The architecture of Indonesia is infused with a rich blend of history, culture, tradition and religions that span centuries. Like the country itself, the architecture is diverse and enchanting, with influences from China, India, Europe and Arabia. Rumah Adat translates to “traditional house” and refers to a form of Indonesian vernacular community housing. Each province has its own style for Rumah Adat, with its own specific history and connection to the land.
Collectively, this falls under the umbrella of Austronesian architecture and traces its origins back to when Austonenesian people occupied the pacific. Despite the variations across thirty-three provinces, Rumah adat contains certain similarities in their form, construction and materials that make them distinguishable from other forms of architecture.
Material and Construction
Firstly, they make use of natural and indigenous materials like wood. Most Rumah Adat homes are made of timber, bamboo, thatch or fibre obtained locally. Besides being sustainable, the material is also ideal for the humid, monsoon climate of the region. Generally constructed using a post, beam and lintel structural system, the buildings are designed to carry a load directly to the ground. The use of non-load bearing walls made of wood is also an aspect of the design. The construction does not use nails or metal joineries but prefers a more traditional approach to wood joineries and wooden pegs to connect various joints. Materials like coconut, rice leaves and sugar palm leaves are used for the thatch.
Response to the Natural Environment
Indonesia is an earthquake-prone zone and a primary objective of Rumah Adat is to be earthquake resistant. These houses are hence known to absorb shock waves due to the presence of stilts. The stilts also cleverly allow the architecture to adapt to the hot, humid climate of Indonesia and being elevated protects the buildings from moisture, floods and the risk of water-borne diseases. It also means the houses can be built near river beds and wetland margins without the risk of water, mud or stormwater runoff seeping into the buildings.
But, this isn’t the only way Rumah adat responds to the climate. The vernacular structures facilitate cross ventilation and movement of air to deal with tropical temperatures, the slant of the roofs let water seep off during the monsoons, and the overhanging eaves provide shade and keep the interiors dry. Through the use of material and construction, these community houses represent the significance of local and sustainable architecture amid a rapidly changing urban landscape.
Though the style and structure of Rumah adat vary across different regions of Indonesia, some of the features remain consistent including the long, wooden stilts that distinguish the buildings, the sharply inclined sloping roofs made of tiles and thatch, and the vast opening windows.
Distinctive examples from Different provinces
Examples of Rumah Adat include Acehnese traditional houses or “Rumah Aceh”, Batak houses from North Sumatra- which is distinct boat-shaped, “Rumah Gadang” of Minangkabau, West Sumatra and Rumah Panjang of Province Jambi. The Rian region is characterized by stilt houses and villages built over waterways. Traditional Malay homes are scattered all over Sumatra, Borneo and Malay Peninsula. In Dayak, communal longhouses up to 30 meters long fill the village. Each style collectively contributes to the built landscape, making it beautiful and diverse.
Decline and Contemporary adaptation
With the coming of Colonial rule, traditional architecture became viewed as unhygienic and primitive. During this period, extensive demolition programmes destroyed Rumah Adat across Indonesia and replaced them with buildings built using western construction and design techniques. Modern technologies made it inconvenient and expensive to construct elaborate dwellings, and most people now preferred to live in simpler, modern homes. The displacement of traditional craftsmen, the lack of availability of raw material and the presence of an economy that discouraged collective resources led to the eventual decline of the Rumah Adat. This attitude pervades even today, and hardly any Rumah Adat houses are used currently.
Despite this, they remain a significant part of Indonesian culture and heritage. There are several initiatives to preserve these structures, and many of them are retained to serve as major tourist attractions. Though the original inhabitants no longer live here, the buildings are maintained for ceremonial purposes, museums and office buildings with their design features exaggerated to highlight them.
In many places, Rumah Adat has become a defining part of the region’s identity and so, modern construction often includes stylistic features and elements from these buildings. For instance, modern concrete roofs often incorporate the slanting elements of Toroja architecture.
These roofs are not earthquake resistant and cannot absorb shock waves, and are arguably only a pale comparison to the original Rumah Adat. They serve as a symbol of the country’s national heritage and as an attraction for tourists.
Though modern construction and globalism contribute to the growth and development, Rumah adat represents how essential regionalism and vernacular architecture is to sustainability. To balance the contradictory ideals of modern architecture and tradition, an intersection of the two is necessary, so architecture can represent global trends but is still unique and specific to the region.
- Beynon, D, 2017. “Tropical” Architecture in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Tropicality, Modernity and Identity. Fabrications. 27. 259-278. 10.1080/10331867.2017.1295502.
- Reimar Schefold, P. Nas, Gaudenz Domenig, Indonesian Houses: Tradition and Transformation in Vernacular Architecture, 2004, National University of Singapore Press, Singapore, ISBN 9789971692926
- Dawson, B., Gillow, J., The Traditional Architecture of Indonesia, 1994 Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, ISBN 0-500-34132-X