherwise considered beautiful window dressing.
Perhaps what makes Architecture of Bali so entertaining as well as informative is the use of text and photographs. While the book contains the information of an encyclopedia, it in no way feels like one. This is because the main descriptive tool used here is visual. Instead of bogging the book down with 1,000-word essays on various topics, Wijaya uses photographs wherever possible and illustrations that include some wonderfully funny ones and meticulous cutaways where needed. Since architecture is an inherently visual medium, it makes sense that this would be the primary explanatory tool. The simple layout and uncluttered design of each page allows the imagery to come to the forefront to support but be undisturbed by the accompanying text. The keen eye may detect a few digital photographs, mainly in the later chapters dealing with modern elements, which are not quite up to snuff when compared to the other beautifully resolved images.
Bali Architecture is a book so large in its scope and comprehensive in its detail that the reader must go back to it again and again in order to get the full value of the information enclosed. It is sad to think that in many book shops it may be lumped together on display with the dozens of other books on Southeast Asian design since this book is a real gem. Perhaps the true dilemma the reader may face is whether to share the book with friends as a gift or keep it to oneself. Let's hope the book shops don't run out.
Architecture of Bali: A Source Book Of Traditional and Modern Forms;
By Made Wijaya; Archipelago Press/Wijaya Words, 2002; 224 pp.