Space Magazine, Singapore, February/March 2000


Made Wijaya in Bali
The intimate gardens of Made Wijaya 'Tropical Garden Design" by Made Wijaya

Reviewed by Paulo Alcazaren | Photographs byTim Street-Porter

Drama, mystery, romance and poetry; these define Made Wijaya's gardens. His "Tropical Garden Design" is an anthology of sorts of his work as well as insights culled from a quarter century of designing, building and nurturing gardens all over Asia. This new book adds to an already growing number of handsome publications on Asian landscape and garden design. It distinguishes itself though, from the others, as it written by a practitioner rather than by just a mere connoisseur of the fine art of garden design. It is this frame of view, a theatrical and intrinsically involved one that gives Wijaya's book a fascinating perspective.
Wijaya traces this frame of view as well as the development of his art from an accident of fate (his love affair with the paradise-island of Bali) to a peripatetic career as a designer of gardens. It is a career that has been inspired by, the cultures, places, and people of the tropical world. He credits much of his development to his own acculturalisation to the Balinese "loving of observing, absorbing, adapting and adopting." This acculturalisation is reflected, not only in his work but also in his own persona as signified in his adopted name. (Made Wijaya was born Michael White originally a Sydney-sider but now a citizen of the tropics).

His art's evolution from an Orientalist-eclectic approach concerned with various themes such as "Sino-Javanese", "Majapahit ruinscape", "land-based coral gardens" and "tropical-Cotswolds" progresses through the book to a current design approach that blends a fauvist Asian planting palette, a heterotopic cultural matrix and contemporary utility and aesthetic into intimate tropical theatre. Despite this multi-layered complexity, the book is easy to digest and as sumptuous as the paradise banana pancakes that remind me of Bali. It is a disarmingly practical book, but a D-Y-I manual, it is not.
"This book is primarily concerned with romantic tropical gardens..." the author says and he limits the scope of the book mainly to this intimate frame of landscape design. In any case, Wijaya has done his best work at this scale. The Wijaya garden is the quintessential tropical outdoor room. In spite of the actual large area of a good number of his gardens, they always have a feeling of enclosure and protection of exclusion from the general "outside." Wijaya uses nature's enclosing embrace to meld the natural and the man-made worlds and ultimately, even with the "mysterious underworld" in his clever creations. It is this cleverness or wisdom that he wishes to impart to the book's readers.

The book's structure is simple and logical. From an autobiographical introduction, it takes the reader through an engrossing overview of the history of tropical gardens and on to a series of expositions on the elements of a tropical garden. Wijaya deconstructs these various elements of a tropical garden the planting, pools, follies, fountains, courtyards, patios, terraces and artwork without losing sight of their synergistic relationship to the whole. He does this constant referral to his favourite designs – amongst which are the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran, Bali and the Bali Hyatt at Sanur, and also to what he considers classics examples of garden art such as Geoffrey Bawa's Lunuganga in Sri Lanka. A further constant reference is made to his work-in-progress, his own studio-residence, the fabulous Villa Bebek – now a much (maybe over) featured darling of glossy-paged coffee table books on anything to do with Asian design.
Wijaya adopts the same reticence in his writing as in his advice for garden design. He holds back before getting carried away with too much details or depth in dealing with issues like the true essence of Balinese culture as expressed in the Balinese's flexible use of space, or the cultural utility of the Balinese garden's palette of plant material. His practical knowledge of plant material and hardscape is evident and he is generous in the sharing of it. From the introduction he already starts his counsel – impressing on the reader the importance of maintenance to rein in the natural "fecundity" of tropical planting – an aspect not much emphasized in other books in this genre.

Wijaya endorses "artful naturalism" in landscape design against the "gentrified landscape aesthetic" – the tendency in places like Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines for "over-control" in garden design – as in the clipped hedges of dwarf tropical shrubs. His garden style could be described as tropical-picturesque or Balinese-bucolic, but these descriptions do his work no justice and we should not pigeon hole his oeuvre into a homogeneous formulaic mass.
Specificity is lent by the studied placement of accents, furniture, follies, and cultural artefacts like the compang. The elements he suggests for use in gardens the lighting fixtures, terra-cotta pots, sculpture and planting are not to end up in generic look of a bland texture-less landscape "Soften with impurity." He says in designing a garden. Wijaya also reminds the horticulturally inclined to keep the garden in context with the architecture (although more pictures or exquisite sketches – of his artist/student Chang Huai-Yan – of the transitions from interiors to garden would have enhanced this point).
A theme running through this book and in all of Wijaya's work is the drama and theatricality of garden design. "I like to think of a garden as a set on a theatre stage. One has a backdrop – the gardens boundary wall, a forest or a skyline, and a proscenium arch – the veranda’s eaves, a window frame, or the garden entrance gate..." For his cast, Wijaya "peoples" his sybaritic sets with his accents, "pixies," and statuary. He admonishes us to "Celebrate life––place a statue today!"

Wijaya's gardens are at their most dramatic and theatrical at night. But alas, the book has precious few pictures of the magic nightscapes of the man's gardens. The lighting fixtures he uses, though, stand up to the light of day. The world is richer for his introduction of the Balinese garden light, now ubiquitous in any "exotic" garden. It's a hard act to follow but in 1996, in collaboration with architect Ken Vais, his firm designed a new series of garden lights that are setting a trend in "historically-referenced" contemporary garden accents. Made Wijaya never stops. He knows that he will only be as good as his last performance in his theatre world of the garden.

In performance, as in his book, he does not hog the limelight and his happy to share the stage with other "performers." Wijaya credits his creative "commando" team or gardeners, sculptors and craftsmen as well as the impressive "A" list of architects and designers he has worked with like Peter Muller, Kerry Hill, Ernesto Bedmar and Geoffrey Bawa.

Cannons and Topiary, the last picture spread of the book, is anti-climatic. It is an abrupt end to a fascinating narrative and one wishes that the book ended with a better final scene; like the sun setting on a Wijaya landscape. But that may be just a tad too theatrical. Maybe a sequel is in the works. With 400 gardens and counting under his belt, we look forward to being entertained, delighted, and seduced by his next book...and his next garden.

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