His name is so rare that Hollywood filmmakers call him to ask if they can use it. He tells them humbly, “Of course”, not asking for anything in return. No mention in the credits. No visit to the set. No customized Adidas Sneakers with his name on them, like the ones Bill Murray wears as Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic.
Arriving at Zissou’s
It’s confusing, somewhat reclusive behaviour to some. But when Zissou opens his front gate and welcomes me into the scenic beauty that is his home, up in the hills just 15 minutes by scooter from Ubud, I understand. He doesn’t need sneakers – he barely wears shoes. In fact, it doesn’t seem Zissou needs much at all. He told me this the first time we met at Deus; all of us dancing, slightly inebriated. Even then, I was sure I understood: We live in Bali, we wear shorts and t-shirts, we don’t need much. But now, in his home, I really understood.
“Every time I let go of something, I feel I become richer.”
Zissou has pushed the purist ideal to its maximum, yet not the smallest thing is missing. The atmosphere is welcoming and warming. His house embodies a lifestyle revolution where one lives in the in-between spaces without ever having to leave the right spot.
His house lacks a doorbell. It has no door latches, no frame-joints. No doors, and no windows. No balcony or terrace, no walls, not even a set of stairs, and yet it feels more like a home to me than any other house I’ve ever been in. Zissou built the house himself, he tells me. With a few other people helping, of course, since he had never built a house in his life. Beautiful people who helped him turn his ideas into a reality and who were ready to work on a vision that could change daily, sometimes even while they were building. And since he didn’t know exactly what it was he was building, he just kept going until he felt it was right.
The path to new ways of living
He tells me about his time before Bali, when England was his home. He worked designing high tech toys, a job he loved but that did not fulfill him, until moving on to animation. One day, he was sitting in front of his screen watching 6 weeks of hard work flutter by in the form of exquisitely-detailed sanitary pads for a TV commercial, when he realized, quite suddenly and with total clarity, that he could not possibly waste one more second of his precious lifetime on such endeavors.
Friends and family watched skeptically as he packed up his few belongings for the move to Bali. They told him he was running away again. He told them: “Maybe I like running”. He left without knowing what to expect, what he would do next, how he would make a living, or where he would actually live. But he left anyway, ready to embrace whatever awaited him on the other side of the world. He arrived in Bali, made friends, and stayed.
“Every experience will become a story we can keep for ever.”
He has a lot of stories to tell and I listen carefully, trying to repeat the words back to myself so as not to forget them. He talks quickly but with exquisite clarity, every syllable pronounced in typical British fashion, but in his own uniquely relaxed way. As he talks, he lets his eyes dance along the lines of the the wall-less rooms.
Building a home
After two years in Bali he had decided to build a house. Somewhere out of the way, close to nature, hidden from the hustle and the crowds. Not really knowing at that point how long he would be staying, and still ready to leave at the drop of a hat, he wanted to build something simple. Something low-cost, something quick, not a house or a property he would feel chained to. So he rented a wild piece of land for some years and developed a way of building without significant investment or obligation. He dove in and did what he knew how to do best – create.
“A home isn’t defined by its boarders. It’s a place where your spirit sets free”
He started building his house in the same way he created all other sorts of things. Randomly, he says, embracing where inspiration takes him, curious to see what will follow. Almost everything Zissou is surrounded by transforms through him into new ideas. In one particular material he seems to find endless inspiration – he discovered bamboo and started exploring its every strand and fiber.
Except for 10 metal screws, Zissou’s home is made entirely out of natural products; 95 percent of it is bamboo. Bamboo posts hold the roof while sliced and pressed Bamboo make the floor, benches, bed, kitchen, small containers, power-switches and even the straws we use to drink coconuts (fresh from his garden, of course).
Continuing creative exploration
Zissou loves to develop toys that make life more fun. Things that help us find resonance with ourselves. Things that distract from the stresses of our headlong-rushing world, in which we run from one appointment to the other while leaving our kids to themselves and their Ipads. Zissou built bamboo training weights as well as a bamboo violin (which I can’t seem to stop playing around with), a flute, a football, a partner xylophone, and beach-ball rackets. His plans for more are endless.
We sit and talk on a wooden bench in his garden, near the edge of a cliff, enjoying the mind-blowing view. No fences, no security guards, just a few hundred meters straight down. Below us, a river rustles gently through the valley. For a moment we stop talking, captivated by the beauty of the rice fields all around us and the jungle crawling up the other side of the valley. To our left, Mount Agung rises majestically, drenched in the fading orange light of the setting sun. Later, we kick a football made from woven-together bamboo leaves through the garden until it flies accidentally down the cliff. It doesn’t matter, he says, smiling; I have many more.
“There is always something new and exiting to discover.”
Zissou takes pictures with his camera and draws fantastical figures in his sketchbook while talking about his passion for life and beauty. About his desperation with humans who seem to learn so slowly. About how indescribable his first night in his new home was, how deeply ingrained in his psyche the sensations from that night have become. Listening to the sounds of the forests around him and having birds constantly flying through his bedroom.
While the house took 3 months to build, it kind of built itself, he says. I look around as he describes the process, and kind of understand what he means. Living-space and the natural world melt seamlessly into each other, a perfect vision of living as close to nature as possible. No fans are used, no air-conditioning is needed. Its very construction lends the house to a soothing climate. I find myself thinking of Gunnar Asplund, a Swedish architect, born in 1885, who dedicated most of his life to exploring the in-between spaces. He would have adored Zissou’s masterpiece.
The house is all but devoid of accessories. It doesn’t need them. The way he has managed to take care of every little detail is high art in itself. My eyes can’t seem to get enough. Again and again, I cast them about, making new discoveries everywhere I look. The power-plug covers, the boxes over the light-switches, the wind chime that rattles gently every now and then in perfect harmony with nature.
These days, Zissou spends his time engaged in Creative Exploration. He calls himself a photographer, designer, sustainability advocate, and documenter of the ephemeral. (I would add Architect to his list.)
Without looking for anything, he found his home in Bali, on the island of gods, on the island of the mystic powers, in a place of bursting life and seemingly endless possibilities. Zissou is the type of person who grows through Bali and who lets Bali grow through him in return; never knowing what’s coming next, but always ready to jump into it and enjoy.