Life

Yori Antar: Learning from
genius loci

JP/Anissa S. Febrina

Young architects of today look up to him as a celebrity in the industry. Yet architect Yori Antar strives to be more than just that.

Back in the early 1990s, he was among those breaking the boundaries of the profession, collaborating with artists, anthropologists and urban experts to redefine Indonesian architecture.

Now, more than ever, Yori is increasingly drawn to people who most architects are still reluctant to learn from: locals living in traditional houses and settlements.

“Whether it’s a house, a public building or a monument, we can learn a lot from local wisdom,” says the architect, who recently started the Rumah Asuh project, a movement trying to preserve traditional houses and work with locals in various villages to document the Indonesian genius loci.

Amid his urban activities completing homes for the wealthy, Yori and his team at the Han Awal & Partners firm try to set aside time and energy to do something different.

For most people in the profession, particularly college students, the big names listed as Pritzker Prize winners are more appealing than the people of Flores, Sumba or Nias, who still live in and around the customs of building homes inherited through generations.

For Yori, the latter offer more than perhaps celebrity architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Norman Forster or Zaha Hadid could ever offer.

“I’m not saying I’ve become a traditional architect. I’m still a modern-day architect, but one who wants to try to appreciate our own roots,” he points out.

“If we want to build modern architecture, build ones that have soul. Look at Japanese architecture.

Physically their buildings are so modern, yet it’s thick with the Japanese soul.

“We wouldn’t want modern buildings built in a generic style with the same feeling regardless of where they are. We don’t want modern buildings the kind that Singapore, Hong Kong or Malaysia have.”

Having gone through a formal education in the conventional system that highlights more studying global architectural history and development instead of looking into local values, Yori realizes what’s missing.

“I’m one of the products of the old school. My college excursion went only as far as the Cengkareng [Soekarno-Hatta] airport,” he recalls of his student days at the University of Indonesia’s School of Architecture.

“I want to offer something different for the current generation.”

And so, under the Rumah Asuh project, Yori takes young architects and architecture students to distant villages where traditional houses struggle to survive. Supported by funding from the Tirto Foundation, he goes to remote villages to help locals rebuild and renovate their traditional homes.

They are not that many.

“It’s sad to see that local architectural values are slowly disappearing,” he says.

With the introduction of modernity and the money-based economy, villagers can no longer afford to build and live in traditional communal houses; some even consciously choose to leave what is deemed obsolete for the “privilege of being modern”, Yori explains.

“What we can best do is motivate them to hold their customs high. Indigenous architecture offers the perfect solution to building and living in a tropical country.”

Traditional houses in Flores and Sumba, for instance, are made from locally sourced materials that are put together in a structure that forms the perfect shelter. There are also joint details that can be applied to modern structures.

“Unfortunately, this kind of knowledge is passed orally from one generation to another. If at one point the younger generation shifts to modern brick houses, the local wisdom becomes lost,” Yori says.

Along with his team, he also tries to document this knowledge for others to learn from learn.

“It’s important to document everything, including cultural customs and values. Look at Warsaw. It was rebuilt from the ruins of World War II because the city hall kept the blueprints of all the buildings,” he points out.

The general problem of lack of documentation has exacerbated Indonesia’s own loss of heritage,
he adds.

“When I went to Tibet, I was surprised at how familiar locals there were with Indonesia. They said
that their founding father had studied for eight years under the Dharma Kirtti, a master from the golden island, a great teacher who had apparently lived during the era of Sriwijaya,” he says.

“I felt like a fool. There I was, an Indonesian, and I had no clue who this person was because our history books make absolutely no mention of him.”

Already a mature architect, Yori, heir to the seasoned architect Han Awal, has become a “starchitect” sans ego. It was perhaps something he learned from Y.B. Mangunwijaya, popularly known as Romo Mangun, and a respected figure in the profession.

“He was a genius,” Yori says. “He took the knowledge he obtained in Germany, and when he began designing buildings in Indonesia, he became very Indonesian, playing with local materials and values.”

Yori is no Romo Mangun quite yet, but he’s firmly on his way there.

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