The year 1998 marked a great change in the history of Indonesia. An Asian financial crisis led to the end of President Suharto’s 32-year regime. He was brought down by the people. For the first time in its 43 years of independence, Indonesia was without a dictator. Its people were confronted with the freedom of speech, thought and economic choice. Democracy kicked in. For architects, it was the beginning of an unprecedented freedom to design.
Although Indonesian architects had not been prohibited from designing various types of buildings prior to 1998, they were restrained by an invisible barrier that few dared to cross. Sukarno, the country’s first president, exercised complete control over architecture during his rule from 1945 to 1966. Indonesia had no building code at the time and no official body responsible for building regulations. Sukarno singlehandedly determined what was to be built and how to build it. His decisions applied to all construction, both private and public. Senior architect Han Awal recalls personally negotiating the height of a building in order to receive approval for his plans. Sukarno insisted on the use of the International Style for every major development. He commissioned only a few architects, all of whom complied with his wishes. Sukarno equated architecture with politics. He wanted buildings to be the face of a modern Indonesia, on view to the world.
Sukarno’s successor, Suharto, continued to control the nation with an iron hand. Between 1966 and 1998 freedom was a luxury bestowed on only a select few. Indonesia’s architecture reflected the general air of constraint. Architects searched for a suitable identity for Indonesian architecture: an image that would express both climate and culture. Eventually, the International Style made way for regionalism, which left little room for personal interpretation, much less innovation. Traditional Indonesian architecture dominated by pitched roofs and Javanese construction methods was implemented in almost all public buildings erected during Suharto’s regime. It was what most architects designed and what most lecturers imposed on their students.
This suffocating situation spawned a group of young architects eager to break free. They became known as Arsitek Muda Indonesia (AMI): Young Indonesian Architects. Andra Matin, a founding father of AMI, remembers the dissatisfaction that brought them together: students, as well as those already employed. They were tired of being told that tropical architecture meant pitched roofs – and only pitched roofs. They felt that Javanese vernacular architecture was old-fashioned. They wanted to explore design and to define their own era with their own architecture.
After years of working for various firms and meeting after office hours, many members of AMI lost their jobs in 1998 and had to strike out on their own. The same fate awaited newly graduated architects, who had no other alternative. The result was a noticeable crop of new practices. When the economy got going again, these young professionals transferred not only their design principles but also their passion for architecture to their staffs, creating a ripple effect that would spread to a later generation.
The changes in Indonesian architecture after 1998 were just as fundamental as those in all other aspects of life across the massive archipelago. During the Suharto era, the country had about 20 big architecture offices, each with hundreds, even thousands, of employees. Most of their projects were commissioned by the government and by large corporations. Today, many of those designs have an insignificant presence, particularly when compared with work realized by younger, smaller firms. Once overshadowed by their big-name forerunners, the latter have stepped into the spotlight and taken full responsibility, and full credit, for their projects.
Two practices founded soon after the upheaval of 1998 are Nataneka, set up by Sukendro and Jeffry Sandy; and DAA, a company run by Gregorius Yolodi and Maria Rosantina. Nataneka was the outcome of its principals losing their jobs. Yolodi represents those graduates who went into business for want of a better opportunity; Rosantina joined him later. Today, nearly all their commissions are for houses and other privately funded buildings. These four were activists involved in AMI-Next, the second generation of AMI. ‘Silang Berikut’, the exhibition they organized in 2004 – accompanied by a book, The Works of Young Indonesian Architects 1997-2002 – was intended to educate the general public about architecture.
Nowadays, small firms with a limited number of employees (rarely more than 15) are the norm. Their work consists mainly of privately funded projects, usually houses. No longer bound by the principles of regionalism that once hindered the diversity of architectural ideas in Indonesia, these outfits are producing a range of highly interesting projects. The variation in their work was on display in 2010, at the National Exhibition of Young Indonesian Architects, an initiative of JongArsitek.
Nataneka, DAA and an even younger office, SUB, are just three examples of practices that rose to the surface in the absence of presidential force and ideological dogma. Their individual interpretations of tropical architecture are culminating at exactly the right time, for the current Indonesian government is incapable of providing all its citizens with affordable public housing.
Since 1998, Indonesian architects have been engaged in other activities as well, among which disaster relief for survivors of the 2007 tsunami that hit Aceh. Arsitek Komunitas, for example, helped people rebuild their homes, while providing shelter for many victims of the disaster. The Rumah Asuh Foundation won a UNESCO award for its restoration of Wae Rebo, a village of traditional houses in the mountains of Flores Island. The volunteers helped both rebuilding and documenting the construction process, enabling future generations to repeat the undertaking should it be necessary. Rumah Asuh continues its work in other Indonesian villages, in an effort to preserve the country’s vernacular structures wherever possible. These operations differ from Suharto’s regionalism, in that they are aimed only at preservation and do not suggest a new direction for contemporary architecture.
It’s been 15 years since the nation’s great seismic shift. The current situation in Indonesian architecture has no precedent in history. The country’s economy has grown exponentially and is increasing steadily. Ground is being broken for projects all over the country. 155 Indonesian architecture schools see a total of some 5000 students graduate annually. High-profile international offices are arriving with proposals and plans for multiple projects. From my optimistic point of view, it’s looking very much like the dawn of a bright day for Indonesian architecture.
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN MARK MAGAZINE #44