How Balinese style was born: The architects who shaped 'Bali style'

The Oberoi Bali, still going strong and largely unaltered from the original, is regarded as a seminal resort in Balinese tourism.

I'm in a vehicle weaving its way, at a near walking pace, en route from Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport, through Seminyak's jigsaw of narrow streets, full of criss-crossing, scantily-dressed and sun-kissed tourists.

These streets are lined with upscale, look-a-like restaurants, bars and boutiques roughly of the kind you might encounter along an Oxford Street or Chapel Street back home. Eventually, shedding the crowds, I reach my destination, the car swallowed up by driveway and into what is in effect another world.

Even in the near darkness of dusk, as the vehicle negotiates an internal decorative roundabout topped with a lotus pond and a statue of Dewi Laut, the Hindu goddess of the sea, arriving at the Oberoi Bali is like passing between paradise lost and paradise survived.

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Australians have proved to be both good and bad for Bali, perhaps in equal portions, and, you could argue, Bali has both been good and bad for Australians. Beyond the sordid headlines of drug-runners, both imprisoned and executed, I'm about to discover the story behind what was once dubbed "the birthplace of Bali style".

THE ANTIPODEAN ARCHITECT IN PARADISE

The Oberoi Bali resort, and its counterpart Oberoi Lombok on the neighbouring and palpably less-developed Indonesian island, were designed by Peter Muller, an accomplished yet little-known Adelaide-born architect.

It was Muller, after all, who helped shaped the face of high-end Bali tourism that has become instantly familiar to holidaymakers around the world, his work far removed from the many ostentatious statement hotels and resorts of today scattered across this idyll steeped in myth.

Eventually, Muller, who first visited Bali in 1970, would be followed in Bali by a young compatriot architect, the Perth-born Kerry Hill, who would go on to design an impressively large and widely-lauded quantity of prestigious Aman properties, among others, right around Asia.

The Oberoi Bali turns 40 years old in August – positively geriatric in luxury resort terms – with Muller's original landmark design largely and remarkably unaltered. No wonder the fashionable Luxe Guide to Bali refers to the resort as the "isle's Grand Dame" that "never loses her lustre". However, this isn't just a tale of just one resort, or two if you add the Oberoi Lombok. It's a story about how one property helped reveal not only an enchanting and mystical Bali that we all recognise and in the main still adore but also how it led to Australian architects, their talents oft overlooked in their native lands, becoming a major force in hotel resort design throughout Asia.

First, let's return to where it all began four decades ago. One of those with a sound knowledge of Bali tourism and the place the Oberoi Bali occupies in it, is John Halpin, the long-time American-born general manager of the Oberoi Bali. He describes the resort as one of the best examples of an early tropical seaside resort in south-east Asia.

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"Peter Muller influenced the tourism industry in Bali," Halpin says, "by showing through design, how simple traditional elements with links to the culture and religion created a unique and luxurious retreat."

Yet I'm not here as part of an esoteric architectural tour. I'm here to experience Muller's twin resorts as any guest would with its prime seaside location but its lavish and inviting landscaped grounds, dotted with coconut palms and frangipani trees, which extend over a generous and meticulously-maintained six hectares.

Before it became the Oberoi Bali, the property was originally Kayu Aya, an exclusive retreat conceived and owned by a wealthy American developer, Charles Osborne. Designed by Muller, it was built in 1972 and consisted of a cluster of ever-expanding villas designed for the wealthy and famous.

They were among the early, well-heeled visitors to the island, as well as some of Osborne's closest friends. It wasn't long before Kayu Aya's guestbook was being filled with the trophy signatures of notables such as Princess Grace of Monaco and the artist Salvador Dali, inexorably drawn to this exotic and then little-visited corner of south-east Asia.

By the mid- 1970s, the Indian-based Oberoi group bought the property and Muller was commissioned to design its transformation from Kayu Aya into the "Hotel Bali Oberoi". It opened in 1978, becoming the first genuinely five-star luxury beachside resort in Bali and before long enticing the likes of Mick Jagger, Henry Kissinger, Gianni Versace and David Bowie.

Halpin says that Muller, who during his time on the island was a contemporary of the now controversial and diminished Bali-based Australian expatriate artist Donald Friend, is the only western architect, of whom he's aware, to have lived with the Balinese, namely in a bamboo house in Campuhan, Ubud.

He embraced and understood not only the Balinese way of life, but also the principles surrounding Balinese building styles, which he employed in the design of his properties on the island, which also included the prestigious Amandari resort, considered a virtual masterpiece of resort design and named the best hotel in the world in 1992 and 1995.

He's even credited with having perfected the infinity pool, now a near essential feature of five-star Bali resorts as well as those elsewhere in south-east Asia and beyond (however, his protege Hill's version at the Alila Ubud, thrusting out into a dense jungle valley, remains one of the boldest ever designed).

Halpin says Muller fully recognised the complexity of Balinese life, a society where certain days are better than others to undertake certain tasks such as when "to marry, go to the bank, a good day to put the roof on, a good day to plant, which artisans to do which job, where is the temple located, which side of the building faces the sun, how much garden to building ratio".

Balinese building techniques, Haplin explains, are based upon religious principles along with a village hierarchy that employs people from certain castes to perform specific tasks. To an architect like Peter Muller, such a place was transformative, its "simple complexity" at once "stunningly beautiful" and "environmentally harmonious".

ARISE, THE MODERN BALI UNDAGI

Peter Muller is now in his early 90s and living in Sydney, having retired from practising architecture when he turned 80. Despite an extensive portfolio that contains an eclectic mix of commercial and residential projects not confined to resorts, Bali still represents an integral and fulfilling aspect of his long life and career.

When he first arrived in Bali, it was a place virtually unrecognisable from the island we know and love today.

Certainly, it was a remote and challenging environment into which to create a luxury resort for foreigners.

"Bali in the 1970s was an incredible experience," he says, "[with] no cars, no electricity, no telephones and only five expatriates living there at that time."

For the Oberoi Bali, consisting of 74 villas and rooms, Muller used traditional Balinese thatch for roofing, natural stone and ornate wood carvings lending an authenticity to luxury lanai (open-sided verandah buildings), rooms and villas.

One of his chief objectives was to produce a resort that employed local people in its construction and that sat as inconspicuously possible beside the then small local village.

At one point during the construction of Bali Oberoi, the Australian architect employed 600 Balinese labourers, tradesman and artisans. It was the first time large numbers of Balinese derived real financial benefit from tourism to the island.

"My objective in all of my work in Indonesia was to employ local village people and to use their building technology and locally sourced materials," he says. "But I have to mention that the decision to design and build my projects in Indonesia using village people created immense challenges for me.

"As they had never seen water come out of a tap or a toilet or anything electrical, I had to set up programs to train selected villagers in those disciplines.

"Fortunately I was able to do this because an important part of my architectural training in Adelaide, between 1946 and 1948, included doing full apprenticeships in plumbing, drainage, carpentry and bricklaying.

"[But] Balinese people are very intelligent and quick to learn but of course demanded a lot of supervision and I had to bring in items such as toilets and taps from Sydney.

"On the plus side, of course, my projects cost about a third of what it would have cost if I had employed professional building companies from Jakarta, as everyone else was doing in Bali which, by the way, excluded local Balinese villagers."

Oberoi Bali wasn't Muller's only landmark project on the island. He describes the aforementioned Amandari, built in 1989, as the "ultimate concept for a hotel in Bali" in which he was the architect, the builder and one of three owners. It was another project for which he chose to incorporate traditional Balinese building techniques.

"The typical Balinese villager, who is a rice farmer, is also an accomplished builder of their houses and temples [along with being] wonderful musicians, artists, sculptors, actors with wonderful sense of humour.

"I tried to keep the remarkable technology involved in their building works, which involves using no nails, and the joinery that's designed in such a way that the multiple earth tremors which regularly occur on the island strengthened the structure.

"There was a lot to learn about using local materials. Picked at the wrong time or from the wrong place, for example bamboo, would mean a short lifespan."

Muller is unimpressed by the term "tropical modernism" which is widely used to describe the type of Asian resort architecture typified by his work and that of Geoffrey Bawa, the late and celebrated Sri Lankan architect, who the Australian knew well.

Unlike Kerry Hill, who has built a large practice with offices in Asia and Australia, Muller chose to work alone and to accept commissions only from clients he knew and trusted.

But he says at least 40 established companies from around the world approached him to design various resort and hotels, all of which he rejected. It, in part, explains why his portfolio of resorts is limited to a handful.

Despite expressing no desire to ever return to an irrevocably changed Bali, Muller's affection for the Balinese is clearly as solid as the foundations of his resorts and the integrity of its design have proved to be. A few days after my contact with him he sends me a copy of a cherished certificate he received in 2010.

It's a "letter of recognition as [a] modern Bali undagi", the Balinese term for architect or builder. It reads, "To Peter Muller, for his dedication and inspiration to Balinese modern architecture by harmonising human and elements of nature."

THE LUXE SET: AUSTRALIAN DESIGNS ON ASIA

Muller led the way for other Australian hotel and resorts architects, including, more latterly, the Singapore-based Richard Hassell, who once worked for Kerry Hill Architects, in not just Bali but all of South-Asia, according to Richard Kirk, national president of the Australian Institute of Architects.

"Both Peter Muller and Kerry Hill have made an incredible contribution to the quality of architecture in that region during its critical formative period," he says. "These architects bought the rigour and precision of their training in Australia to the local vernacular of the regions they worked."

Kirk says the best resort architecture celebrates the "experiential aspects of a place" and their highly-sophisticated and culturally-sensitive designs, Muller and Hill "combined a modernist architectural sensibility with an appreciation of local south-east Asia building traditions that have defined tropical architecture."

Kirk says the pair's architecture celebrated the importance of responding to the culture and climate of a place. "Rather than importing a construction method and design ideas from elsewhere they both developed a style that was something new at the time – a blend of both local and international.

"I think this has a profound value to the places they worked where the work they made is a demonstration of some of the best work from Australian architects in the region.

"Australian architects are recognised as the most versatile and flexible in working in a range of different environments through their great sensitivity towards the place they work in."

Yet while scores, if not hundreds of Bali resorts have proceeded it, one of the remarkable aspects of the Oberoi Bai and Lombok is the fact that so little of it appears to have been altered from Muller's original design, which he helped nurture and maintain in the decades following their openings.

Black and white archival photos of the Bali resort, originally built on the site of several kampongs with each of their temples having been retained by the resort, indicate little, if any, visible change, in terms of the traditionally-styled buildings dotted around the compound.

However, one archival image of Kayu Aya, before it become the Oberoi Bali, shows the immense change wrought on the island with rice-fields bordering the edge of the resorts. It's something that's difficult to reconcile when you consider the unchecked and ill-conceived growth and experienced in recent decades. But even the indefatigable Oberoi Bali and Lombok can't resist the demands of the modern traveller.

"Of course we have to keep up with the times," says Halpin, "such as installing USB ports beside beds, modern phones, smart TVs, the latest sanitary wares." But Halpin says any such upgrades have always made sure not to destroy the design elements.

Certainly my villa at the Oberoi Bali, with an unusually generously-sized pool the centrepiece of a large and private shaded courtyard, scarcely feels dated even though the odd fitting offers evidence of the villa's vintage.

"Peter's designs captured an element of timelessness," Halpin says. "I have seen new resorts be built on the island look dated in five years because they followed a trend of the day."

BALI: PARADISE FOUND AND NEARLY LOST

There's no question that Bali is being grossly overdeveloped physically and environmentally, with plastic waste intermittently degrading its beaches and the excessive number of hotels and resorts compromising the island's water table. A harsh, and perhaps unfair, critic could argue that Muller and his counterparts such as Hill, were unwittingly complicit in having literally laid the foundations of this rampant development that has followed even though their resorts architecturally remain rare models of cultural sensitivity and unostentatious design.

"Preserving what is here [at the Oberoi Bali] preserves a lost art in many ways," says Halpin. "People these days are quick to say 'out with the old, in with the new' and squeeze the most amount of value from rooms on the least amount of land – garnering a faster profit or enough money to service the loan taken on it."

Oberoi Lombok, also designed by Muller, opened in 1997, tends to exist in the shadows of its more famous counterpart on Bali, just like Lombok, but it's as impressive in every sense. Even more sumptuously-landscaped than it's Bali sister property, it features central reflective pools seamlessly merging with the main swimming pool to such extent it can be hard to tell which is which.

The resort is located on Medana Bay at Tanjung in the north of the island. The fashionable Gili Islands group is a short high-speed boat ride away from the Oberoi Lombok's long timber jetty that extends out into the idyllic sea like a straightened forearm.

Despite the enjoyment they bring to the holidaymakers who stay in them and the livelihoods they provide for the peoples of many developing nations, it can seem that resort architecture is an under-appreciated school, especially at times among myopic developers in Australia.

Hill has received noticeably few contracts to build hotels and resorts, largely a product of a timid, vision-free tourism industry , aside from the internationally-lauded Como Treasury hotel in Perth and a collection of luxury villas on the cyclone-battered Hayman Island, located in the Whitsundays ground of Far North Queensland.

However, the architectural legacy of the likes of Muller and especially Hill lies firmly in Asia with Hill's work extending beyond the tropics to all corners of the continent such as Japan and Taiwan [see panel].

Despite Bali's disturbing overdevelopment, something about which Muller expressed concern decades ago, there are the moments when it can still dazzle, even in the heart of crowded Seminyak, where the Oberoi Bali offers sanctuary from a world pressing against its manicured edges.

On leaving my villa I emerge into a dusk to be confronted by the most magnificent and intense sunset over the adjoining beach. It's enough to stop both me and other guests, amid a silence punctuated only by the sound of relentlessly crashing wave, in our flip-flopped tracks.

The sky above Seminyak is streaked an intense watermelon pink, as if a giant paint roller has been run back and forth across it. Such a natural Balinese spectacle would even surely touch the heart of an old architect who once called this island his home.

FIVE MORE AUSTRALIAN-DESIGNED HOTELS AND RESORTS IN ASIA

PARKROYAL ON PICKERING, SINGAPORE

This striking hotel with its terraced facade consumed by tropical vegetation, or "sky gardens" as they are called, was designed by Australian-born architect Richard Hassell. He, along with Wong Mun Summ, formed the award-winning Singapore-based firm WOHA Designs. See panpacific.com

AMAN HOTEL TOKYO, JAPAN

Britain's influential Telegraph newspaper recently named this exclusive, soothingly understated hotel, designed by Kerry Hill, as one of the 20 modern buildings every traveller should experience. It describes the Aman Tokyo as "one of the most beautiful hotels in the world." See aman.com

CROWNE PLAZA HOTEL, CHANGI AIRPORT, SINGAPORE

WOHA'S groundbreaking 320-room airport hotel opened in 2008 with resort-like touches such as tropical gardens and outdoor walkways. Hassell and co more recently also designed a 243-room extension to the complex. The hotel has been awarded the title of the world's best airport hotel on three occasions between 2015 and 2017. See ihg.com

THE LALU, SUN MOON LAKE, TAIWAN

Yet another acclaimed resort designed by the prolific Kerry Hill Architects, the zen-like Lalu, opened in 2002, is located beside one of Taiwan's most scenic natural locations and is rightly describes itself as a "timeless classic". The original hotel on the site dates to the early 20th century and once served an official residence of Crown Prince Hirohito when Taiwan was a colony of Japan. See thelalu.com.tw

FOUR SEASONS BALI AT JIMBARAN BAY

This luxury villa-style resort, which opened in 1994, was designed by Martin Grounds and Jack Kent, of the Perth-based Grounds Kent Architects, with the duo contemporaries of Kerry Hill from their university days in the late 1960s. The award-winning Four Seasons Bali at Jimbaran Bay was the first resort to incorporate plunge pools in every villa. See fourseasons.com

BALI: A TIMELINE OF TOURISM AND TURMOIL

1936

An American couple, Robert and Louise Koke, open Bali's first beachside hotel on Kuta Beach but years later are forced to flee the island during World War Two ahead of the Japanese Army's invasion.

1968

The new Ngurah Rai International Airport, named after a noted independence freedom fighter, is opened on August 1 by Indonesian president Suharto.

1972

Kayu Aya, an exclusive private club with villas owned by American developer Charles Osborne, opens in Seminyak, with the rear of the property flanked by ricefields.

1978

Oberoi, the Indian luxury hotel brand, commissions Australian architect Peter Muller to transform Kayu Aya into Bali's first five-star beach resort.

2002

More than 200 people – scores of them Australian – die in a bombing at at Kuta's Sari nightclub. Foreigners stay away leading to financial hardship across tourism-dependent Bali.

2005

In another devastating blow to the Bali's economy, a trio of suicide bombers blow themselves up in Kuta and Jimbaran, killing 20 people.

2013

A modern new international terminal, designed to service up to 25 million passengers a year, opens at Ngurah Rai International Airport in November.

2017

Despite the eruption of Gunung Agung, Bali, with a population of just under four million, attracts five million foreign tourists. Tourism continues to expand by more than 15 per cent annually.

TRIP NOTES

STAY

For Oberoi Bali, located at Seminyak, doubles start from $US390 a night. For Oberoi Lombok, situated on the island's north-west coast, doubles start from $US345 a night. See oberoihotels.com

FLY

Qantas operates regular services between Sydney and Melbourne and Denpasar, Bali capital. See qantas.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/bali

Anthony Dennis visited as a guest of the Oberoi Bali and Lombok resorts.

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