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Boomtown Bali


You don’t normally think of Bali as a city. Text: Diana darling. Artwork: Ashley Bickerton.

All the marketing talk is about and “tranquillity” and “lush tropical vegetation” and “ancient rituals”. But Bali is on its way to becoming a city without even trying: the urbanisation of Bali is under way and nobody seems to be in charge. People fell over laughing in 2009 when the magazine Conde Nast Traveler voted Ubud ‘The Best City in Asia’; it has already slipped from first to fifth place for lack of urban planning. Some Balinese rather like the idea of Bali being like Singapore, but that would take some work.

Ask almost anyone except a real estate developer and they’ll probably tell you that they think the urbanisation of Bali is a catastrophe. As people pour into south Bali, there are crises in every sector: water, housing, education, transportation and traffic, health and medical care, waste management, air quality – and especially among people, all of whom are jockeying to stay alive and live well. And yet there are some inexplicably blissed-out people, mainly in the government and the tourism industry, who think that everything is fine on the island of the gods. It’s a point of view not to be overlooked.

Every society, like every person, grows with its ear cocked to a certain inner music that describes its ideal self. Bali has a remarkably clear-cut sense of its spiritual self: it is recorded in the by-laws of every community and inscribed in ritual customs that persist even in deepest Denpasar. The Balinese social order is so old and so strong that in some ways it fills out parts of an individual’s personality and furnishes an unquestioned sense of what is decent and just and responsible. This moral confidence is a mighty advantage to any society or person; and in Bali the ideal vision is remarkably benign. It has to do with balance and consensus. It is not messianic. It takes account – in the ideal, at least – of nature. There is a supremacy of the ‘other’ over the individual. (This last strikes some modern Westerners as restrictive, even if it is not completely alien to Western spiritual values.) And the image of the old order of Bali as self-governing villages in a rural landscape has a profound human appeal.

But the wish to conserve Bali is something like the wish to stay young. It might be more useful to think about how Bali should age. Visitors and expatriates feel particularly helpless in the face of Bali’s uncontrolled development, and this is appropriate: the issue is largely political and therefore out of the range of interference by foreigners. The solutions will have to come from the Balinese people.

This idea got a public airing in April when Rio Helmi, an Indonesian photographer and Ubud resident, held an exhibition called Urbanities at Danes Art Verandah in Denpasar, with photographs of urban landscapes in Jakarta, London, Bangkok, Delhi, and San Francisco in which he tried to show his concern with the way built environments overwhelm the human beings they are meant to serve. To animate his thesis, Rio added two elements. First, the exhibition opening was accompanied by a dance performance by children from the Yayasan Kasih Peduli Anak, a foundation that provides a home and school for street children, and an auction was held to raise money for the foundation. Second, a discussion entitled ‘Urbanisasi di Bali’ was held at the gallery the next day, moderated by the journalist I Wayan Juniartha and attended almost entirely by Indonesian residents of Denpasar. The discussion focused mainly on the human impact of Denpasar’s ever-more crowded conditions and the social tensions that arise from them.

Among different laments, there was a lot of talk about the lack of ‘leaders’ (tokoh-tokoh panutan). Made Sudira – known to many by his pen name, Aridus, under which he writes the ‘Obrolan Bali Banjar’ column in the Bali Post – recalled that in the 1960s young people formed informal groups across ethnic and religious lines as a way of resisting the violence of the times. “These days,” he said, “we don’t have leaders, we have dealers.” The conclusion of the discussion was that young people need to assume leadership in civil society, and in particular that there should be an on-going conversation about urbanisation in Bali.

Meanwhile, Facebook friends of the indefatigable Susi Johnston – an American collector of Indonesian ethnic arts who seems to know a great deal about any topic you name – have been watching with fascination and horror her compilation of some 800 images of hotel and villa projects on work in Bali. Most of them are on the Bukit peninsula which is famously short of water and accessible only by one over-crowded road. Many of the projects are in hilariously bad taste; but it’s the huge number of them that has left many gasping for air. How much tourism can Bali reasonably bear, and how should it be managed? How many new hotels and villas does the island need in order to fit that plan, and what might they look like, if not like the stuff on Susi’s Facebook?

One example of thoughtful architecture in new hotel building, despite its location on the ecologically sensitive Bukit peninsula, is Alila Villas Uluwatu, which tries to reconcile two contradictory ambitions: luxury and sustainability. The notion of luxury implies excess – more cream (or space or time) than you need. At Alila Uluwatu, the smallest, cheapest room you can get is 291sqm; but the resort’s property is 14.4 hectares and hotel is surrounded with untouched savannah, with built space taking up only 40% of the land. This leaves a habitat for wildlife and safeguards air quality. That smallest, cheapest room has a private swimming pool, an ornamental pond in the garden, indoor and outdoor showers, and a fine big bathtub; the resort’s main pool is 50 metres long. But all that water is carefully managed. Water is collected and conserved with rainwater tanks. ‘Grey water’ is recycled through reverse osmosis tanks. The landscaping uses indigenous plants that require no irrigation. Energy is conserved through good design that allows light and air to circulate through buildings during the day, reducing the need for lights and air-conditioning and also by re-routing the heat generated by air-conditioning to heat water. The roofs are covered with volcanic rock that acts as a natural insulator and encourages the growth of vegetation. The architecture makes use of other low-impact materials such as bamboo and recycled wood from railway ties and telephone poles. Concern for social impact is expressed in the fact that round 40% of the staff are from the local community. And the hotel itself is almost invisible, so well is it integrated into the landscape.

Luxury need not be the ruling paradigm for tourism; but one can insist on high standards at all price levels – and apply green practices in all sectors of society. For example, with community planning, the clever water management system that recycles grey water from swimming pools could also be implemented in neighbourhoods to recycle grey water from household laundry and kitchens, warungs, beauty salons, car wash services and other small businesses.

The principles of traditional Balinese architecture can be observed without having to stick decorative carvings all over the place but instead by paying attention to proportion, functionality, and the provenance of materials.

Grand plans seem to run aground when they encounter the bureaucracy; but Bali has a built-in alternative resource. Its famous banjar system of local self-government on a neighbourhood level manages complex issues like marriage, divorce, land titles, and inheritance, and undertakes public works like the building and maintenance of temples and roads. The system of social mobilisation through banjars that in the 1970s convinced people to have only two children instead of many could surely be harnessed to convince people to separate their trash. Recycling is a far less intrusive program than birth control. This strong social energy could be co-ordinated within a large framework – a ‘banjar Bali’ that would have no trouble finding technical expertise and financial aid for projects if transparency could be assured. And transparency can be assured by online accounting, just as a banjar’s accounting is fully public.

Sometimes the tightly rule-bound banjar is a source of problems rather than solutions, such as when a family has a falling out with the banjar and is faced with cremating a family member without recourse to the community’s graveyard and ritual assistance. In response to problems like this, Bali’s first Hindu crematorium, the Krematorium Santayana, was founded by two Balinese intellectuals, Prof. Dr. dr. I Wayan Wita and Prof. Dr. I Made Titib under the auspices of the clan group Pasek Mahagotra Pasek Sapta Resi, Bali. It is owned and managed by a Hindu priest, Mangku Jero Dalem Babakan. By providing complete Balinese Hindu rituals at low cost to whomever would like them, the crematorium responds to the pressures of urbanisation on tradition itself. A young Balinese physician recently used the services of Santayana when his very elderly father died in Denpasar and it was forbidden to bring the corpse back to their native village in Bangli because of lengthy ceremonies going on in the village. The funerary rituals were completed in a day at about a tenth of the cost.

The founding of a Hindu-Balinese crematorium is a modern, strikingly urban initiative that crosses and softens boundaries. Tourists will hate the idea, of course; and conservative Balinese may worry that this is the thin edge of the wedge leading to the death of the banjar system altogether and thus the unravelling of traditional Balinese culture. Why, they might ask, would people go to all the expense and bother of participating in the banjar if they can get a Hindu cremation somewhere else and cheaper? To which you might reply, what other reasons are there for maintaining the banjar besides fear of the afterlife?

The urbanisation of Bali demands several kinds of contradictory responses: the need for local, even individual responsibility and the need to co-ordinate strategy on an island-wide scale; there’s a need for greater tolerance and at the same time for much stricter observance of rules that promote order and well-being. Above all, it demands imagination and courage to look at all aspects of life here on the island of the gods, to see beneath the surface and do some housekeeping.

As for the bright blue man and his girlfriends in Ashley Bickerton’s painting shown in these pages, it may not be immediately apparent what this has to do with ‘the real Bali’. The energy coming from the painting is rude and outrageous; the joyfully figurative iconography would strike some as wicked. But doesn’t this evoke the same blend of hilarity and violence that one sometimes finds in Balinese temple carvings, theatre and indeed ritual? The city is not afraid of the dark. Neither is Bali.