We reveal how to spot real Balinese architectural design for your next visit to Bali

We all love staying in those quant boutique Balinese villas. Their wonderful hand carved wood finishings, the high roofs allowing the warm tropical air to breeze through and the beautifully laid out gardens with frangipani flowers effortlessly dropping into the turquoise waters of an infinity pool.

Everyone recognizes Balinese architecture instantly when they see it. It has become an international architectural buzzword that attempts to capture the eclectic mix of traditional Balinese architecture and modern design that came about with the emergence of Bali as a thriving tourist destination. 

However, with the rapid development of the island, how much has the traditional way of building been incorporated into the luxury villas and bungalows many visitors inhabit? Has modernism overtaken tradition and are the same boutique villas, complexes and bungalows we stay in now simply empty vessels, devoid of the rich cultural and animistic sensibilities that Balinese builders have incorporated into their structures for generations? After all, by law, all buildings must incorporate elements of Balinese architecture into their designs. So how authentic is all this really?

We may not have the answer, but read on and you’ll learn a bit more about this fascinating topic so that on your next visit to Bali, you can have a stroll around your villa, resort or holiday complex and check for yourself. For those who are visiting housing, social or temple complexes of the local Balinese you’ll be interested to read on. It’s an interesting topic that will make your stay so much more enriching and give you a deeper appreciation that in Bali below the surface, there is always so much more to discover.

Balinese Traditional Architecture

The Bisma Eight Hotel in Ubud, combining traditional design and material with modern features

Balinese architectural style in practise

Before any building in Bali is constructed an IMB (Ijin Mendirikan Bangunan) must be issued. What is interesting is that besides the usual bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome regarding zoning, permits and neighbourly consent; the IMB specifically requires the builder to incorporate elements of balinese architecture within the design of the building. In addition to the building being earthquake proof, they are also not permitted to be higher than 15 meters; or the height of the proverbial palm tree. As a certain U.S president has found out, these rules are actually implemented.

However, before we delve into these topics, when we say traditional style, what are we referring to exactly? This remains an area of ambiguity. Nevertheless, any serious architect must have an understanding of the rules set out in ancient manuscripts. So whether one is a hipster architect designing the next superstar home in L.A or a casual visitor staying in a ‘traditional balinese villa’, it is worthwhile to examine in a little more detail exactly what traditional balinese architectural style is.

Traditional style in modern times

The rules regarding the construction, orientation, spatial layout, design and many other features are laid out in ancient manuscripts written in the Kawi language. This language is not used in everyday life anymore and is much the same as sanskrit in india, which is reserved for prayers, sacred texts and ancient documents. Therefore, the true understanding of these manuscripts are limited to priests and other specialists with the training to interpret such texts and are only consulted when there are disagreements or misunderstandings about the application of the rules. This would generally take place during construction of more significant buildings such as temple and housing complexes.

While these manuscripts are available to anyone in the village, suffice to say, the carpenters learn their craft from the knowledge and experience that is handed down to them from generation to generation rather than through any formal induction into these ancient texts. The question remains then whether the buildings constructed today, in response to Bali’s booming tourism trade, have had a loose interpretation of the texts; especially when designed by international designers with their own interpretation of Balinese architectural style. Here we’ll show you what are some of the main elements so you can have a stroll around and see for yourself.

Spatial orientation and layout

Life in Bali is spatially oriented towards the central mountainous area where the islands’ three large volcanoes are situated. One above all others, the ‘mother mountain’ or better known as Mount Agung, is the most significant of all. It is the home of Lord Shiva, the most superior of Gods with immense powers of destruction and creation. It is a central focal point of the religious and cultural orientation of all Balinese and its recent near eruption a sign that the Gods were displeased. 

Its influence is also felt in the orientation of buildings throughout Bali. The orientation of buildings is known as ‘kaja’ which contradicts with ‘kelod’ which is the orientation towards the sea; the abode of evil spirits. Furthermore an eastern orientation is superior to a western one, and therefore depending on where you are in Bali, buildings will be oriented towards the mountains and in an easterly direction. This would be the most auspicious direction with the ‘back’ of the building housing the lesser areas- toilets, trash, animals or livestock, and the ‘front’ higher placed buildings, shrines and living quarters. For example in south Bali, where most tourists reside, the orientation will be towards the north east, and in north Bali buildings would have a south-easterly orientation. The family temple therefore will generally be situated in the most auspicious corner of the building, nearest to the mountains and the eastern horizon.

Balinese Traditional Architecture

Spatial layout and dimensions 

Traditional Balinese animistic beliefs also prevail in the spatial layout of buildings with their open courtyard and pavilions and odd numbered measurements. For the Balinese, animistic beliefs dictate that spiritual energy passes through buildings meaning that compounds are very much ‘alive’. Such spiritual energy can be either divine, human or evil as per the way the world is ordered and ranked into these three distinct parts. Spiritual influences therefore enter and exit compounds and other buildings at the corners, which doesn’t refer to physical openings in the walls, but simply any interconnected parts of buildings. To ensure that the transitional spaces through which spiritual entities flow are not blocked, they are designed and built with odd numbered measurements rather than even numbered measurements. Odd numbers therefore mark the presence of points of transition into and out of buildings through which spiritual entities travel. What this means is that the lengths of walls are measured in odd numbers, or the space between them are an odd distance. Any even numbers in relation to the structure and walls will results in a spiritual blockage.

The free flow of divine spirits through these areas and throughout the building structure is vital in maintaining life, as any blockage can result in illness or death. Special ceremonies are performed to undo any potential blockages and a final ceremony upon completion of the buildings called the rite of malaspasin is done to ensure the free movement of spiritual energy.

The presence of open spaces and courtyards in the building all play an important role in keeping out evil spirits and ensuring the free movement of spiritual energy. Within these open spaces are placed various guardian statues and shrines which house the guardian spirits of the house. These are usually found at corners, cross-roads and other transitional areas through which potential evil spiritual energy can pass. Whilst nowadays, modern architecture has brought tropical landscaping to these open areas, these spaces were not originally designed in order to create a nice backdrop for the infinity pool. Therefore, you may want to take another look at the layout of the garden, the walls surrounding your villa, any interconnected points, the position of shrines and statues to double check that your holiday is blessed with a good flow of spiritual energy.

Lastly, an interesting feature of the actual construction process is that traditional balinese measurements are made with body parts. While you might see builders measuring with modern tools nowadays, in traditional construction the limbs of the owners body are used to determine the measurements of the house. More specifically the distance of the owners arms from shoulder to the end of a clenched fist, from shoulder to the tips of his fingers, his foot, a hand, a pinky finger, middle finger, and even the width of a foot. Therefore, if you find the dimensions of your villa a bit out of sync with the industrially manufactured top-of-the line furnishings, well now you know why.

Materials in construction 

The use of traditional organic materials is fortunately a consistent feature of much of contemporary Bali’s architecture, both for reasons of ease of supply but also for practicality. Thatch roofs are a mainstay of many Balinese buildings- made generally from elephant grass, coconut leaves or rice stalks, they provide natural insulation from the heat and ventilation, are generally light and easy to put up. Finns Beach Club is a fine example, its sprawling bamboo main pavillion building is entirely covered in thatch providing a welcome respite from the heat for its cocktail sipping crowd.

Wood, especially teak which is used for the creation of posts and buildings supports, and wood from coconut trees which provides a malleable and versatile building source, are both traditional mainstays on the island. Traditional edicts determine that the wood must be locally sourced and can be used for decoration- which as a consequence has created a rich tradition of woodcarving, perhaps one of Bali’s best known artisanal crafts next to stone carving. Teak often provides the support for the traditional open pavilions so common in Bali and the rest of Indonesia. Those open, high roofed and open-plan layouts that easily ventilate away the tropical heat and are the centre of social activity.

The use of rock, specifically volcanic rock is a common feature, not only because of its abundance but also because of its incredible insulating properties. The porous structure of the rock allows hot air to enter and be stored during the day, and to be expelled in the evenings. It is therefore often used for the construction of building walls, also given its lightweight properties. The Bulgari Hotel is perhaps the best example, this ultra-luxury five star resort situated on the southern tip of Bali was built with all the modern features and trappings of a luxury 5 star resort. It’s 59 villas however feature black volcanic rock interior walls to keep the hotel guests naturally cooled easily combining the best of tradition and uber-luxury.

Balinese Traditional Architecture

Traditional Balinese design and today's modern architecture

Where the hammer falls with regard to the implementation of Balinese architectural style in new building construction, is in the eye of the beholder. Purists will lament, progressives will rejoice at the misnomer that is ‘Balinese architecture’ and the question of authenticity will be endlessly debated. Catch-all terms aside, the reality is that ancient manuscripts, local craftsmen and modern day architects continue to thrive in a creative co-existence with neither one seeking to replace another in a way that is always refreshing, modern and yet typically Balinese. With a bit of your new found knowledge, you’ll easily be able to pick out interesting features, supposed irregularities and traditional cultural influences in the boutique villa, hotel complex or bungalow that you may be staying in during your next visit to Bali. As with most things Bali, once you scratch a bit below the surface, there is always so much more to discover.

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