A confluence of religions, gleaming with stories of diverse colonization, Indonesia has always been a bustling epicenter for sustainable, earthquake-prone settlements. These traditional settlements are highly influenced by the tropical environment setting of the region, socio-spatial organization, and the paddy farming culture prevalent in the area. It is imperative to understand that the vernacular architecture of Indonesia is continuously evolving in sync with anthropology and everyday living. Let’s understand the basic framework of traditional Indonesian architecture, and its incorporation by the architectural firms of the day in changing the landscape.

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Balinese pavilion, Bali ©By Michael Gunther commons.wikimedia.org

In the ethnic territory of Sumatra Islands of Indonesia is a traditional dwelling that stands as a cultural manifestation of an era, against the ode of time. It is built by the know-hows and practices handed down from one generation to the next, bound by a unique matrilineal descent rule. At the core of these teachings lies the concept of sustainability earmarked by features which are now called tropical architecture. These indigenous settlements are called nagari, here in the highlands of Central Sumatra.

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An avenue of houses in a Torajan village.©22Kartika commons.wikimedia.org

A nagari consists of several individual units, and all these units share a shopping complex at the center, whose plans have been carefully laid down by the ancestors. The ancestral house units called Rumah Adat have been built with specific features complementing the lifestyles of the people focussed on subsistence agriculture of paddy. Indonesia has almost 33 provinces, and each province has its style of Rumah Adat, but some features remain the same throughout the country. An in-house granary concept is seen in all the dwellings, irrespective of their location. There are at least three granaries (or rangkiang), separate for daily use, guests and ceremonies.

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Nagari in Minangkabau ©www.saribundo.biz
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Toba-Batak House in Indonesia ©Mr. Wabu www.creativecommons.org

Being situated in an earthquake-prone region influenced by a tropical climate, these Rumah Adat houses are made on stilts to protect the produce stored inside from moisture and termites. The stilts moderate the temperature inside the spatial unit by breezing in the region’s hot and wet monsoon winds. The simple structure involves a post, beam, and lintel system that takes the load straight to the ground with non-load bearing wooden or bamboo walls. A vernacular combination of timber and bamboo construction is employed with the use of thatch such as coconuts, leaves, grass, or rice straw to construct the traditional settlements. Loose joinery of wooden pegs and mortise and tenon joints make the structural framework absorb the shock waves in case of a natural calamity.

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Bugis house, South Sulawesi ©S.sarafian commons.wikimedia.org
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Rumah Gadang, a traditional Minangkabau house in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra ©Shutterstock.com
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3D prototypes of Rumah Adat of Indonesia © Kauwan On Deviantart

Another striking similarity between all the housing units is their typical, dramatized roof designs that stand out so prominently and help to quickly sheet-off the rainwater. There is increasing use of gable roofs with deep eaves and complex elaboration of rafters. Variations can be seen in these sloping roofs, but there is a unique timber construction that one can see in all settlements. These communal houses use wood in the ceilings as the primary construction material with finials drawn into points to resemble buffalo horns. The humid climate of the region also requires fenestrations to allow fresh air to come in and dispel the moisture from the house.

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Java Island’s sections, natural condition, and vernacular-distinctive dwellings.© Noor Cholis Idham www.doi.org
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Construction form and acclimatization of Javanese houses © Noor Cholis Idham www.doi.org

In the central Java region, Joglo and Limasan types are more common forms of traditional dwelling units. Unlike the Rumah Adat houses of Sumatra highlands, the Joglo and Limasan type of vernacular houses are built on the ground and not over stilts. These houses are associated with the nobility and the higher classes of the society. There is a profound influence by western colonization on these structures. These house types are larger, are built with high-quality, expensive raw materials, and are related to a spiritual legacy. They have primarily emerged out of temple reliefs. These vernacular housings stress the ties of housing styles with the Javanese social system.

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Joglo and Limasan section and interior. ©Noor Cholis Idham www.doi.org
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Scary sculpture in one of the temples in northern park of Bali, Indonesia

Intricate wood and stone carvings that highlight the spiritual and religious character of the structures are popular in Indonesia. The traditional Balinese architecture sees extensive use of ornamentation in the form of carvings, sculptures, and colors to convey specific ideas. Decorative door jambs and intricate carvings may be religious expressions or symbolic representations of ancestral or future kinship.

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Traditional stone sculpture in Indonesia © Paweł Opaska
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Indonesia Museum in TMII with elaborate Balinese architecture applied on a large structure ©Gunawan Kartapranata commons.wikimedia.org

The bamboo architecture of Indonesia draws tourists, luxury villa enthusiasts, and designers from across the world. Monopolizing the natural settings of Rumah Adat houses, many locals are now open to embracing the benefits of juxtaposing the traditional style with the modern ways for the comforts of this influx of tourists. The characteristic Toraja or Minang roofs over concrete structures or corrugated roofs over traditional spatial planning of Joglo houses are examples. Several offices and museums have retained their character for the sake of natural heritage.

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Breezy interiors of Villa Cliffland in Ubud ©www.theprivateworld.com
Ngurah Rai International Airport combines traditional Balinese elements with modern architecture ©commons.wikimedia.org

As an integrated entity of culture, the Indonesian vernacular architecture is soon disappearing in its original form. However, the conceptual teachings of the ancestors are palpable in the modern renditions of Indonesian architecture. Traditional settlements are lessons for modern dwellings that are still tied to the ideals of sustainability and revolve around the locus of ordinary lifestyle practices.

Radhika Jhamaria
Author

Radhika Jhamaria, an Architecture undergrad at NIT Jaipur, loves to travel and explore the world as a design enthusiast. She believes that one should always follow their heart and she pours hers into literary escapades. You may occasionally find her strumming her beloved guitar.

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