Bali’s architectural dilemma: Tradition vs progress


Typical Balinese house. Bali is struggling to strike a balance between traditional and modern architecture. Source: Elena Kitch/Shutterstock

TOURISM is the lifeblood of Indonesian island, Bali. While there are, of course, many local people living there, over 50 percent of their livelihoods are powered by the huge inflow of visitors that drive the island’s economy.

Each year proves to be a record setter for new arrivals with more than 6.5 million flocking to Bali’s shores this year. That’s up from 5.7 million the year before and 4.9 million in 2016.

And it’s showing no signs of slowing down with the Indonesian government targeting 20 million visitors in 2019; an anticipated 8 million of whom will be to Bali.

But it’s not all upside in this crusade for tourist numbers. The influx of outsiders, and the development that inevitably comes with them, is posing a conundrum for this relatively small island that finds itself grappling between tradition and progress.

Bali culture

Bali has a very unique culture, different even from other parts of Muslim-majority Indonesia given its predominantly Hindu population, a religion that still holds significant influence in shaping the island.

Nicknamed the Island of the Gods, Bali is inextricably linked to spirituality and harmony, much of which is expressed through its art and design. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its distinct architecture.

Balinese architecture is one of the most recognisable architectural styles, popular not just in Asia, but globally. It has a distinct flair for being in harmony with nature and encapsulates the Balinese laid-back approach to life.

But with huge numbers of tourists and an insatiable taste for bringing in tourist dollars, the island is struggling to prevent this unique style from being lost to the ages.


The Casablancka House in Kelating, Bali. Source: Budi Prabono Architects

Tradition vs modern

Developers are wrestling between preserving the spirit of the island, or embracing modern – often cost-effective – styles.

Among those are, of course, the Balinese themselves who want to maintain local values but are also embracing global trends, chair of the Bali Province Cultural Development Institute (LIST), Dr. Ngakan Acwin Dwijendra told a seminar at the 2018 Art, Culture, Design and Architecture discussion in November.

These local values are important to look after as “they begin to shift in all fields of art and culture, including architecture,” he said.

Bali architecture

Traditionally Balinese architecture is known for using local materials to construct buildings that reflect local traditions and the centuries-old Hindu-influenced design, with ancient Javanese elements.

But their architecture goes well beyond purely aesthetics and practicality.

A Balinese designed home is created around seven pillars of philosophy, which encapsulate Hinduism, and communal-based social relationships.

The whole concept is geared toward creating harmony and balance between the three elements of life – human, nature, and gods.


The Casablancka House in Kelating, Bali. Source: Budi Prabono Architects

Each space is organised based on the Hindu concept of Guardians of the directions, each god representing a different point on the compass, and each space arranged in increasing order of sanctity as they approach a central zen space known as the akasa.

The “sacred axis” between mountain and sea is also a major design factor.

Any true Balinese design must master these philosophical concepts.

But anyone who’s been to Bali will be familiar with the sleek, modern design common in glass and concrete dominated holiday villas.

Property prices

As visitor numbers continue to peak, property prices have skyrocketed.

Terje Nilsen, Principal of Harcourts Seven Stones, explains to Williams Media that prices in popular beach areas such as Seminyak and Canggu have increased by 300 percent in a short period of time. He called this inflation, “totally unrealistic and not sustainable.”

Despite this, building hasn’t slowed and the Bali villa market is now almost at saturation point with listings sitting on the market for six months to a year, if they manage to sell at all.


Modern luxury villa with swimming pool in Bali, Indonesia. Source: Artashes/Shutterstock

Striking a balance

Rather than continue down the path of build-by-numbers holiday homes going up across the island, Dwijendra is encouraging developers, whether big companies or just families building their dream home, to take this opportunity to strike a balance.

Innovation and creativity can be used to incorporate Bali’s unique design philosophies into new builds that cater to people’s modern needs. Not only this preserving local wisdoms and beliefs, but is also a way to stand out from the ever-expanding crowd of villas for sale on the small island.

One perfect example of this fusion is the Casablancka house, designed by Indonesian architect Budi Pradono.


The Casablancka House in Kelating, Bali. Source: Budi Prabono Architects

The house was envisioned as a modern interpretation of traditional Balinese buildings, with both bamboo and concrete structures coming together to make a whole.

The building is also in keeping with Balinese design as it utilises organic materials and seeks to enhance the connection between internal spaces and the surrounding nature.

Pradono is not alone in their desire to incorporate the best of both worlds, as demonstrated by other recent projects such as Andra Matin’s Katamama hotel and Alexis Dornier’s Roam co-living complex.

The aim of such buildings is to avoid losing what makes Bali so special – that elusive allure that draws tourists to its shores in the first place.

As Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, president of the Bali tourist information office, told Le Monde:

“Tourism is a reality that is linked to the attractiveness of our culture; if mass tourism evolves in a way that threatens this culture, our specificity will disappear.”

Source: Bali’s architectural dilemma: Tradition vs progress

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