Story by Sky Barnhart | Photography by Nina Lee
It doesn’t rain often in Makena. But when it does, it rains hard—right into the middle of one family’s home.
The Balinese-style house is built around a central courtyard, with all rooms open to the elements. The rain flows off the pitched roof and runs along the stone walkways and soaks into the lawn and the Zen garden in the middle.
The home’s occupants traverse the covered corridors between living spaces, enjoying the rain without being out in the wet. “Luxurious camping!” the owner calls it. “You’re outside, but you’re inside.”
Rain coming from the sky is just another form of water in a house that literally flows. Two enormous black granite fountains greet visitors at the entrance. Another fountain flows the length of the open-air dining room, this one mounted with huge birds in flight, water dripping from their wings.
The fountains are all replicas of historic Balinese sculptures. Outside the master suite, another fixture spills water into a calm reflecting pool that smoothly merges into a larger pool—an edge-of-the-world pool, beyond which the ocean beckons from behind a waving fringe of palm trees.
The result—the sensation of a house floating on water—was the aim of its designer, world-renowned architect Tan Hock Beng of Singapore. Beng specializes in gracious tropical living. In this, one of his first projects in the United States, the architect paid tribute to all five natural elements: water, wood, stone, air and fire.
The restful and musical properties of water provide the home’s underlying theme of tranquility, while wood and stone balance it with a solid, grounded feel. The massive front doors are African mahogany, so heavy they must be bolted open. The decks and the platforms in the outdoor showers are teak, set above black river rock. Slate, granite, travertine and tumble stone are used throughout, along with marble and tile.
All that stone can be a challenge for those inclined to barefoot elegance. “The proper thing in Hawai‘i is to take your shoes off when you walk into a home, but it can be very hard on your feet to walk all day long on the stone,” says the lady of the house. “It doesn’t bother me, but some people like to wear rubber slippers.”
The element of air is evident in the home’s wide, open rooms and soaring ceilings. Fire is an accent in the black stone torch pillars that jut up from the pool, blazing at night like balls of Pele’s fire, their reflections bright against the glassy water.
The harmonious design creates the kind of setting you wouldn’t want to leave, and that’s just what happens for the owners. The family of five spend much of their time in Malibu, California, but they return to Maui frequently, often bringing with them a few lucky friends.
“We call it ‘the black hole,’” the owner says. “Once we get here, nobody leaves. We do a big market run and just cook and talk and enjoy each other. Everything we want to feel is in this house.”
The most popular gathering place is the outdoor barbeque kitchen—an inviting poolside pavilion with a custom grill and polished wood table. The family gets together to watch the sunset and have dinner, a long evening that often winds up with everyone reclining on chaise lounges in the courtyard, looking up at the stars.
When they crave some privacy, family members can retreat to their individual “pods,” suites that are each outfitted with a sunken whirlpool tub and coral-rock outdoor shower.
The daughters’ rooms open onto secluded patios planted with red ginger and ti, sloping up to sunrise views of Haleakala. The master suite opens onto a teak deck, looking out towards the ocean. A winding trail of paving stones leads along a terrace to a daybed tucked among the palms and bromeliads, piled with gold and burgundy cushions, fit for lounging royalty.
“We consider the house to be artwork, not a regular home,” the owner says. Such a work of art requires maintenance: a regular retinue of gardeners and caretakers to tend the grounds and water features, along with careful attendance to the wood and stone.
Accented by eye-catching rust-red columns along the walkways, the house has served as a striking backdrop for catalogue modeling and commercial shoots. A photo of the luxurious great room splashes across the cover of Hawai‘i: A Sense of Place, a lushly illustrated coffee-table book by famed interior designer Mary Philpotts McGrath.
McGrath’s firm, Philpotts & Associates of Honolulu, embellished on the Far East theme. Exotic furnishings and décor from China accent the spacious rooms. The elaborate hand-carved beds in the daughters’ rooms are from Indonesia, as is the massive four-poster hung with cream-colored curtains in the master suite. Treasures like an ancient Chinese gong standing guard outside the front door make you feel as though you’re entering a palace or temple.
It’s such an unusual house that the owner says she had a few moments of hesitation before they signed the final papers to purchase it. “I thought, ‘Could I really live here?’ It’s almost scary because it’s so open, you’re essentially outside. But it’s completely protected, and it feels so good here . . . you’re in a meditative state from the time you walk in.”
Peace and quiet is what the family craves—a complete change from the hectic life they live in California, where the eldest daughter is in high demand as a celebrity stylist and life-and-style editor for various Hollywood publications.
Here, there is such tranquility that, rather than disturb the inhabitants of the master suite, you can leave a note in a carved wooden slot on the side of the door. Rather than padding around the house to turn on the lights, you can touch a single panel, and soft, recessed lighting immediately illuminates the space. Instead of flipping on the air conditioning, you can relax and let the warm breezes blow through the open rooms and the overhead paddle fans do the rest.
“I’ve never been to Bali,” the owner says, “but I feel like I never need to go there.”
When you have all the delights of the Far East—minus the monsoon season—who wouldn’t want to stay put?