The Sacred and The Profane: Restoring Cultural Resilience in Bali

Alyssa Aisyah Hero Image Landscape
Lower Realm: Nature

The Indonesian Island of Bali has established its position as one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Its popularity started in the 1920s when the Dutch colonised Indonesia and cultivated a tourism strategy that has shaped Bali’s social constructs and physical domain. Tourism has replaced agriculture as the main contributor to the local population’s livelihood. And while there is no precursor for resorts as a building type in Balinese tradition, driven by the economics of modern tourism, resort buildings are reshaping the face of the island. They have not been designed to mimic but rather to convey or facilitate a consciously artificial reading of a place. One goes to a hotel to be deliberately treated to a simulacrum – a partial simulation of the real. This phenomenon has influenced the current touristic culture within the island and has affected the authenticity of Balinese identity, traditions, and values.

The thesis addresses the cultural landscape of subak, which encompasses the vast paddy rice terraces, traditional water irrigation system, and its congregation as Bali’s living heritage. Subak is the physical embodiment of Balinese fundamental traditional philosophies of Tri Angga that dictates the tripartite order and creates a hierarchy from the profane to the sacred through its water temple network, and the Tri Hita Karana philosophy, which is embodied in the locals’ rituals and way of life to create harmony and balance within their everyday lives. The project places subak, its system and congregation at its core and implements these two traditional philosophies into the design.

The project seeks to counter the notion of mass tourism by fostering community stewardship and prioritising the locals’ prosperity with subak rice terraces as the context. The subak system and calendrical rituals act as the generator of the whole framework through the collaboration of the agriculture and tourism sector. The project implements the traditional Balinese philosophies of Tri Angga and Tri Hita Karana into the design that establishes the tripartite hierarchy from the profane to the sacred within the landscape—consequently identifying three parts to construct a journey that conveys the three realms of the Balinese universe: Palemahan (Nature), Pawongan (Community), and Parahyangan (Spirituality). In the process, it aims to restore the socio-cultural values that have been diluted by decades of colonisation and followed by mass tourism.

By integrating the existing regenerative cycles of subak calendrical rituals and traditional concepts that are deeply rooted within the Balinese fabric, the project seeks to establish an alternative tourism model that builds a resilient local economy and is less reliant on mass tourism. Moreover, it supports the preservation of the subak rice terraces system itself, and in the long run, ensures the continuity of the heritage cultural landscape that has shaped the traditional Balinese social structure and values over the centuries. Unlike the resorts on the island, the project acknowledges the interconnectedness of various natural and social environments and is designed to give back to the land and the people. This process also allows visitors to experience the authentic Bali by placing them within the prevailing tripartite universe, from the profane to the sacred.



Correspondingly, the three stops within the journey provide spaces for the locals to perform subak calendrical rituals in order to preserve the traditional agricultural practices and the vast rice terraces that have become Bali’s cultural heritage for over a thousand years. The provision of these spaces places visibility and importance on the subak rituals; thus, the project encourages the regeneration of the subak framework and its calendrical rites, ensuring their preservation as the authentic identity of Balinese society. It will also help maintain the locals’ appreciation of the system and continue moulding it as an integral part of their lives and environment. This project aims to create an independent community while also enabling an alternative tourism model that can co-exist with the local agricultural practice.

The notion of going up to a more sacred ground is reflected within the sequence. It begins from the foothill that encompasses the rice terraces, moving up along the river and finally towards the sacred mountains in the island's centre. The journey is connected by a pathway tracing the hierarchy of the subak system’s water temple networks.


Finished Product

The first stop, placed at Nista or the lowest tier of Tri Angga hierarchical order, represents the Palemahan aspect of Tri Hita Karana that conveys the relationship between people and their environment. Responding to its context of the subak rice terraces, the structure serves as the centre stage that exhibits the subak daily and periodic rituals to expose their significance within the cultural landscape.

The second stop occupies the middle realm, or Madya, where people dwell. It embodies the sense of solidarity of the Tri Hita Karana’s Pawongan aspect through the ongoing collective efforts of stewardship. The complex allows visitors to participate in the locals’ daily routines that heavily revolve around the subak’s 30-week calendrical rites and their preparations to support the continuity of its framework. It places the visitors beyond the comfort of the threshold to experience the intricacies of Balinese life.

Lastly, on the highest tier of the tripartite journey, the third stop denotes Utama within the Tri Angga’s hierarchy. It represents the Parahayangan aspect of Tri Hita Karana philosophy. It becomes the bridge between people and their spirituality by providing spaces to connect with their inner selves and the gods through a sequence of self-purification rituals.


Critic's Text

Alyssa’s thesis focuses on the idea of developing a notion of sustainable tourism for Bali.

Following the lockdown of the global pandemic and the demise of tourism in the short term, the thesis explores the opportunity for a reset in the development of tourism in Bali, given the rampant development of tourist facilities in the 20th Century and its importance for the economy of Bali and Indonesia

The key to this thesis is through the careful analysis of the cultural landscape of Bali together with the philosophies of Balinese Hinduism to inform the architectural project across the selected site(s) and landscape of Bali.

To facilitate this development, the thesis is both a return to the traditions of Indonesia that have been missing or lost in the recent and sometimes insensitive development – argued to be unsustainable at many levels – as well as an exploration of these traditional concepts with a contemporary interpretation in both the form and the materiality of the project across the three selected sites.

Each site develops its own response along the lines of the requirements and siting of each project to build a progression from the sea to the mountains focussing on the Lower Realm: Nature, the Middle Realm: Community and the Higher Realm: Spirituality. It does so with both a delicate touch and a firmness of hand in the decision making process that Alyssa has brought to bear on the project with a thoroughly convincing portrayal of how tourism could develop that both recognises the needs of the tourist as well as provide them with a spiritual journey that embeds them in the culture of Bali.

-Craig Moller, supervisor