RICHARD NORTH-LEWIS
ARTICLE
 
 
Changi Class - Singapore Changi Airport
 
 
Terminal 3
THE MURAL AT CHANGI AIRPORT IS AS LONG AS THREE FOOTBALL PITCHES
AND WEIGHS AS MUCH AS 3,000 ELEPHANTS
 

 

ALMOST TWO YEARS AGO, in February 2008, British-born, Bali-based artist Richard North-Lewis stepped back to survey his newly completed bas relief in Changi Airport’s sparkling new Terminal 3, and found himself looking at the biggest project of his career. The mural, carved from a fine, creamy-white Javanese sandstone and depicting the natural world – tree frogs, peacocks, ferns, manta rays – was colossal. It measured 360 metres in length (exactly three football pitches), 10 centimetres in depth and weighed, says North-Lewis helpfully, ‘as much as 3,000 elephants’.

 

It was a particularly large milestone in a career that has taken the artist, designer and art director – ‘I’ve always been interested in doing lots of different things’ – all over Asia. Right now he is working on the new Raffles Hotel in the Seychelles, for which he is doing the stonework and curating the art in the public spaces; designing private villas in Bali; hoping to get stuck into the new Chinawhite Delhi (‘They’re waiting for the things to settle down in India, so I don’t know what’s going to happen’); and working on plans for his own hotel, a 22-room exercise in Boho-chic that he hopes to open near his home in Jimbaran, southern Bali, sometime in late 2011.

 

In fact, he was brought up in one. His paternal grandmother owned The Lamb Inn, a small, traditional country house hotel in the exquisite, honey-coloured village of Burford in the Cotswold Hills, one of the great stone regions of Britain. He lived three until he was 14 years old. ‘I was aware of all the stone in the Cotswolds, hard not to be, ‘he says now. ‘Though I didn’t really think about it at the time. But I suppose I was influenced by it, at least subconsciously, in fact I’m sure I was.’

Not for a long time, though. His father was posted to Cyprus as station commander of RAF (Royal Air Force) Akotiri, a strategically significant air base that housed the gigantic nuclear bomber aircraft called Vulcans. North-Lewis, parked at prep and public schools in the classic British fashion, never had to take a scheduled flight home. ‘I always took whatever RAF aircraft was going from the base at Brize Norton,’he remembers. ‘Me and the Queen!’

He started his career as an art director in London, later moving to Los Angeles just as music television was taking off. MTV needed 24 hours a day of non-stop music TV and North-Lewis found himself – along with Brits such as Ridley Scott, who went on to direct Bladerunner and Alien and Adrian Lyne, of Falshdance and 9 1/2 Weeks fame – making music videos.

One was for an ambitious young singer called Madonna, then a curvy 20-something Italian-American, just about to release her first album. The video was Borderline, which reached the Billboard Top 10 (the album went gold in the US and UK), and North-Lewis not only got a part in it – as a photographer – he got to kiss Madonna. “ My daughters never let me forget it,’ he says wryly. ‘Madonna was not the Madonna we know now. She was a bit of a bratty teenager, really; very talented, very ambitious and a great dancer. None of us realized how big she was going to be.’

Seven years in LA was enough, though, and London was grey and cold. An anthropologist friend, Lawrence Blair, who had edited his new volcano film Ring of Fire in North-Lewis’ flat, invited him to stay in Bali. ‘I came out for a couple of weeks and never went home, he remembers. ‘I was lent a house, a bamboo geodesic dome suspended beneath eight palm trees in Seminyak. There was nothing there. You ate nasi goring (fried rice) or nasi goreng. No phones, no faxes. You left a pad outside your house and people would leave a note if you were out. If you were in they’d come and stay for a week. There were very few foreigners; it was wonderful, warm vibrant, Bohemian. The colour, the noise, being outside, I loved it.’

He started renting houses and designing, gradually starting to work with stone. He met and married his Javanese wife, Anjar (they have three daughters, aged from seven to 14) and moved to Jimbaran. The stone work began to attract more notice. ‘Asia’s been good to me,’ he says. ‘I suspect in London I would have been building roof extensions in Fulham.’

 
     
  NORTH-LEWIS: THE HARD FACTS  
 
  • Age 56
  • Family Married to Anjar with daughters Jessica (14), Annabel (11) and Caitlin (7)
  • Home Near the Four Seasons Hotel in Jimbaran, Bali
  • Hobby Diving on the neighbouring island of Lombok
  • See his work: Check out the Youtube video of Borderline. See stonework at the KuDeTa restaurant in Kuta, Bali, the Matahari Luxury Super Condos in Kuala Lumpur and Four Seasons Hotel, Singapore and architecture at Bali’s Beji Villa and Pasraman Bhagawan private resort. And, of course, Changi Airport Terminal 3.
 
     
 
 
A TWO-WEEK SOJOURN IN BALI WITH NO PHONES AND FAXES BECAME A PERMANENT MOVE FOR NORTH-LEWIS
 
 
 
He cites two of favourite projects - in years of working for resorts and individuals across the world – as Chinawhite in London, a rare foray West, for which he supplied Balinese interiors and stonework, shipping them over and installing them before returning home; and Amanjiwa, the award-winning Aman property near the Buddhist monument of Borobudor in Java, itself a striking mini-mountain of dark basalt. ‘I did the lobby stonework, ‘he say, ‘And without question the work was influenced by Borobudor, you could see it though the lobby. Amanjiwa isn’t new anymore, but it’s still one of the most beautiful, tranquil hotels on earth.’
 
 

Still there’s no getting around the fact that Changi Airport was the daddy of them all, a project that took five years to complete and involved setting up a dedicated workshop had to be quarried in metre-square blocks, keeping the colour consistent. It was carved by a team of 30 masons in the workshop, assembled, numbered and shipped to Singapore for re-assembly. In the meantime, Yogya suffered an earthquake and Mount Merapi erupted, raining down fine ash (‘I thought it was snowing’) and causing them to abandon the stone.

It got there in the end and the only thing that worried him about the re-assembly was getting the numerous pieces of calligraphy perfectly aligned. ‘I love calligraphy, ‘he explains, ‘I used phrases in 16 languages in mural, Thai, Sinhalese, Hindi, Japanese… I love the idea of taking ancient script and making it really big. It’s powerful when you blow up words, make them huge, ‘The calligraphy aligned, the mural made headlines and North-Lewis can say, hand on heart, that he used to be rock’n’roll, but now he’s just rock. The old glam habits die hard.

Meanwhile, plans for the new hotel continue. Will he own it? ‘of course, I’ve always wanted to own a hotel of my own.’ Will he run it? ‘God, no! We’ll get a management company and my wife wants to be involved. I’m going to sit under a mango tree with a strong martini.’