Building Construction, Renovation, Maintenance & Advice

Building Design and Business Success

Perfectly Imperfect

I drove past a block of flats the other day, it reminded me of something. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first but then, of course, I remembered. It had the familiar look of an accommodation block I had seen in a few movies. I had a vision of the rows of wooden bunks along the inside walls where the inmates slept as they waited for their turn in the "showers".

Of course they don’t call them flats any more do they? The names the marketing people invent become ever more convoluted. Struggling to find something that sounds new and more exciting the vocabulary violators mangle and combine earlier words to create new names and replace perfectly good words that existed before. Not surprising they end up with an idiolect (or do I mean idiotlect) a verbal dog’s breakfast that doesn’t rhyme with puke but does have a tendency to throw up the texture, feel and smell of it.

The latest literary laxative created by our jargon jostlers combines the words condom (meaning a rubber covering for mens naughty bits when they want to do something naughty) and hotel (which, of course, comes from the French for hostel) so condomtel means a place where homeless men can go to stay as long as they walk around wearing thin pieces of latex they received from a French postal worker.

The design of this particular condomtel was, I have to say, somewhat underwhelming and I ruminated on the strict requirements for all buildings in Bali to be designed with elements of Balinese architecture incorporated in their design.

This design was obviously far too subtle for my meagre brain to fathom and I imagined the poor soul that designed it leaning against the wall with his wrist to his brow, lips puckered, sobbing and blubbering the words “no one understands my work, I will not compromise my standards, I will not, not, not!” Obviously a prime candidate for the local branch of AA the (Architects Anonymous).

But then I saw it. Of course, how silly of me, the swastika above the doorway. That Balinese symbol of wellbeing and the ongoing cycle of life, death and reincarnation.

I moved on satisfied that the requirements had been met.

Seeing such buildings is rather depressing isn’t it? They are going up on every street corner these days and our hard working Governor wants to do something but seems powerless to stop it. The streetscapes are changing fast and, while some who make money out of them cannot see (or perchance don’t care about) the damage they are doing, the rest of us find ourselves increasingly on a set from Hawai Five O or (God help us) Dallas.

Aaagh, wash my mouth out. I had managed to forget that dire piece of soap drivel years ago and had even managed to avoid finding out who the hell it was who finally shot that stupid wazok in the cowboy hat, what was his name? S.P. Ewing?

Has it ever struck you that if we get unwanted rubbish taking up memory on our computer hard discs (such as the endless torrent of wonderful emails offering treatments for our personal appendages that promise to make donkeys look under equipped) we are able to simply erase the offending bytes but once something is lodged in our brain cells it is a whole other matter isn’t it? Decades of interesting experiences or, failing that, substance abuse will never manage to shift an unwanted memory. Think what the world would be like if we could select and erase parts of our brains. Unfortunately cerebral reformatting is rather a serious business and has a slight touch of “fatality" about it.

So, now and forever, I am stuck with some totally wasted brain cells holding the images from a couple of episodes of the world’s most expensive drivel I was unfortunate enough to stumble upon. In these litigative times it is unjust that I am not able to sue a TV station for brain abuse or perhaps even cell squatting. Did you know that all across the world there are hostels for brain disabled Dallas survivors. Aha, is this is where the idea for the Condomtel originated?

So with this new spate of tenement blocks is Bali sinking to the lowest common denominator of building design? That remains to be seen but there is a ray of hope. Recently I came across a real breath of fresh air. Up on Jalan Raya Puputan in Renon is an impressive new building which very cleverly combines the best elements of Balinese design in a modern building. Of course we all have different tastes but I note that the local press are impressed and I have to admit I agree. This is a design that works, a fine concept and beautifully executed.

Finished in traditional red brick and stone with some beautiful carvings it stands as a reminder of the basic concepts that the best professional designers understand - the use of natural materials and skilled craftsmanship in the hands of a creative and sensitive designer.

A what?

A sensitive designer, you know, someone with an emotional connection to their work.

One of the joys of living in Bali is that we have such a wealth of traditional artistic skill around us and we can afford to live in buildings that are totally out of reach in more economically successful (for how long) countries. Here we can afford to have walls of natural stone or exotic timbers complete with elaborate hand carved decoration, this is real luxury and by using their skills we are doing our bit to keep the craftsmen employed and the traditional skills alive.

These days understanding quality and luxury is not as obvious as it was in the past. Many new materials have been developed which do tend to confuse the issue. There has also been a desire to maximise profits and reduce costs which has lead to avoiding the expense of good quality materials. Sadly I have to say I have seen many supposedly luxury villas in Bali that simply aren't. More and more hotels, restaurants and houses seem to be designed by designers whose design sense was learned growing up with a box of Lego. What is it that makes so many buildings look cheap or uninviting? Why is it that so many new villas look like council houses?

If you go into serious commercial premises however you will find that there are professional designers who really know their stuff. They know that people might not be able to consciously define quality but they do have a sense for it, people feel the difference.

It does cost more, of course, but if you are spending $600,000 on a house, come on, you should expect a little more than painted concrete walls and venereal chipboard cupboards now shouldn't you? Surprisingly I have come across a few people who read "teak" wardrobes and built in cupboards in their building contract only to find the word "veneer" has been accidentally left out of the final product.

The Balinese have a good eye for quality. They might not be able to afford it at first but they progressively work towards it in their building. Traditional houses often have a number of independent buildings in a single family compound. They start off with a kitchen and sleeping area and, as they have the money they add more buildings one at a time. They build simple at first then, as money comes in, they might clad the walls with stone, add some carved woodwork, build a nice Balinese gateway and a temple. As new family members come along more buildings may be added.

To a Balinese a house is probably always going to be a work in progress. Rather like an Aussie bloke with his shed, it is never really "finished" but continually evolving. It is an interesting way of doing things, note that painted concrete is classed as cheap and as wealth builds the trappings of luxury will be added when it can be afforded.

Talking to a highly respected restaurant owner recently the question arose “why is it that people will go into one restaurant but not the one next door”? It was pointed out that people who can really design good restaurants fully understand the need to create an ambience, an inviting atmosphere. They start by using natural materials and avoiding anything that is “fake”. They use stone rather than concrete (particularly concrete that has been sculptured and painted to look like something out of the Flintstones), exotic timbers and not veneered chipboard or that retch-ed wood grain laminate. They choose terra cotta, bamboo, cotton, rayon and leather rather than plastics and synthetics. Add the texture and imperfection of things that have been hand made by craftsmen and this adds further to the quality. Natural and hand made materials have a feature that is hard to substitute – imperfections. We are talking about materials that are perfectly imperfect. The final and probably most important ambience creating feature in any building is the lighting.

I'll finish with two examples. Many years ago I went into a pub in Brisbane, I do sometimes you know, but this was rather different. The floor was white ceramic tiles which continued up the walls right up to the ceiling. The bar was stainless steel with stainless steel refrigerated cabinets (no glass in the doors just stainless steel) in the wall across the back. The ceiling was white and the furniture was stainless steel and aluminium. There were no bottles or signs of any description visible. A stainless steel tap sat on the bar and it was only when the barman poured a beer from the tap that you saw any colour other than white or silver. Just to set of this exquisite example of mortician design the bar was illuminated, very brightly, by a battery of stark white fluorescent strip lights.

This pub was as appealing as an empty mortuary (even dead bodies would have added some warmth and colour). Three o'clock came and the pub closed and as I left this fine example of abbatorial splendour the staff started to "clean" it. An easy job, a pair of gumboots and a hosepipe, wash down the walls, bar, furniture and floor even the remaining drunks were all washed out the door.

In stark contrast I remember some enterprising people in Canberra who rented an old shop with damaged walls and old scruffy wooden floors. They built a bar out of old wood, a few old wooden shelves of dubious origin and an old knackered mirror behind the bar. Furniture? Off to the dump where they paid peanuts for any old junk tables and chairs they could find. Lighting was kept low key. Draft Guinness on tap and the perfectly imperfect Phoenix bar was packed from the day it opened.

We can only hope that those many flatels currently under construction might have a smidgeon of style and a little quality in their finishing, after all we are all going to have to live with them.

Copyright © Phil Wilson 2009
This article or any part of it cannot be copied or reproduced without permission from the copyright owner.

8 February 2017 Copyright © Mr Fixit,
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