The Balinese Architecture of German Architect: Alexis Dornier
Alexis Dornier is a German architect who currently works in Bali, Indonesia. Standing in contrast to his lifestyle, background, and educational milieu, he experiments with architecture as a means of cultural exploration and to seek connection. We spent most of our time discussing Haus Flora, the process behind interpreting Bali’s culture and architecture, and the ways this work has intersected with his own experience.
Alexis Dornier (principal, Alexis Dornier) × Park Changhyun (principal, a round architects)
Park Changhyun (Park): You were born in Germany, where you grew up and later studied architecture. What caused you to settle in Bali and in what ways did you have to alter your expectations?
Alexis Dornier (Dornier): I ran a studio in Berlin for several years, and there were too many creative designers and architects at the time. The architectural field there was already over-saturated with practices and practioners and I didn’t think there was a chance of elevating my expertise or potential. Although I felt that it would not be a stage upon which I could demonstrate my strengths, I came to Bali incidentally on an errand to help out on the project of a friend. I came here out of pure curiosity, and I was actually very surprised at what I found. At that time, there was a demand for the designs of famous architects abroad, as few people actually worked on projects here. I felt that Indonesia was a land of opportunity. I had high hopes that if my abilities were recognised here, I would be able to influence architecture at an international scale.Before coming here, I worked at the OMA and experienced the ways in which sociological, behavioral and human entities could be represented in architectural spaces, which led me to rethink the cultural, climate, geographical, and genetic factors informing each local resident through the forms and expressions of architecture.
Park: I am curious about the culture and architecture of Bali from the perspective of a western architect.
Dornier: Balinese people are accepting of other cultures, set within a space that appears to have amassed cultural influences across various fields, including architecture, craft, and fine
art. At the same time, they have also taken every effort to preserve their native culture over the centuries. Changes within certain cultural fields has been very slow, especially in architecture, which was felt to have changed rapidly due to the influence of foreign countries. Efforts to preserve Balinese culture were made to honour tradition, but impeded progress and innovation. To capture an impression of the future respecting the past is an important issue in architecture, made possible by overcoming the fear of losing. The characteristics inherent to culture change all of the time, and architecture is a discipline and field that has evolved over a long period of time. No one can claim that it existed from the time of our origin. A rigid attitude to a creative climate that cannot accommodate change, likening it to ‘stagnant water’, occurs when one insists upon one’s own inwardly looking artistic spirit. Breaking out of this archaic cycle helps to advance architectural discussions about where the past and future might come to coexist. This requires deep consideration to understand what has existed, what characterises the present and how every period has been influenced by other factors.
Park: Tell me more about Balinese culture and architecture.
Dornier: There is a potent, rich culture here, especially in artisanal practices; a certain level of craftsmanship can be observed everywhere, such as in ornaments for celebrations. The formation of a culture is influenced by religion, especially in Hinduism, and the vivid storytelling elements of craftsmanship. Cultural and traditional celebrations through the lens of craftsmanship led to the field of architecture, making the content of architecture more interesting. The climate of the island, facing the sea, and the many verdant things cultivated by the island, and its many diverse landscapes are also reasons why I became interested in Bali. Many Asian countries are increasingly adapting to broader global change, willingly accommodating irreversible effects upon intrinsic aspects of their culture. I hope my work will also have a meaningful influence on regional culture and its people.
Park: The artistic spirit of which you speak might be reduced to an isolated outcome if it is not connected in various ways to the local climate or culture. With this in mind, what directions does your architecture and office pursue?
Dornier: Architectural expression is the result of closelyheld conversations and expressions of concern for various topics. In the end, design is determined by the mindset of the architecture, the conversations between the client and the architect, and the way the design team is operated. In particular, conversations with clients help them shift or expand their perceptions and thoughts by sharing personal tastes and opinions. At this time, if you insist upon adhering to a more artistic spirit, you can miss opportunities for collaboration and connection. I am also trying to lead the office through a process of sharing ideas and gathering opinions with project collaborators. I avoid creating lifestyle brands under the name of architectural design. Therefore, each project approaches different aspects such as functionality, sustainability, variability, and carbon emissions. Performing projects in different ways one each occasion has reduced the importance of improvised architectural forms.
Park: What is the architectural market like in Indonesia? How would you characterise what you have experienced? What difficulties did you experience before settling down in another country? And what particularly holds your attention in Indonesian architecture?
Dornier: The process of settling in another country was not easy. I had to find my own niche and find ways to contribute architecturally. I tend to target small projects that were self sufficient and funded by family-level homes. Both our small and large projects have gained recognition from the locals and have appeared to influence local colleagues. Therefore, we try to respect and treat everyone we meet here, including carpenters, construction workers, suppliers, and team members. While working here, I have been invited to talk about and discuss Indonesian architecture. The themes addressed were in concert with our work: generational theory according to form, loss of identity, the combination of various architectural elements, tropical architecture, Bali and Indonesia.
Park: What is the important thing you have talked about during the talks and discussions on Indonesian architecture?
Dornier: I spend a lot of time talking about understanding tropical architecture and its surroundings in relation to the geographical character and locations of Indonesian architecture. I’ve talked about unity through diversity in Indonesia, especially in terms of culture, religion, and various views and ideas on architectural design, but I did not specifically talk about the definition of architecture in Indonesia. I thought it was just a collection of various ideas. Therefore, I have questions about dividing cultures through the concept of a country or nation, and I think that approaching a more open understanding of culture beyond the boundaries of a country will naturally lead to a more nuanced understanding of the life of a particular country.
Park: Bali is a resort city visited by countless tourists every year. Bali’s architectural market and demand are quite different from that of other parts of Indonesia, and reckless development or damage is likely to continue. How do you view and respond to this as an architect?
Dornier: Bali is a city with a wide range of of attractions. This has an impact on architectural design. People are particularly attracted to economic returns because Bali is enjoying a great economic boom. These characteristics have a significant impact on the choice of architects and studio culture, which also leads to design. I agree that environmental preservation is such an important issue that development needs to be controlled. Indonesia has different jurisdictions by local government, making it difficult to reach an agreement. For example, wastewater management, infrastructure projects or plans related to natural resources can be quite challenging here. In Indonesia, public restrictions on development are generally weak, so the decision on this depends on individual choice. Therefore, I think it is incumbent upon architects to help clients recognise environmental problems.
View of the kitchen from the living & dining room
View of the kitchen from the corridor
The bedroom from the outside
The gladak pavilion on terrace above the roof
Park: Located in the Mengwi of Bali, Haus Flora is surrounded by a rice paddy and tropical palm trees. What was the most important design strategy when considering this environment? And how did you come up with the name Haus Flora?
Dornier: In everyday architecture, the ceiling usually determines the entire image of a building, and the roof helps to create the shape of the structure. Haus Flora is the simplest building in terms of its form of all the projects I have ever worked on. The difference lies directly in the plan. All rooms and spaces are surrounded by plants and connected through a row of columns. Independent rooms are completely buried in nature, leaving the leaves behind the wallpaper, and the plant itself is read as the commanding vocabulary and character of the building. The terrace above the roof blends with the surrounding rice paddy to form a wider outdoor space framed by nature. With swimming pools, decks, solar power generation devices and large gardens, the terrace is a functional space that wraps around the building, not the rooftop. The most important experience in this house is the transition between the spaces that lead inside and outside directed by the flow of the house. The name Haus Flora reflects the client’s opinions, taking its governing idea from the foliage around the house.
Park: The rice paddy around the site is a workplace for local residents, contrasting with the function of this house as a place of relaxation. Unexpected things can happen when residents farm right next to their residential space, but you did not design closed borders at the point along which the rice paddies and the site meet.
Dornier: In fact, this spatial composition is the opposite of a ‘general residential space in Bali’, which consists of a nexus of spaces or complexes. I always try to work with an experimental approach, no matter what traditional elements I use as design motifs. What I tried in Haus Flora was to replace the elements of the wall using grass and wood. We did not block the boundary of the house with a wall, but, like a puzzle piece, united the structure with its surrounding environment. I wondered what would happen when the entire building was open in all directions through the opposite approach; grass and trees surround the building, and the surrounding rice paddies change every minute. The light emerging between the corridor and these spaces not only create a beautiful and emotional atmosphere, but have also been reborn as a space that blocks outside eyes and stimulates curiosity.
Park: What concepts characterise this ‘general residential space in Bali’ and how were they brought to fruition in Haus Flora?
Dornier: This means understanding the organisation oa regional typology that produces architectural results. Bali’s residential complexes features an independent building or pavilion style structure contained within surrounding walls. Haus Flora set divisions between each room and talked about building elements as alternatives to the typical residential complex in Bali by allowing them to be integrated by building facilities.
Park: Haus Flora’s planar composition appears ogical and constructive. Why did you approach this through a formal framework, unlike the freer forms observed in other projects?
Dornier: While designing the plan, the abstract phrase ‘to get lost in the forest’ came to mind, and I decided to create a maze space in the form of crop circles (mystery circles) as seen from space. The kitchen is in the middle of the space and the rest of the rooms are placed like satellites surrounding it. The living room is located at the end, and each space on this site was planned to be separated at similar intervals.
Park: The flow of the moving line in the crosssection runs along the slope from the entrance to the end, and the floor height of the individual room is also handled differently. I wonder why you selected the materials used in this project and chose to apply them to the design considering the climate and environment?
Dornier: Haus Flora poses a stark contrast between the first and second floors. The rooftop ‘gladak’, which is stacked on the solid side of the first-floor mass, is an unusual shape that can only be seen in this area. The rooftop was intended to design not to recognise the boundaries of the actual building. The first floor combines the perfect horizontal line (the first floor’s ceiling) with the natural terrain (floor surface). The swimming pool is a space that reaches to the very end of the house’s copper wire, hidden inside the slab so that it does not command the entire image, and so that it can be integrated with the building. I also ‘dug up’ the slab to match the height of each room and adjusted the window height to reduce the amount of solar radiation. Conceptually, these plants were one of the main concepts behind the integration with the entire building, making them look like wallpaper or backdrops while maximising the sun shielding benefits of trees and plants. In order to reduce the use of air conditioners in major indoor spaces, the floors and ceilings have been constructed with concrete slabs that increased thermal blocking performance.
Park: Haus Flora is both a private home and rental accommodation. Nevertheless, the functional spaces such as bathrooms have been reduced to a minimum in each room and share access to the kitchen or living room. Why did you create this shared space?
Dornier: The owner of the building commissioned a private home that could be rented over a short period of time. This means that the house’s facilities and systems have been
designed to address both cases. The boundary between ‘separately’ and ‘together’ is not only a contrasting feature, but a very beautiful moment. I worked on this project, agonising over what constitutes a house in contrast to agglomeration, by which several houses are connected.
Park: What is the difference between Haus Flora and other housing projects you have designed?
Dornier: There are many ways of understanding architecture. Each time we work on a project, we group plans and sections into conceptual layers through different methods. I think it is to our great advantage not to stick to one approach. This residential design, moreover, seems to give people a real opportunity to inspire and to never stop exploring. I have actually een working on a residential building project as an abstract experiment through which people live and can change or add to over time. Haus Flora has a large space to create an additional interior space on the rooftop terrace, allowing it to change over the years and to be enhanced. This ‘unfinished’ architecture is an openended approach and has a new impact upon our work.
Park: Lastly, what has changed your practice the most since working in Bali?
Dornier: The perception or direction that constitutes our driving motivation to work in architectural design has changed. I have become more interested in topics such asustainability and enduring capacity of design at the same time as my focus on form has gradually disappeared. In addition, the process behind architectural design becomes richer and more diverse if reiterated across new forms. Long-lasting architecture is not fashionable.
Assist in interview: Han Seul Ju (Korea University, Department of Architecture)