THE HOUSE THAT THEO BUILT
With all the sadness and grief that came from Bali, Theo fought hard to put his thoughts aside, and what made it worse was his knowing there was nothing he could do about it. He had to grin and bear it as distasteful as it was to him. He found it best to put his energies into his work rather than succumb to self-pity and regrets, and he had to stop questioning himself, that he had done the right thing by leaving Bali and deserting his friends. No, he had his work, his painting, but there was also something else he wanted to do and kept putting off, and that was to finish the designs on the Thai house he wanted to build.
Some years before, in anticipation of building a house one day, he had bought a tract of land on the bank of the Ping River eight miles north of Chiang Mai. When the lot was nothing more than weeds and overgrowth, he and Yattlie would walk the property and pace out the dimensions of their house. The imaginary house became a dream.
Theo had shown me preliminary sketches of the house when I went to visit him and Yattlie when they were still living at Wat Dorn. I could see it was not going to be an ordinary house.
Theo knew exactly what he wanted. The idea came in part from a house that Jim Thompson had assembled on a klong in Bangkok. Thompson was an American businessman cum architect who revitalized the Thai silk and textile industry in the 1950s and 1960s. It wasn’t long after Theo settled in Thailand that Thompson put together what was to be the highlight of his architectural achievement, a new home to showcase his art collection. The house was formed from parts of four old farmhouses that he bought up country, and which had to be dismantled and moved to Bangkok. The house was completed in 1958.
The Jim Thompson House, as it came to be known, wasn’t Thompson’s only architectural achievement. He also built in Bangkok, under the same principle, another Thai house for his friend Connie Mangaskau, an antique dealer. It too became a showpiece, and Connie, too, became a legend.
Theo outlined his plan to me as we sat on the floor on the veranda at Wat Dorn. He spread out his artistically crafted drawings before us, and then to hold them down from a breeze blowing on the verandah, he grabbed my Mekong glass, of course after making me down the drink in one gulp, and placed the glass on one corner of the drawings and put his hastily emptied glass on another corner. His toes served the purpose for the other corners. He called for Yattlie to bring a paintbrush, and when she did, it became his pointer. His traditional Thai house came to life.
Theo took the concept of the Jim Thompson house and expanded it. The floor space had to be right, with ample room for a studio, as well as the ceiling height. He liked high-beamed ceilings. He needed light, plenty of light, yet he wanted the place to be surrounded by trees. That meant it had to be high off the ground, ten feet or more, He wanted a guesthouse and separate cookhouse, plus other quarters for servants. The only modern thing about the house would be a tiled bathroom with tub and shower, and a toilet that flushed.
Much as Jim Thompson had done, Theo wanted to buy old Thai traditional houses and move them to his property on the bank of the river. It sounded like a monumental task and I wondered if the Mekong and soda was speaking. The question was-could he pull it off for Theo wasn’t a Jim Thompson with unlimited funds. But I should have known, you couldn’t underestimate Theo Meier. The next time I visited him and Yattlie they announced they had what they wanted. After months of searching they found two one-hundred-year old houses that would fit Theo’s scheme of things. The fact that one was a hundred miles away in the Mae Taeng District did not bother him. He had workers dismantle the houses with care, marking each timber frame and transport them all to their new location, the empty lot on the river. Now all he had to do was assemble them.
The next thing I heard the construction project had begun.
“It all came possible, financially, overnight,” Theo said. “I had come into some money for building the house from the proceeds for the sale of my paintings at an exhibition at the ‘Karlsburg’ Italian Restaurant in Basel, a restaurant belonging to my friend Enea.” With the money from the sale he was now prepared to make his dream house come true.
- Photo caption on page 219 of the book: Theo’s handwritten sign on the gate marking the entrance to his house in Chiang Mai.
I was most anxious to see the new house, and when I did, I thought it was a Theo painting come to life. It was that grand. It was exactly as he had planned and sketched it. “I have to give credit to Yattlie,” he said. Without her I could not have done it.”
The house was unpainted teak, stained red, suspended high above ground on huge poles. Around the house were gardens with flowering plants and patches of bamboo as seen in Chinese paintings. Statues and carvings were everywhere, and all seemed to blend with the pattern. Balinese carvings made up the eaves at the edge of the roof and lintels above the doors. Most carvings were demons, the protectors and “good” demons from the Ramayana story. For decorations Theo brought many pieces direct from Bali. For others he scoured the local market which included many priceless antique pieces. Mrs. Banyen, owner of the largest antique emporium in the north, was a great help. Theo had great respect for Mrs. Banyen. A hill tribe girl who came to Chiang Mai on her bicycle right after the war selling her wares. She then opened a small shop on Wulai Road which continued to grow over the years. All Theo had to do was tell Mrs. Banyen what he wanted and he got it. If she didn’t have it on hand, she had it made up.
- Photo caption on page 220 of the book: Theo’s Traditional Thai house in Chiang Mai that he had constructed from old houses he bought upcountry.
It was strange, indeed, for me to be invited by Theo to stay in his guesthouse on the river, and to awake in the morning and momentarily forget where I was. I’d look up at the rafters and ceiling overhead-there were carvings everywhere. It was weird and beautiful.
The river gave the house its mood. In the early morning at dawn a soft mist rose up from the water and lent a feeling of mystery to the place. In the evening Thais on the opposite bank came down to the water to bathe and you could hear their gentle laughter.
- Photo caption on page 221 of the book: Yattlie, Theo’s wife, was instrumental in designing their Thai house in Chiang Mai. Here she is, clowning around, coming down the steps.
The whole experience of a visit with Theo was something not easily forgotten. I found myself surrounded by a dream that seemed unreal. It was not only the house and environment he created, it was the overpowering dominance of the man himself He radiated authority and you knew immediately if you said something contrary to his belief, He was not going to let you get away with it. I recall taking a Japanese photographer, Mike Yamashita, to visit Theo one evening. The photographer made some innocent remark about painters which no one took seriously, except for Theo. Ten or fifteen minutes passed when Theo, for no obvious reason whatsoever, got up from his chair, walked across the room, and punched Mike right smack in the nose. I had to get Mike out of there before Theo bounced on him again. It’s interesting to note that Mike became a staff photographer for National Geographic magazine, and one of the highest paid photographers in America. Mike was very understanding why Theo did what he did. He was aware of what Theo had gone through during the war.
- Photo caption on page 222 of the book: Everyone had fun at Theo’s parties but he topped them all. No one had more fun than he had.
I arrived at Theo’s house another time just as he was putting the finishing touches to three large murals which now hang in a hospital in Heidelberg. In some remote way the paintings might be the reason Theo punched photographer Mike Yamashita in the nose that night. The three murals depicted the Balinese version of how disease came to earth and how it can be cured. Theo had completed a series of similar Bali paintings, although much smaller, which were confiscated by the Japanese and put aboard a ship sailing to Japan. He watched the ship bombed in the Straits and go down with his art. He hated the Japanese after that.
The new murals were truly a masterpiece. Each panel stood seven feet high and four feet wide. When Theo first heard about the legend for the cure for illnesses, he became intrigued. It told of the Balinese version of the Sudamala legend from the Indian cultural area. In time the legend became the basis for folk medicine in Bali. The impact of the legend hit Theo hard. Theo explained to me the legend, which he did with great theatrics, with arms waving, with his whole body acting it out while pointing to the images on the murals. Sir Laurence Olivier in Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” could not have done better.
- Photo caption on page 223 of the book: Theo himself prepared his three murals-depicting the cure for illness-for shipment to Switzerland. Each panels was seven feet high and required special care. I took these photographs when Theo was creating the mural.
“On a lotus-throne on the mountain of the gods sits Siva,” Theo explained with emphasis-“the mightiest of the gods.” He continued, now with the tone of sadness. “One day, he felt compelled to test the fidelity of his wife, Uma. He pretended to be ill, and asked her to obtain for his cure the milk of a white cow. Uma descended to Earth, and there met a cow herder with a white cow and a calf. Inflamed with the beauty of the goddess, he would not supply the milk she required unless she granted him her favors. Hesitating, full of shame and guilt, she eventually consented. She had no inkling that Siva himself had assumed the guise of the cow herder. The gods begged Siva not to receive Uma back in Heaven for her body, polluted through sin, would upset the cosmic equilibrium. Siva thus exiled Uma to Earth whereupon she changed herself into a demon, the Goddess of Death. Corpses became her food; but the supply was soon exhausted. Then she begged the God of Fire, Brahma, whose throne is a volcano, to grant her magic powers through which she can make people ill, and cause them to die.” After listening to Theo that afternoon, I walked away exhausted, completely wrung out. Maybe limp would be a better explanation. I could imagine now, after listening to his heartfelt explanation of the Balinese cure for illness, not only the effort but the emotion as well that he put into the paintings. Such creations for Theo were not merely an act of simply applying paint on a canvas. They were pouring out his soul.