Special Report

On a quest for Jakarta’s
architectural identity

In its 483 years, Jakarta has been transformed into a contemporary metropolis thanks to a recent blitz of social, cultural and economical modernization — transformations embodied by the capital’s architecture. The Jakarta Post’s Mariel Grazella looks into the city’s housing and high-rise designs to grasp the city’s present and future challenges.

As Indonesia’s contemporary architects strive to rediscover the wisdom of our indigenous building traditions, the challenge to adapt this local wisdom to the 21st century is on in efforts to find the city’s identity.

A group of architects recently told The Jakarta Post that a great challenge faced by local designers lies in choosing which indigenous flavor must be applied in their creations, given Jakarta’s multi-ethnic society.

Jakarta has been a melting pot of ethnicities — all with unique cultures — since the era of the spice trade.

“That’s the million-dollar question. Who can rightfully represent this mix of ethnic groups?” architect Ridwan Kamil said, adding that a solution may lie in adopting common traditional traits or neutral elements such as Jakarta’s tropical climate.

Traditional architecture aficionado architect Yu Sing said housing developers could learn much from traditional houses that ensured natural lighting and ventilation, making them “truly green because they take into account environmental factors”.

For example, the spatial arrangement of housing estates could adopt a system used by Baduy tribe villages in Banten, which divide land into three sections: residences, yards and sacred forests, Yu Sing said.

“Protected gardens with productive trees could stand in place of sacred forests,” he said, adding that these trees could supply certain types of wood for construction and absorb water.

Certain traditional materials and designs, however, were not suitable such as Nias-style houses that use large logs (considering Indonesia’s dwindling forests). Instead, cheaper and more modern beams could be used, he said.

However, the application of traditional elements in architecture becomes tricky when it involves skyscrapers rather than houses.

Architect Ridwan Kamil, who has designed various high-rise apartments for Jakarta, said indigenous architecture techniques could not be applied to multi-storied buildings that face high stress.

“Instead, our tradition’s abstract aspects, such as legends and philosophies, could be symbolically translated into geometric shapes,” he said.

“This is where the architect’s creativity is put to the test.”

For example, Ridwan said, a hotel’s facade which he upgraded in design, featured repeated patterns inspired by batik, Indonesia’s traditional cloth.

He added that the extra cost of materials involved in building traditionally inspired skyscrapers often clashed with developers cost-cutting priorities.

“Only a handful of those proud of their Indonesian identity are willing to spend more,” he said.

In fact, adding an indigenous touch to a modern building will give it a unique character in an otherwise blasé row of skyscraper designs, according to him.

A professor in history and theory of architecture from Tarumanegara University, West Jakarta, Josef Prijotomo, said Jakarta’s international style of architecture bears similarity with those in other capitals such as Tokyo, New York and Johannesburg since modern architecture washes out local identity.

In fact architects could learn much from traditional societies that have built earthquake-proof, five-story structures simply by fastening supporting beams using ropes and pegs, allowing buildings to sway safely, Josef said, a feat he described as “traditional ingenuity”.

“Architects could create an Indonesian style of modernity,” he said.

According to Yori Antar, who recently studied indigenous buildings in Wae Rebo in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, with junior architects, the young wanted to learn about “good and correct architecture” that accounted local “climate, nature and culture” into designs.

“They will possess stronger foundations of architectural knowledge,” he said, adding that the series of constructions with Spanish or Mediterranean themes treated style as “mere wrappings”.

Most housing estates adopt similar themes as trends, from the classic look to minimalist features, to capitalize on the general consumer trends.

Introducing traditional designs and objects from wicker and weaving to alabaster stones, either for the exterior or interior of buildings, gave designs a homely familiarity in daily living, he said.

“Elements of the industrial revolution are very sterile and cold,” he said.

“A place will feel more like a showroom if everything is strictly modern.” (gzl)

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