During his childhood in war-time England, Tony Gwilliam learned to tell the difference between German bombers and fighters over the wailing, searchlight-streaked night skies of London. He vividly remembers Victory gardens, gas rationing books and the shrieks of air raid sirens. He also remembers the extreme frugality of post-war Britain where he first learned his ecological chops.
Gwilliam’s book Far from Boring is an eye-witness chronicle of postwar Britain, the early years of the sustainable living movement and the development of environmentally conscious architecture from someone who actually lived it. A singular combination of memoir, earth friendly field manual and ideological manifesto, this diminutive little book is a refreshing and nostalgic read from the moment it is freed from its curious embossed handmade tin box, each copy numbered as if it were a rare lithographic print.
The book is an intensely personal story, illustrated with a multitude of photos, snapshots and drawings of the places, friends and events in his life. Beginning with no less than a history of the universe, Gwilliam takes the reader on a zig-zagging odyssey through the globetrotting life of a creative Englishman who has explored all four corners of the planet for inspiration. In the process of becoming an architect, Gwilliam meets influential mentors who help him along the way. He was in the thick of the very start of eco-living and steadfastly abided by its principles throughout his entire life and career.
Reproductions of his birth certificate, astrological chart, black & white photos of parents, baby photos, school report card, childhood homes and his childhood war years attest to a fascinating life accumulating varied experiences, anecdotes and artifacts.
Many of Gwilliam’s ideas were revolutionary and quite prescient at the time. His amazing journey covers his architectural education, his discovery of three-dimensional geometry, his travels to the USA and decades-long apprenticeship with Buckminster Fuller, a noteworthy guru of American hippie communes building improvised geodesic domes out of scavenged sheet metal, tarpaper and plywood. Following in Fuller’s footsteps, Gwilliam became an unabashed champion of hard-core environmentally friendly technologies and green alternatives.
In California, he founded Tensegrity International and T House. He made a foray into Mexico to build schools, a lecture tour to Australia to promote inflatable structures, his return to UK overland on the “Kathmandu Trail” to London where he taught at the Architectural Association and created the Mantainer suitcase for living and finally to his experiences co-creating the Bloo Lagoon eco-resort overlooking the small seaport of Padangbai in far east Bali. This culminating physical achievement of a life dedicated to sustainable living demonstrates that Gwilliam is not just a man of progressive thinking, but also someone who gets things done.
From the start, taking a green approach in his east Bali resort was essential for Gwilliam and his talented wife Marita who took two years designing a sensible, comprehensive micro village, a man-made living organism that offers health to the planet and to its inhabitants. Structures are open and honest, built with consciousness-raising in mind, and all achieved without shouting “We are green!”
Though it constitutes more a small work of art than a book, this curious little artifact also contains invaluable tips on sustainable practices. It is a manual of how to build and maintain a green hotel and a treatise on responsible living. His resort aims to reduce its carbon footprint by producing more energy than it uses, distributing the surplus back to the local power grid. But Gwilliam doesn’t just blindly adhere to environmentally responsible systems if they aren’t practical or logical.
The emphasis is always on affordable, natural and effective solutions. In some cases, technology isn’t advanced enough to accommodate his vision. For example, he advises against drilling a well if there’s too much rock or if you have to drill too deep. He’s against installing solar water heaters if they’re too heavy for tile roofs or erecting bulky wind turbines if they’re too noisy.
The book is also a blisteringly honest assessment of Bali’s investment climate in which officials extort by inventing the need for additional licenses and permits at every stage of a project’s construction. Fees for license renewals, each requiring inspections, seem never-ending. Everybody has their hand out.
The ending pages pay tribute to the international mix of 12,000 guests who pass through the Bloo Lagoon each year without whose patronage the resort would not survive. This last section is filled with the joys, regrets, reminisces and triumphs of an old man. He has broken hearts and has had his own heart broken. He gives tribute to people who have influenced him – friends, students, teachers, lovers and ex-wives who have passed through his long life, including Eka who “pilfered our monies,” and Ketut “who married his Dutch girlfriend.” The book fittingly ends with a photo from a page in his old Youth Hostel card that he used while roaming the continent in the 1960s.
The book’s packaging is fun. If it didn’t contain so much valuable information, this innovatively produced book would merely be termed ephemera in the book trade. Except for the first 30 pages, you have to read the book sideways because the type size is only legible if the pages are oriented in landscape mode. Some text and captions that are superimposed on photos are irritatingly difficult to read, which is frustrating as they contain supplemental information not found in the text.
Far From Boring is not just an item of collectible memorabilia with short-term appeal, as its initial impression suggests, but a little treasure with long-term usefulness. A pioneer of earth-friendly architecture, the author takes us on a worldwide multimedia tour starting from the early days of ground-breaking sustainable technology. His memoir’s layout is unique and creatively executed with idiosyncratic visual images that enhance the idealism of this visionary architect who was drawn more to bringing about a hopeful outcome for humanity than to making money. Highly recommended for anyone interested in travel, architecture and the art of sustainable living.
Far from Boring by Tony Gwilliam, 1st edition, self-published 2015, ISBN 978-069-248-4470, 528 pages. Available for Rp. 250,000 at Ubud’s Ganesha bookstore.
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