Saturday, May 18, 2013


1. Architecture

Bali seems to have recovered well from the devastation wrought on its economy by the nightclub bombing in 2002 that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and nearly killed the tourist industry. The new airport being built at Denpassar is titanic, and every vacant lot seems to have construction work going on. However there doesn’t appear to be any large-scale planning or logic to development. Walking down the street you see a slum, then a shed, then a gleaming Ralph Lauren store, then another slum, then a minimart, then a Paul Smith outlet, then an upmarket day spa, and then a stray dog puking next to a line of dirty motorscooters.

The interesting, and from my perspective completely unexpected, thing about these new buildings is how cutting-edge they are architecturally. They are bold and confident, made from unusual materials and boasting exciting forms and spaces. But this exuberance is limited to the bones of the buildings – unlike many other Asian cultures, they don’t tend to slather the surfaces with a lot of gaudy bling. It’s like Danish Minimalism after it’s dropped a couple of Es.

A friend suggested that one of the reasons for the exciting cutting edge architecture and design on display has its roots in Bali’s traditional cultural mindset. They are a race of natural decorators and designers. Even in the slag-heaped, rubbish-strewn back streets, there are shanties with roofs of corrugated iron sheets of different colours laid out in clever patterns.

Old Balinese design, on the temples and pre-tourism buildings, is fiddly and intricate. But the modern Balinese simply like to go big. Soaring walls of plate glass, coffee tables the size of a car space, pendant lights as big as a Japanese hotel room. One can’t help but look at all of these things and think that the Balinese are taking control of their environment in a way that Australians don’t have the confidence to do.

2. Lighting

Bali is lovely by day, when you can see the riotous colours of the trees and flowers. But it’s a different kind of beautiful at night, at least where I’m staying. I’ve never been to a place that had such a comprehensive appreciation of good lighting design. It’s like an entire civilisation said, “Shall we have safe drinking water or pick out these frangipanis with mini-spotlights? Woo-hoo! Spotlights!”

The trees are full of fairy lights, the stone walls have their rugged textures picked out with discreet spotlights, and even mundane things like back fences and beach umbrellas have recessed mood lighting. The beach restaurants have floodlights directed out into the sea, purely to highlight the waves as they break and roll into the shore, in such a subtle way that you don’t even realise they’re doing it until someone passes in front of them and throws a vast shadow over the ocean.

Such things would never happen in Australia. I could imagine all of my eco-conscious friends having conniptions about waste and greenhouse gases and light pollution and disoriented sea turtles. But it is cool and it is beautiful.

3. Privilege

At my workplace, which is in a modern, politically correct organisation, we get occasional workshops about “white privilege” from the Diversity Office. But you really don’t know what white privilege is until you’ve been somewhere like Bali. The security guards glare at the locals, but smile and murmer, “Good evening, sir” as I stroll through their checkpoints. They have no idea if I’m a guest of their hotel or resort – the colour of my skin is all the proof they need that I belong.

The weird thing about some of the places I’ve been is that under normal circumstances there’s no way in hell they should be letting me into their establishments. These beautifully lit, decadent designer bars with head-spinning cocktails and chill dance remixes are the natural home of the rock star and the model, not fat unkempt slobs like me. Tonight I had dinner at Ku De Ta, the most celebrated and most expensive restaurant/club on the entire island. At one point, around midnight, I was standing on their terrace overlooking the sea, sipping my umpteenth mojito, listening to DJs mashing techno beats into late 70s pop songs, and I suddenly thought, “Wait, what am I doing here? Do these people not realise who I am… or rather, who I’m not? Shouldn’t Security have bundled me out of here by now?”

But all I got was more deferential smiling and bowing, and, eventually, a $5 taxi ride back to my resort.


Anonymous Troy G said...

"fat unkempt slobs like me"? I won't have that. You are never unkempt; well, not that I've seen: unless you change after all those mojitos. Slob? Many's the time you've returned home from the gym. Fat? "Comfortable" would be as far as I'd go.

4:58 PM  

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