Alila Villas

August 27, 2010

WOHA’s resort in Bali wrestles with the challenge of addressing an ‘authentic’ Balinese culture through a contemporary architectural language.

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Paradise is difficult. Evelyn Waugh, who had no doubt about the creation of his own neo-Palladian refuge in England, captures its illusions in the description of sunrise over Mount Etna: utterly beautiful and simultaneously, in its elusiveness, revolting. Bali is suffused with this paradox.

In 1908 Bali was incorporated into the Netherlands East Indies. Bali, seen by colonial administrators as a bulwark against radical Islam, had already long been viewed by Dutch orientalists as a ‘living museum’.¹ Thus commenced the reification of Balinese culture: the conceptualisation of an authentic Balinese-ness, a state-sponsored renaissance taken over by the provincial authority in 1971 and adopted as ‘cultural tourism’. Tourism took off in 1924 with the launching of a weekly steamship service; anthropologists – including Margaret Mead – followed. By the late 1990s three million inhabitants entertained 1.5 million international tourists and a million domestic tourists per annum. The first paradise hotel in Bali opened in 1928. There have been waves of them since, each wave reinterpreting Balinese culture at the beach, in the mountains or in the cultural heartlands.

WOHA’s Alila Villas

Alila Villas is the latest of these, perched high above the sea on a limestone outcrop – south-facing, south of the equator. Reaching it from the airport by road you experience a dendritic tapering away of tarmac and development until at the furthest, thinnest and uttermost tendril of road you arrive and alight into the first of a series of highly managed frames. You step onto a shimmering surface, made all the whiter by a polished black square set on the diagonal. Across this a dark pond stretches towards blue waters, and beyond this again is the sea and the horizon. Each third of the vista sets you back in a regression into your perceptual self. The immensity of the view suspends you in the act of arriving, and even when someone walks between the ponds, revealing their scale, the illusion is not disrupted – it takes on a Lilliputian air. You shrink as this Gulliver slides across the picture plane. These perceptual frames recur. The next step is that you are led along a colonnade to a golf buggy and swept up the hill behind to your ‘villa’ set in one of four contoured ranks. The canopy of the buggy directs your gaze downwards and distance is blurred. You step out and face a tall black timber door in a white wall.

Entering, you are located in your own cube centred on a large round table. The bed is away from the view, up hill so to speak. In equal thirds from the bed you see a divan alcove opposite, a pool, a couple of chairs on a deck and divan in a cabana, and beyond these the sea and the horizon. The sense of being perched on the hill is heightened when you slide open the woven screens behind the bed, thus revealing a courtyard with splashing pond and large leaved plants. This is tantalising: you are in a viewing machine; lie on the bed and you can see yourself taking coffee at the table, an eye on the horizon. Or reclining on the divan and contemplating the view with a friend. Or taking the waters while chatting to other friends on the divan in the cabana, or watching the sunset (or sunrise) from that same cabana. A line of other actions runs up the far side of your temporary domain: two recliners set at right angles to the view – you can ignore it. A bath, a shower, twin vanities, a WC, another shower in the courtyard beyond: these are the operations in this zone. The impossible desire is to do everything at once…

WOHA’s command of the section is legendary, and this ideal viewing profile is achieved for every villa, there are no also rans: they all locate you in a patch of paradise suspended in the same relationship to the southern horizon. Return to the public areas of the resort on foot, and you walk along your contoured bosky laneway enclosed by the white walls of the villas on your level on one side and by the stone cliffs of the villas above punctuated with their lattice cabanas. Slow stairs with storm water cascades descend in four separate flights, framed by trees and set amongst beds of flowering plants. At the base of the hill – the arrival plane – there are run off collecting ponds lined with cleansing lava rocks (this is an ecologically responsible paradise), and terraced lawns onto which open a Yoga pavilion, an obeisance to Farnsworth, or New Canaan. You are brought to a point where you see again that unearthly arrival sequence, but at an astonishing distance. You walk towards this down a colonnade, only to be turned aside and brought to another view down a longer colonnade, also ending in sky and water. Walk down this and again you are turned away from the centre, and then brought back to a view of sky. At the elbow a spiral stair takes you up to a cabana eyrie on the roof from which the entire complex can be viewed. The plan is classical – central arrival axis, two side axes framing the arrival court, attached to these are a series of volumes: a spa, a glazed in library (lofty and rectangular, evoking a double cube), a restaurant (another lofty space with a timber lattice clerestory) and a gym. On the other side a restaurant surrounds a glazed cubic sanctum with a clerestory made of batik blocks. The lowest level of the pools is a 50-metre swimming pool along the cliff edge. A large rectangular sunset watch latticed pavilion projects over the cliff, capturing anabatic and katabatic breezes.

Balinese vernacular meets modernist architecture

The Balinese brick is 60mm x 120mm x 240mm. Volcanic rock and timber cut in these proportions are endlessly combined in panels and friezes to give that effortless sense of the decorated that pervades Balinese architecture, as do the repeats and reverses of strips of white stone and concrete, which give depth and intricacy to the colonnades. The roots of trees removed in construction are sliced and reversed into symmetrical textile patterns, evoking both the intricacy of Balinese crafts (without imitating them) and Mies’s marble symmetries in the Barcelona Pavilion. This is a paradise for the architecturally in the know…

At night the lighting is superb, and yet, standing on axis amid the public pavilions, I suddenly felt an uncanny sense of the metropolitan, as if in a dream I found myself alone at night in a scaled down Lincoln Centre plaza. On axis, thanks to the oversailing flat roofs on columns made of fasces of tubes, some of which are cut away at their ends to house lights that dissolve them away, this is Edward Durrell Stone territory, with – thanks to the deft patterning – a touch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House. The planning may owe something to the courtyard plans of the palaces of the sultanates of Java or to colonial axiality. It does not evoke to my mind the more organic intermeshing of the combined Balinese palace temple complexes. Perhaps this is a matter of scaling. What is at stake is considerable. From the eerie you can pick out an adjacent resort along the peninsula – a cluster of pyramid roofed pavilions nestled under a mother hen pavilion – a blastocyst in red tile on concrete frame painted white. This is the Achilles Heel of architecture in Indonesia, the notion that a temple form can be inflated to house any program, at any scale. This symbolising empties the architecture of any experiential actuality. WOHA has woven a fabric that is in sympathy with Balinese decorative instincts, and part of a sophisticated world culture. I only wish the colonial instinct to have fans everywhere – ceiling fans, punkahs, anything – was also on their agenda. Outside my room I was always hot and perspiring miserably, on the hunt for a breeze. Why not assist nature a little more? The problem is only going to get worse.

1. Michael Picard, ‘Cultural Tourism in Bali: The Construction of a Cultural Heritage’, The Role of Heritage Tourism in Community Planning and Development, Ed. Wiendu Nuryanti, Gadjah Mada University Press, Yoyakarta 2009 p176–190, p 176.

Leon van Schaik is Innovation Professor of Architecture at RMIT. His one-night stay at Alila Villas was provided courtesy of the hotel.

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