In an island dominated by cultural tourism industry and internal politics of cultural identity, studies and public debate on the topics of built environment and architectural culture in Bali consistently evolve around the future of the island’s conceived traditional architectural heritage (see Wijaya c2002). Geographically, this question has been centrally framed in the context of the island’s rural settlements. The settlements, locally and discursively referred to as ‘the Balinese villages’ regardless of their current physical and social transformations, are also the main site of the island’s cultural tourism industry. With such a focus, topics of regionalism within both official and public discourses on built environments are typically dominated by quests for visual reinterpretations or preservation of the dominant ‘Balinese’ vernacular architectural language within contemporary built environments in rural contexts (Achmadi 2007). Questions of urban future, new class relations and middle class polities, and the balancing act between the new centre of political and ritual authorities on the island as these are explored in recent studies on regional politics of post 1998 Bali (Schulte Nordholt 2006, Reuter 2003) are rarely addressed within the discourses on Bali’s built environments.

In such a constrained field of inquiry, rapidly urbanising built environments outside the ‘villages’ — the island’s classical capital centres, the rapidly suburbanised environments outside the villages, and the colonial and postcolonial administrative centres of the island province — remains understudied. Largely unexplored are the ways in which these dramatically shifting environments compensate the local authority’s decision to conserve the ‘villages’ and the ways they accommodate historical and contemporary socio-spatial dynamics of the island that are largely unexposed to tourists. This means that these places are less framed according to, or ruled by, the dominant essentialist notions of Balinese traditional culture and environments.

This research is a preliminary exploration of historical and contemporary characteristics of regional cities and urban collectivism in Bali. Through archival research and ethnographic field observation, it explores the nature of past and current transformations of urban residential neighbourhoods and public spaces in these cities and the extent to which these urban dynamics mediate and are being affected by socio-historical transformation of the island’s population composition and political constellation. The first social historical transformation is one that is activated by a combination of rising population number and rapid internal migration within and into the island. This growth of population has been triggered not only by the development of the island’s cultural tourism industry and the designation of the island’s rural region as protected sites of cultural heritage, but also by the broader political dynamics of Indonesia (MacRae 2003: pp. 143-145; Ramseyer 2003, Schulte Nordholt 2007: pp. 7-8; Achmadi 2007, 2008). Such a social transformation is one of the contexts in which new urban collectivisms emerge on the island. Against these collectivisms traditional conception of social class is also being actively reinterpreted and reinvented (Reuter 2003). The second socio-historical transformation is an ongoing yet rarely acknowledged contestation of cultural identity in Bali’s regional cities. This relates to the tension among the island’s competing traditional elites (Schulte Nordholt 2007: pp. 79-83), as well as between the elites and the emerging cosmopolitan urban middle classes in defining contemporary Balinese identity.

By exploring historical and contemporary types of urban housing and public spaces in Bali’s regional cities, this project aims to, firstly, expand the contemporary debate on the island’s architectural culture and history beyond its traditional realm that is the vernacular ‘traditional Balinese village’. Secondly, it seeks to situate the debate on contemporary identity politics and regional autonomy of Bali within the dynamic context of urban inhabitation and urban built environments.