Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 25 June 2006

Holland vs Belgium
From Bad to Wirtz: Landscape modernism in this age

Since December 2004 I have been writing a book on modern tropical garden designs despite having seen only a few modern gardens that I really like, tropical or otherwise.
I therefore jumped at an opportunity presented earlier this month to take part in a garden tour of the works of legendary Belgium-based landscape modernist Jaques Wirtz. Most of Wirtz’ famous gardens are in the verdant towns that surround the ancient spice trade port of Antwerp.
The tour was arranged by another octogenarian legend, textile designer Jack Larson – an old buddy of Bangkok-based designer Jim Thompson.
This is my first visit to Belgium and I am instantly impressed by the earnestness of its people and the beauty of its rhododendron-strewn suburbia. While too pristine and Stepford Wives for my tastes – almost every house has a bay window with drapes framing a tall Ming vase – the neighbourhoods are green, lean and mean.
Our tour host, Peter Wirtz, son of Jaques, tell us that these vases signify the ‘swingers’ in the village.
Hard to imagine.
We first visited the Wirtz estate, with its exquisite peony patches and tortured topiary (a Wirtz trademark) shaped by landscape artisans to resemble intestinal tumours. Everywhere in the Wirtz family home, Amish-modern interiors dovetail effortlessly with artful, natural garden vistas.
We visited the company’s low-slung, light-filled offices, set serenely in a small forest. The office building’s design was inspired by monastic Japanese architecture, but with Javanese genteng kodok roof tiles. A throwback, Wirtz tells us, to Belgium’s colonial trading past.
Like the suburbs that surround the Wirtz home base, there is no real sign of human habitation in the offices save for half-filled jars of Valda pastilles and some blinking computer screens. In one corner, I discover a Javanese beauty, Sri Sudewi, who is working on neo-Balinese modern pavilion designs.

Inspired Bali-Modern pool pavilion in a Wirtz designed garden: the pavilion was designed by Javanese architect, Sri Sudewi, working with the Wirtz group.

A Dutch banker friend, Willem Bake, once told me that a “clean desk is the sign of a sick mind”. This thought keeps echoing as we tour the offices and the client’s houses.
All the Wirtz gardens we see are serene, sweet and aristocratic – like the Wirtz family itself. Planting beds – burmed or otherwise – are laid out like Matisse cut-outs. Water features and riverbeds, dry or otherwise, appear as pixie glades.
The illusion is modern but the feeling is natural. They are controlled gardens – in the Antwerp garden tradition – but for nature lovers.
Jaques Wirtz is a landscape artist with a master horticulturalist’s hands.

Landscape legend Jacques Wirtz in his studio, with a model for his Wirtz garden design for the Louvre in Paris

• • •

One thing I became aware of, however, in my intense five-day immersion in Belgian culture, was the intense dislike the Belgians have for the Dutch: a rift forged by the (Flemish Catholic) Belgians when they evicted the Protestants to Holland in the early 19 th century. The wound seems never to have healed!
“There is a famous Dutch recipe,” a Belgian friend told me. “It starts with, ‘Borrow one egg…’”

• • •

My Dutch banker friend also provided a piece of fascinating history:
“In 1585 during the 80 years war for Dutch independence the catholic Spanish recaptured Antwerp and this led to an exodus of wealthy protestant  Antwerp merchants. They moved to Amsterdam, where they contributed to the rise of Amsterdam and its taking over from Antwerp as the leading port in Europe. They were also major subscribers to the initial capital of the Dutch East India Company ("V.O.C."). Holland flourished while Belgium remained a Spanish colony.”
(For more pictures)

• • •

Belgian waitress demonstrates origon of popular jujube lolly.

From Antwerp I caught the train to Den Haag, which is fast becoming, by virtue of staying the same, the most stately and leisurely of European capitals. It is senior-friendly and packed with colonial history, which makes it particularly interesting for Indonesian and Bule Aga (local Caucasian expatriate) on a nostalgia tour.
I visited the historic Hotel Des Indes, the museum of unpaid Batavia (now Jakarta) invoices and the Panorama Mesdag of Scheveningen where Neanderthal Frisians first invented satay.
After two days in Den Haag, I feel that it has everything that Antwerp lacks – a sense of humour, long-haired men my age in brightly coloured clothes, and Bulldog cafes (whatever they are!).

• • •

From Den Haag I take a RyanAir budget flight to Rome. Most of the passengers are Dutch holidaymakers. On deplaning, we are herded into buses –buses that don’t budge from their pick-up position in front of the mobile-stair ramp until the flight attendants come out from the plane’s door, waving, a fistful of baseball caps left absent-mindedly on the plane.
“They’re the Belgians!!” the bus’ Dutch passengers chorus.

• • •

Outside Rome I visit Nympha, a wonderful pixie garden in the English tradition set amid Roman springs and Byzantine ruins. The controlled gardens of Belgium and Holland seem so very far away.
I now long for Bali, home to the Empress of the Fairies and lush foliage, and I dash back.

Wayan Teker, (1960-2006)

June 20: Kepaon village
In the early 1970s I lived for six years in the rural village of Kepaon near Kuta. The village had a Pencak Silat traditional martial arts school that my “brothers” attended. I ran the cheering squad. The school was run by Pan Teker, a descendent of Subali, the darker of the monkey generals of Hanuman, the Monkey God.
Today, I learn that Pan Teker has died.
I immediately go to his village house to discover that Pan Teker died 6 years ago and that today is actually his son Teker’s turn on the slab! His brothers show me his body, surrounded by ice bags.
This prompts a very long speech by my elder “brother” – a Brahman who has worked for 35 years as a non-tenured security guard at the local power station – on the virtues of ice over formaldehyde for preserving a corpse.
“The only trouble is,” he explains, “one has to change the ice every morning. I did both my uncles with ice. Formaldehyde is OK, as long as you get the real stuff.
“Grandfather Latig died in Sanglah hospital so he got the real stuff. He was as hard as a rock!”
The Balinese are very unsentimental about death.


Back | Home | Next

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: