Read an Excerpt
The Good Life
Being at home in Bali is being in love with nature and, if you're lucky, with your fellow courtyard inhabitants. It is the feeling of security, if you are Balinese, that your ancestral spirits are all lined up and keeping an eye on you from their perch. And it is the feeling of luxury, if you're an expatriate, that there's always someone to roll out the mat and water the garden.
In Bali one doesn't go home and shut out the world. Home is not a cocoon but a microcosm--the Balinese call it Buana Alit, "the small world"--of the greater world outside with its myriad influences and strata. The front door is always open in a Balinese house, and the spirit of the house is always entwined with the spirits of the universe. Even without the requisite shrines to the spirit of the land and the altar to the sun god, one senses, from the offerings placed everywhere and the abundant beauty in nearly all Balinese homes--be they ethnic chic or kitsch--that house pride is a big factor in the Balinese lifestyle.
The typical Balinese house is ordered to the Hindu Balinese universe; the kitchen, for example, is usually in the southern part of the house, under Brahma, the god of fire, and the family house temple is always in the propitious northeastern corner of the compound, nearest the holy Mount Agung and the eastern sphere of Lord Shiva, the supreme deity. Even foreigners' homes must have shrines because the spirit of the land belongs to the landlord, not the tenant.
There is a sense of romance and mystery that goes with being at home in Bali; the courtyard garden is traditionally dimly lit; the palm leaves sway against a starlit sky. The ripple of gamelan music is often heardpicking through the dense foliage; the air is muggy and thick. Nocturnal shadows flicker against pavilion walls; the slightly spooky silhouettes of statues and shrines add a sense of magic to the pervading atmosphere of the exotic, and the Oriental.
The very name Bali conjures up visions of the exotic--and intimations of the world's most gorgeous culture. Once on the island one is impressed by the diversity--the way the geography changes from coastal to alpine in the course of a short drive, the way the mood changes from urban guerrilla to monastic mellow in the course of an hour--and the dynamic nature of the Balinese building industry. Here "new is holy," and heaven help anyone who stands in the way of the wrecker's ball! Everyone is forever building, embellishing, frosting, carving, and gardening--"far too much creative endeavor," was the summation of the greatest embellisher of our era, Noël Coward.
Traditional Balinese architecture has Javanese, Chinese, and South Indian elements, all laid over a strong ancient Indonesian/Polynesian base--the Balinese love to absorb, adopt, and adapt. The simple longhouses and terraced sanctuaries of the ancient pre-Hindu Balinese have become highly stylized hybrids of both Hindu and Chinese parentage.
Simple beach huts evolved over centuries of "colonization by contagion" into handsome pavilions after the South Indian and Sri Lankan model. From the sixteenth century on, various colonial influences--Portuguese and Dutch in particular--have swept across the fertile architectural "plain." For instance, the so-called pesisir style--seen in the whitewashed walls and colonial architecture of certain coastal villages--survives today as testimony to the influence of early European merchants involved in the spice trade. From the days of the first trading vessel--the Dutch expedition to the East Indies led by Van Houtman in 1650, when two sailors jumped ship and settled in East Bali for twenty-five years--European models for bathrooms and kitchens in particular have been added to the vocabulary of domestic architecture. With the various Portuguese, English, and finally Dutch administrations came various styles. In Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, we still find high-windowed town houses after the Lisbon model. In Banda, in the Spice Islands, we find Georgian parkeneers' (plantation owners') bungalows from the era of colonial exploitation. The Bali Hotel in Denpasar and the Narmada Hotel in Sanur survive today as fine examples of Dutch Colonial Art Deco, from the period preceding independence. All these models have influenced local architects and designers to the present day.
Before delving into the details of form and function and style, one should know that Bali has been the end of the road for cultural and artistic migrations for many thousands of years. The ancient proto-Malays, who brought wet rice cultivation from the tropical reaches of present-day Laos, Myanmar, and Yunnan, seem to have ceased their eastward migration in Bali and deposited some of their greatest cultural treasures here. The spread of Islam in medieval times also stopped at Bali when the priests and princes from Java's greatest Hindu empire migrated here, bringing with them more veils of sophistication and philosophy to lay over their eager host. With this slow migration came redbrick temple gates, the giant pavilions of Javanese palaces, and the many palettes of court colors. The notion of garden follies done on a grand scale was also imported at this time.
Geographically, Bali is the end of Asia: Wallace's line, which runs between Bali and Lombok, the neighboring island to the east, was postulated by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to separate Asian from Austronesian flora and fauna--a line declaring "the wombat starts here." And wombats there have been.
In the 1970s, with the arrival of mass tourism and the various day-feeding marsupials from Down Under, ballet dancers started leaving their stages for a life here on juice blenders. The cultural dilution was not as great, however, as in Hawaii or Acapulco--the Balinese culture has, over the centuries, resisted colonialization and Islamization and come through relatively intact. Terms like turis, art shop, and losmen (hostel) may be here to stay--in fact, today's hotels are considered New Age temples to architectural prowess--but the richness and resilience of the Balinese culture is proving to be the island's saving grace.
With mass tourism came mass investment, a feeding frenzy of investors from Jakarta and Singapore, two regional capitals known for hard-nosed urban attitudes. Their influence on the architectural language of Bali's tourist hubs bore much fancy fruit--the Ghost-Train Gothic school of "Balinaise" wedding-cake architecture, with its neocolonial bonsai gardens, to name just one. The arrival of the hippies, surfies, New Agers, and lately, Zen yuppies, by contrast, fueled various building booms, like the Rustic Charm movement, the Expatriate Dream Home movement, the aman-wannabe, and the po-mo-for-homo. One can't help getting excited writing about the Balinese lifestyle, be it indigenous or adopted, because it is always so weird and wonderful. Fertile, fecund, and fanciful are certainly three words that sum up the state of Balinese architecture today.
Foreigners come and fall in love with the island, the culture, and the people, and want to build an homage to that love. The fiercely industrious Balinese then want to keep up with the foreigners, who are themselves busy going native. The hotels may be the New Age temples, but the many temples are being rebuilt in finishes kept alive by the hotel industry.
This book will lead you through various facets of the Balinese experience, through the dwellings of Bali's inhabitants. Generously interspliced are images of the Balinese way of living--the vibrant customs and religious practices and the colorful patterns of day-to-day life.