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Fresh Air

Bali's Open-Air Pavilions Are the Inspiration for a Different Kind of Teahouse

May 18, 2003|Barbara Thornburg

English architect Tony Gwilliam credits the open-air pavilions of Bali for inspiring his outdoor rooms, called "T Houses" after the first letter of the designer's name and for their resemblance to the Japanese teahouse in their meditation-enhancing qualities. But his Southern California-friendly structures are simpler--typically consisting of four posts, a floor and a roof--than their Japanese counterparts and certainly less formal: "a place that doesn't get in your way," Gwilliam says. "The Balinese don't have a concept of a house the way we do. They build a series of simple pavilions for different uses--one to cook in, another to sleep in. Some are built just to sit and watch the world go by."

Gwilliam became enamored of sleeping in the open shelters on his frequent trips to Indonesia. "I love listening to the cicadas and bullfrogs in the nearby rice paddies and gazing at the Balinese moon," he says. On his return from a trip in 1997, he built one in his backyard in Ojai, then invited 200 friends to welcome it into the world. "In Bali they have a ceremony to bless their houses. They bring offerings, welcome in good spirits and appease the bad ones," he says. Friends read poems, played music, brought gifts of flowers, candles and incense. Soon they began inquiring about T Houses for themselves. "It became a business, which wasn't my intention at all."

The idea of building eco-friendly, low cost structures was familiar to Gwilliam. A student and later a colleague of engineer/inventor Buckminster Fuller, the father of the geodesic dome, Gwilliam spent more than four decades traveling the world designing and building energy-efficient structures--from Fuller's domes to folded paperboard shelters. He is currently building a small eco-village overlooking the rice paddies in Ubud, Bali. "What I learned from Bucky was to do more with less," Gwilliam says.

The pavilions of Indonesia are built of local woods such as merbau, teak and binki rai and topped with alang-alang grass roofs. Gwilliam makes them with local materials--redwood and Douglas fir. Roofs are made of a canvaslike water-and-mildrew-proof material. Instead of using hand-carved pegs, the structures are put together with carriage bolts and the canvas roof fastened on with bungee ties.

The 6-by-10-foot building weighs about 250 pounds and rests on four level stones, which keeps water from degrading the posts. Walls can remain open or be screened with roll-up bamboo or canvas blinds or wood-insulated panels. Windows, doors, sliding shoji screens, bookshelves and batik wall hangings can be added. "It gives a chance for each owner to customize his T," Gwilliam says.

The Original T comes in a kit that starts at $1,780 and is adaptable to myriad uses ranging from simple open-air dwellings for rest, meditation and yoga to such practical employment as offices, guest bedrooms, dining and playrooms.

One Gwilliam client mounds pillows in her T, hauls out the TV on warm summer nights and uses it as an outdoor movie theater. For Cuban American artist Carmen Abelleira-White, her tin-roof T, set up as a bedroom and painted in hot Caribbean colors, reflects her background as well as her art. "I go to my T several times a week to sketch or read--but it always ends up in a nap." Busy executive retailer Nina Terzian's Japanesque-T, overlooking a tranquil koi pond in Montecito and outfitted with a batik wall hanging, shoji screen and kotatsu (pop-up) table, is "sanctuary--a place I never take my cell phone." Investment banker Peter Banner's double-T, with roll-up bamboo shades, offers shelter from the sun next to his hillside pool in Malibu.

But Gwilliam still prefers his Original T--"without walls or accessories is the nicest," he says. "To get rid of everything is refreshing. Simpler things allow you to focus on life. When you start adding shelves you start to fill them up."

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Resource Guide

Tony Gwilliam, T House, Ojai, (805) 646-2421, or Web site: www.TonysTHouse.com. Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, Ojai, (805) 646-5511. Ojai guest bedroom: Kivet twin sheet set, $41.50; Kivet green quilt, $70; Kivet sham, $25.50; Kivet mug, $7; Kivet salad plate, $6; Jersey shag rug, $30; Sphere alarm clock, $20, all at Crate & Barrel stores. Montecito T House: Bordeaux silk pillow cushions, $85 each, at Warisan, Los Angeles, (323) 938-3960; Asian teapot, $45, at Pottery Barn stores.

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