Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the NOW Bali magazine, June 2010 )

View across the 6th hole to Tanah Lot Temple from the lobby café of the Pan Pacific Nirvana Bali Resort.

Real and Unreal Estate in Bali

Buggy jockey at the Pan Pacific
Nirvana Bali Resort.

Last month I was asked by the World Real Estate Association to give a talk at their conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, in May.
Their choice of speaker was enlightened, I thought, because this column has, over the years, devoted pages and pages to the culpability of unscrupulous developers and real estate agents in the destruction of Bali’s foreshores and cliffs.
Sadly I have a conflicting engagement as I would have loved the opportunity to make an impassioned plea on behalf of the Balinese environment, of lovers of Balinese architecture and natural artful gardens and to stop the onslaught of Zen style ‘box homes’ which are now blighting the land.
I would have lectured them on how Bali’s real estate industry started well, in the 1970s—as it did in Honolulu, Denpasar’s sister city—with talented, culturally-sensitive architects designing climate-appropriate, traditional-modern homes and hotels for the Bali-besotted.
For two decades Bali design reigned supreme in the tropical world with hotels like the Bali Hyatt, the Amandari and the Four Seasons in Jimbaran setting benchmarks. The only real estate was Batujimbar villas designed by Geoffrey Bawa — it was both well designed and culturally/environmentally sensitive.
During the years 1930 – 1990 foreigners and Jakartans built either on the outskirts of large villages or in scenic locations such as on the rim of the caldera at Kintamani, or at the foot of a great volcano, but never, ever in rice-fields.
Local developers lead the march into the rice-fields ― zoning ordinances too easily ‘ignored’ ― and foreign villa-owners have followed. But the foreigners are random in their purchases and are scarring scenic valleys all the way up the mountains with vulgar dream homes with high walls with zero set backs.
I maintain that foreign developers should apply the environmental conservation practices of the countries they come from: it is too easy to disobey the rules here!!
In the past decade, however, the architecture industry has gone seriously off the tracks: developers now slam-dunk 6 star hotels on pristine beaches, and gouge out cliffs for condominia. The pervading, popular architectural style has shifted from trad-mod to mannerist to microwave.
Big billboards at the airport extol the virtues of “8% guaranteed annual return” if you invest in real estate on the fabled island.
The majority of villa owners today are really just investors trying to get rich while spoiling the cultural and physical landscape of the world’s most gorgeous island.
I say “gorgeous” guardedly, because, although the Hindu rituals survive in all their glory, the unchecked development — unregulated by various “development-minded” administrations since the Soeharto Era — is deplorable. Balinese and foreign entrepreneurs have, in a stampede of greed and bad taste, tarnished their own island’s reputation for beauty.
How did it get so bad, design-wise, after such a good start?
In the 1970s, any stand against development was considered ‘communist’ and thus anti-religion. As a result, the taste of Jakarta’s New Order oligarch’s swamped Denpasar and Sanur and the emerging nouveau riche became ‘leather lounge set fashionistas’ with a penchant for the pretentious (read ‘loud architecture’). By the 1990s the resultant ‘Bali-style’ was a hodge-podge of gratuitous decorativism: it became the sworn ‘enemy’ of the young turk architects of the New Asia Movement based in Singapore.
‘Bali-style’ became uber-unfashionable: ‘Zen-Modern’ swept-in.

Wija Waworuntu:
Father of cultural tourism. FOUNDER OF TANJUNG SARI HOTEL (1967) AND P.T. BIRD (Bali International Resort Development) – Bali’s first real estate company, at Batujimbar, Sanur.

Peter and Carole Muller:
co-designers of the Kayu Aya (1972, now the Bali Oberoi) and Amandari (1990) - Inside Bali’s first Real Estate Complex, Batujimbar

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The villa-buying public became confused and decided to go with the advertising executives’ ‘safe and stylish’ taste, rather than to employ a talented architect.

•              •              •

The publishing industry has not helped either: books like the recently published “Bali Houses” read like catalogues of the uncomfortable; most of the villas are neither tropical nor remotely Balinese (Balinese in the sense that one can enjoy a beautiful garden from an open pavilion or veranda; Balinese in the sense that shrine-placement and respect for local tradition are incorporated in home-design).

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Desecration of Rice Fields Villas in the Green Belt

It is in the real estate sector that serious introspection/education is required. The rush to promote Bali as the land of eternal massages and cheap maids has to stop! One developer has an in-house magazine styled as a mainstream magazine which is hell-bent on turning Bali into Asia’s answer to Ibiza.

There is even a T.V. realty show planned for Bali’s alternative lifestyle channel to be called “Saving the Bukit”; it will follow the trials of Bali-based Australian real estate developer and his gorgeous family who build a Bali-style home on the Bukit peninsula only to have Jakartan high-rollers shave 30 metres off the cliff next door! It will be a sort of “Baywatch” meets “Lost”, with a real estate morality play edge.

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In fact, many say that Bali has become “Asia’s Biggest loser”: the island may still retains much of  its natural charm but so so much has been spoiled by reckless greed, to whit: three ring roads and green belts have been turned into ribbon development ‘strips’; real estate booths dot the land like so many North Korean-modern fertility clinics; and, as of June, I hear that Australians can buy real estate freehold in Bali while they are being finger-printed at airport immigration airport (it’s sort of divestment-investment package).
Real estate developments which once had lovely local names like Batujimbar, and Bukit Kucit Permai are now called mindless names like Temple Hill, or C151.
Now……. in the same breath……..I must point out here that Bali remains the ‘cutting edge’ for high-end tropical design and for classy real estate operators: more Bali villas hit the annual Exotic Homes edition of Architectural Digest and more Bali hotels go on to inspire the tropical world (the Alila Uluwatu the latest “mould-breaker” (sic) ﴿ than from any other place.
The luxury apartments now for sale in the Gay Ghetto (North Seminyak) are not half bad: one could be in Puerto Villarta, in Mexico, or Noosa in Queensland, but they are definitely tropical and have lush gardens and staff in tight black uniforms.
“Beam me up, Scarlet” is one Gay Real Estate developers catch cry.
Tragically — and plausibly to keep up with the fascionista architecture trend — A.T.M.-like security portals are now replacing picturesque roadside gates in most new-age Bali suburbs; just as the Balinese are busy replacing their lovely brick temple architecture with the black on black. This look is more in keeping — one might easily, but falsely, assume — with trends in the design industry.
The truth is the Balinese have, quite independently developed their own bad taste in urban home design.
When did the tide change towards the tacky?
One could peg the first monetary crisis (1997) as the beginning of the end for both cultural tourism and its off-shoot, the rustic  charm villa-rental business. South Bali is now, for the most part, a culture of tourism. After the first Bali Bomb, the sluice gates were opened: a former immigration-unfriendly island suddenly gave laissez-passer to all sorts of carpet-baggers and developers and ‘project managers’ and ‘turn-key’ specialists. They did not take work away from local people ― there were no real estate agents until the late 1990s; or villa developers really ― but they did establish an industry, now a significant market segment, that excluded, for the most part, local culture and reduced trained professionals to the role of lackeys and lassies. Them’s fighting words but I have witnessed the slow rot set in, at close range.
As a result the ‘ethics’ in the construction industry ― never admirable ― have today crashed to an all-time low: local architects have become just draughtsmen for ‘construction managers’, or just side-lined altogether by a local real-estate industry that has a short-term gain as it’s only goal.

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25th April 2010:
To Tanah Lot for the first time in twenty years, and the first time to the delightful Pan Pacific Nirwana Bali Resort now 15 years old

I was once part of an environmental and cultural impact assessment team, appointed by the Indonesian government to judge the influence of the proposed Nirwana development — hotel, golf  course, real estate — and I wrote, rather grandly, “that it was hopefully not the fate of Bali’s major temples to become back drops for signature golf courses”.

One of the stunning water gardens by Alan Clarke of Hawaii at the Pan Pacific Nirvana Bali Resort

Today I am sitting at the dining terrace of the beautiful hotel gardens, designed by Alan Clarke of the Tong Clarke Mechler landscape architects of Hawaii; the view to the iconic temple, across the hotel gardens, and across the sixth holes is sublime.
The developers did, quite sensitively, incorporate the existing rice-fields into the hotel’s grounds and it’s a good thing they did too: these are now the only rice-fields left. The rest having been eaten up by McMansions and crematoria-like cottages of the Zen real estate boom. Ha!

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