Rethinking ‘Tradition’ Through Contemporary Architecture in Indonesia
Reinterpreting ‘tradition’ and integrating it into contemporary practices is an enduring issue for many architects. This is especially true across Asia, where distinct forms of traditional buildings exist. In 2019, Yasmin Tri Aryani was awarded the M+ / Design Trust Research Fellowship for her proposed research into the ever-changing conception and application of what is considered ‘traditional architecture’ in Indonesia.
Below, we talk with Tri Aryani about her findings—from how ‘traditional architecture’ has been instrumentalised since the Dutch colonial era to how certain architects in Indonesia have exercised a more expanded notion of ‘tradition’ in the past decade.
What led to your interest in how ‘traditional’ elements have figured in contemporary architectural production in Indonesia?
I was initially interested in the increase of traditional villages being turned into tourist attractions in Indonesia. In 2015, I went to Wae Rebo, a village famous for its conical housing design. I discovered that most of the villagers actually only stay in those houses on weekends or public holidays. They have other, modern homes closer to the main road. I realised that some villagers keep their traditional houses for tourist income, in addition to conserving their cultural heritage.
Two years later, while I was studying at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, I read about the construction of seven cross-border posts in Indonesia. Many articles discussed the integration of traditional housing features in the design of these posts. I was intrigued. Why was it important for the government to display elements of traditional architecture in their contemporary buildings? How did the architects integrate these elements, and what were the implications of their approaches?
What were the main questions you wanted to address during the fellowship that may not have been tackled in your previous research?
My initial research into this topic showed how the integration of ‘traditional’ architectural features in the design of government-funded buildings led to unintentional marginalisation of ethnic minorities. Referencing indigenous architectural forms of a particular ethnic group did not equal representation of the cultural backgrounds of other ethnic groups actually living around the site. In my research for the M+ / Design Trust Fellowship, I’m interested in exploring more inclusive strategies of integrating Indonesia’s architectural traditions into contemporary architecture.
This time I did not limit my case studies to government-funded buildings. I tried to investigate privately funded buildings and architects’ self-initiated projects. What makes ‘tradition’ important in their practices, and how do their approaches differ from precedents? I also looked for shifts in the conception of ‘traditional architecture’ over time. I selected several early architectural projects—as early as the Dutch colonial era—to see how the use of traditional architecture in Indonesia has evolved.
You’ve chosen to focus on the influential concept of arsitek nusantara as a lens through which to understand how ‘tradition’ is interpreted in your case studies. What are the origins and implications of this term?
The term arsitek(tur) nusantara became influential after Josef Prijotomo, an Indonesian architectural academic, introduced it in the late 1990s. Roughly translated, it means ‘Indonesian archipelago architecture’. The term was conceived after 1998 when the authoritarian reign of President Suharto ended, and Indonesia was hit by an economic crisis as the rupiah exchange rate to the U.S. dollar plummeted. The Indonesian government started the ‘I Love the Rupiah’ movement to ignite a sense of nationalism by asking citizens to voluntarily choose the rupiah over the U.S. dollar. Similarly, Prijotomo’s concept of arsitektur nusantara opposed ‘Western’ architectural knowledge in favour of Indonesian building traditions and advocated these traditions as foundational knowledge for contemporary architectural production in Indonesia.
Prijotomo’s idea of arsitektur nusantara derives from Indonesian architect Y.B. Mangunwijaya’s idea of wastu, introduced in his book Wastu Citra (1988). Wastu is a building science that goes beyond buildings to also address the interdependence among function, aesthetics, cultures, humans, and the environment. Mangunwijaya did not necessarily differentiate the architecture in Indonesia from that of other countries. He suggested sifting the virtues from different cultures and eras, embracing them to form the identity of architecture in Indonesia.
Since the start of the Dutch colonial era, the integration of traditional architectural elements has often been based on top-down instructions from the government. However, arsitektur nusantara offers a bottom-up approach, as reflected in many architectural practices in Indonesia in the last decade.
How, then, has ‘traditional architecture’ been framed in architectural practices, from the Dutch colonial era, through independence, and up to contemporary times?
During the Dutch colonial era, traditional architecture played a significant role. At colonial expositions, replicated or imported traditional architecture represented regions that belonged to colonial powers. When these buildings were displayed next to European architecture, the ‘traditional architecture’ of the Dutch East Indies was framed as backwards, static, and of the past.
However, there were other architectural works created around the same time that reflected different attitudes towards the traditional architecture of Indonesia. One example is the 1918 design of the ceremonial hall of De Technische Hoogeschool te Bandoeng (now known as the Bandung Institute of Technology) by Dutch architect Henri Maclaine Pont. Pont went beyond the formal imitation of the roof forms of Sundanese architecture. He implemented the structural make-up of these indigenous roofs with sensitive use of new construction technology and building materials that were suitable for local climate and labour.
After Indonesia became independent in 1945, the first president, Sukarno, was inclined towards using international and modern architecture for nation-building. However, the second president, Suharto, seemed to re-instigate the Dutch colonial government’s strategies by using ‘traditional’ Indonesian architecture to represent the nation. This could be seen in the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (‘Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park’), where indigenous houses were chosen to represent each province across the country. Many government buildings also exaggeratedly replicated the roof or building forms of indigenous structures.
But some buildings designed by foreign architects during this time did demonstrate different ways of approaching Indonesia’s architectural traditions. Two examples are Paul Andreu’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and Paul Rudolph’s Wisma Dharmala Sakti tower in Jakarta. Both projects are characterised by roof forms that reference the pitched roofs and canted overhangs of traditional and vernacular buildings in Java, integrating them as part of the airport infrastructure and corporate skyscraper typology, respectively. The airport’s plan was also designed to reflect the layout of local village clusters.
A similar approach was also demonstrated by Indonesian architectural firm Atelier 6 in their design of the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel in 1980. They applied the Balinese building traditions of Desa-Kala-Patra, emphasising the flexibility of the villagers to reinterpret and transform their traditions to fit changing needs.
Another approach was exercised by Y.B. Mangunwijaya, who integrated tradition by using the skills of local craftsmen (tukang) in contemporary building construction. This sustained not only the craft traditions but also the livelihoods of the craftsmen and labourers behind them.
These examples of reinterpreting and adapting architectural traditions were considered alternatives to how traditional architecture was explicitly mimicked in the design of other public buildings.
What are the highlights from your field trips to look at the more recent generation of architects? Did you observe any shifts in the reconception and application of ‘traditional architecture’?
It was through my field trips that I found new ways of thinking about my research questions. Before I went on these trips, my knowledge about my case studies was shaped by the architects’ explanations as published in mainstream media. Most architects mentioned names of traditional houses as their inspiration. I thought that they were likely repeating the strategies of the crowned-by-traditional-roofs government offices—replicating ‘traditional’ elements without transforming them or paying attention to local contexts. However, my field observations invalidated my assumptions. They revealed alternative approaches to the embodiment of ‘tradition’ in contemporary architecture, which, in return, opened up new ways of perceiving it.
One example was my observation of the Islamic Center in West Tulang Bawang, a regency in Lampung Province. The Islamic Center consists of a cultural hall and a mosque. The architect, Andra Matin, mentioned in a lecture that the roof of the cultural hall was inspired by the traditional stilt houses and nine-peak headdresses of Lampung. I expected to see monumental buildings that did not resonate with the traditions of their surroundings; ones to which traditional elements had been added as superficial ornaments only.
It was my first time visiting Lampung Province. I was so excited that I recorded my journey from the airport to West Tulang Bawang. While recording, I started to realise that there was a similar architectural language in most of the houses I passed. I knew that Lampung was very ethnically diverse, having been a destination in the government’s transmigration programme since the Dutch colonial era. So I was surprised to see that there was little diversity in the types of houses I saw during my three-hour drive.
I still saw the expected symbols, such as the shapes of traditional Lampungese headdresses, displayed in front of most government offices. But as I arrived at the Islamic Center, I realised that this particular reference could only be found in the number of roofs. The more overt reference laid instead in their overlapping arrangement, which was part of the common architectural language I’d seen during my drive. In comparison to the government offices, with their clichéd display of traditional headdresses, this was an incorporation of tradition that was more relevant to the actual community that the building served.
This overturned my previous conceptions of ‘traditional’, ‘vernacular’, and arsitektur nusantara. Matin confronts the idea of simply replicating the architecture of a bygone era that’s recognised as traditional by the Indonesian government. His design shows that to represent the identity of an area is to be sensitive towards the traditions exercised by the people in that area.
Another discovery occurred when I went to the village of Ngibikan in the Special District of Yogyakarta. I met with the foreman of the area’s craftsmen, Maryono, a long-time collaborator of Indonesian architect Eko Prawoto. The village was devastated by an earthquake in 2006. Prawoto helped rebuild it by designing a basic adjustable house plan that could be tweaked to fit the diverse needs of every household. Its earthquake-proof design resembles a technique used in Javanese kampung houses.
In this case study, integrating ‘tradition’ was not only about architectural design. At the time, Maryono was the only village resident adept at construction. He taught and encouraged the other villagers to collectively rebuild the houses rather than wait for outside help. This communal work is called gotong royong in Indonesia and is a tradition in many villages. Implementing architectural traditions, therefore, is not just a matter of the buildings themselves; it’s about sharing knowledge and educating others so that customs can be continued.
These findings direct me back to Mangunwijaya’s wastu. The essence of architecture is not only about the building, the function, or the aesthetic. In Ngibikan, it was also about reviving the gotong royong tradition that allowed the villagers to help and empower each other.
There has been a huge shift in terms of the driving force behind the integration of traditional values. It has gone from a top-down approach by the government to a burgeoning bottom-up approach initiated by architects. One noticeable difference in the latter, for example, in the absence of conspicuous elements of traditional houses. This bottom-up approach has also affected the way that such elements are perceived by the government. Some of the case studies even show government acceptance of the architects’ strategies.
The case studies in my research demonstrate how architects transform traditions to conform to today’s contexts. They have used them to fight the marginalisation of craftsmen, to minimise energy usage and waste, and to develop a more inclusive architecture that embraces the cultural diversities in the Indonesian archipelago. This has resulted in architectural works that are in dialogue with their surroundings and create a sense of familiarity for the nearby populations.
The case studies also show that being rooted in tradition does not mean disregarding architectural knowledge from other parts of the world, or shunning the use of the latest technologies. Instead, it generates an architectural approach that can always be true to its context, not only in Indonesia but also in other countries throughout Asia and around the world.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories.