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17 Sep, 2020 / by Yasmin Tri Aryani

Rethinking ‘Tradition’ Through Contemporary Architecture in Indonesia

Oval-shaped bamboo building surrounded by two other buildings on either side. It consists of two storeys with thatched roofs and a porch that goes around the bottom floor.

Alfa Omega School in Tangerang, Banten, is mainly made of natural materials with a more advanced approach in creating passive cooling systems. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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?

A group of several small houses with conical-shaped thatched roofs in a grassy area. A forest-covered mountain is in the background. People are milling about the houses and a small group is gathered in the foreground.

Wae Rebo Village in East Nusa Tenggara. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

An illustration in white on black depicting seven buildings, each one labelled with its location. A drawing of a man’s head and torso is in the bottom left corner. It’s labelled ‘Joko Widodo, the President of the Republic of Indonesia’. A speech bubble from the man says ‘Development in Periphery > 2016 - 2017 7 BORDER POSTS Aruk. Entikong. Nanga Badau. Wini. Motaain. Motamasin. Skouw.’

The seven national border posts (pos lintas batas negara) of Indonesia. Drawing by Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

A woman sits cross-legged on a mat spread on a wooden floor in an open-air space. She holds a recording device to a man who is speaking while sitting cross-legged beside her. They are surrounded by a group of people also sitting or standing on the mats and wooden floor.

Interviewing the head of the West Tulang Bawang regency. Photo: Ld. Abd. Shalim Tehupelasuryi; Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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?

View of the roofs and sides of a group of buildings. Low metal roofs turn in an L shape around the wooden side of a building with a pattern of rectangular wooden panels and windows.

The various facades of Wisma Kuwera, designed by Y.B. Mangunwijaya. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

View of the interior of a wooden building. An open-air space surrounded by a railing is to our left. To our right is a ceiling and wall with bamboo panels.

Mangunwijaya bought bamboo shades from a local craftsman and used them for ceilings, doors, and walls. This way, he appreciated the craftsmanship and his transformation of the shades lessened the material waste. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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?

Monochrome photograph of a building made using a synthesis of traditional Indonesian building elements, including a tiered tower rising up from the right of the entrance. Above the photo is printed ‘Exposition Coloniale Internationale — Paris 1931’, and beneath the photo is printed ‘170 Pavillon des Pays Bas — Façade Principale’.

The Dutch colonial pavilion in the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. It presented a synthesis of different traditional building elements from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Photo: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

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.

A large building with multiple large roofs. The front and back tips of the roofs are distinctively pointed outwards. The building is surrounded by greenery and two people stand on the road next to it.

The ceremonial hall of the Bandung Institute of Technology designed by Henri Maclaine Pont. Pont referenced roofs of Javanese traditional houses. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

The ceiling of a large interior space. The ceiling is covered in light-coloured panels and is held up by a structured network of wooden beams.

Even though he was inspired by traditional Javanese houses, Pont applied a more technologically advanced technique in creating the structure of the ceremonial hall. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

A collection of buildings behind a red-and-black fence and curved hedges. The buildings have dramatic curved roof structures with multi-tiered, upswept gables.

Life-size Minangkabau traditional houses displayed at Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park in Jakarta. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

Ink drawing on vellum paper of a building with rotated floor plates and deep, canted overhangs, borrowed from traditional Indonesian dwellings. These overhangs shield offices from direct sunlight and provide terraces on all floors while giving the tower a striking silhouette. Planters cascade towards the forest of paired structural columns supporting the podium-level atrium, making the building a vertical garden.

Paul Rudolph, Exterior perspective, Wisma Dharmala Sakti (Intiland Tower) (1982–1990), Jakarta, Indonesia. 1984. M+, Hong Kong, © Estate of Paul Rudolph / Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

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’?

A wooden building on concrete pillars with nine overlapping gable roofs stands on our left close to a pointed, almost triangle-shaped stone building on our right. In front is a man-made body of water with a concrete bridge diagonally crossing it.

The Islamic Center in West Tulang Bawang, Lampung, designed by Andra Matin. The complex consists of As Sobur Mosque and a cultural hall called Sesat Agung. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

Aryani's visit to Lampung Province
Aryani's visit to Lampung Province
0:15

A video of Aryani’s journey that shows similar roof arrangements in houses in Lampung and the Sesat Agung cultural hall. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

A small stone building with four overlapping gable roofs. The two centre roofs are placed one on top of the other.

The overlapping roofs of houses in West Tulang Bawang that Aryani captured during her trip. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

A large house consisting of two parts with large wooden doors, each with a large wooden gable roof, joined together. A dusty yard is in front of the house and trees are visible behind it.

Eko Prawoto provided an extendable house plan for a household that comprises more than one nuclear family. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

A woman stands in a village next to a motorbike, adjusting a box fastened on the back of it. A man stands in the foreground and watches her.

Maryono organised the initiative to collectively rebuild the houses in Ngibikan village. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

A large house with a large wooden gable roof. A large fruit tree is in front of it, with its leaves almost covering the top of the house.

Houses in Ngibikan village that were rebuilt collectively after having been demolished by an earthquake. Even though they have the same basic design, each house has its own characteristics, created through the use of materials leftover from the previous homes. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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 exterior of a wooden house. A stone path and small staircase with an elaborate stone rail topped by two small potted plants lead up to the house’s porch.

Eko Prawoto reuses several second-hand Javanese traditional houses for his home. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a wooden building filled with shelves and racks holding books, artworks, jars, kitchenware, and various other objects.

Architect Yu Sing Lim reuses a Javanese traditional house for his architectural workshop, Studio Akanoma, in Bandung. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a room with two bookshelves and two chairs. A doorway on our left is open to a small porch right in front of a wall of vegetation. The other walls frame large open windows with wooden shutters.

Architect, archivist, and gardener Yoshi Fajar Kresno Murti’s house is predominantly made of second-hand materials. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

The exterior of a wooden house. A stone path and small staircase with an elaborate stone rail topped by two small potted plants lead up to the house’s porch.

Eko Prawoto reuses several second-hand Javanese traditional houses for his home. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a wooden building filled with shelves and racks holding books, artworks, jars, kitchenware, and various other objects.

Architect Yu Sing Lim reuses a Javanese traditional house for his architectural workshop, Studio Akanoma, in Bandung. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a room with two bookshelves and two chairs. A doorway on our left is open to a small porch right in front of a wall of vegetation. The other walls frame large open windows with wooden shutters.

Architect, archivist, and gardener Yoshi Fajar Kresno Murti’s house is predominantly made of second-hand materials. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

The exterior of a wooden house. A stone path and small staircase with an elaborate stone rail topped by two small potted plants lead up to the house’s porch.

Eko Prawoto reuses several second-hand Javanese traditional houses for his home. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a wooden building filled with shelves and racks holding books, artworks, jars, kitchenware, and various other objects.

Architect Yu Sing Lim reuses a Javanese traditional house for his architectural workshop, Studio Akanoma, in Bandung. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a room with two bookshelves and two chairs. A doorway on our left is open to a small porch right in front of a wall of vegetation. The other walls frame large open windows with wooden shutters.

Architect, archivist, and gardener Yoshi Fajar Kresno Murti’s house is predominantly made of second-hand materials. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

The exterior of a wooden house. A stone path and small staircase with an elaborate stone rail topped by two small potted plants lead up to the house’s porch.

Eko Prawoto reuses several second-hand Javanese traditional houses for his home. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a wooden building filled with shelves and racks holding books, artworks, jars, kitchenware, and various other objects.

Architect Yu Sing Lim reuses a Javanese traditional house for his architectural workshop, Studio Akanoma, in Bandung. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

Interior of a room with two bookshelves and two chairs. A doorway on our left is open to a small porch right in front of a wall of vegetation. The other walls frame large open windows with wooden shutters.

Architect, archivist, and gardener Yoshi Fajar Kresno Murti’s house is predominantly made of second-hand materials. Courtesy of Yasmin Tri Aryani

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.

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