The late twentieth century brought about new dawn on cultural identities for nations with UNESCO being a pioneer in the field. Since then, there have been continual efforts to safeguard and ensure the maintenance of the traditional architecture of various countries. In light of these conscious efforts, the ‘joglo’ and ‘limasan’ housing typologies have gained attention worldwide by several activists, architectural enthusiasts, and communities. (If you do not know what these terms are then we suggest you read about them here: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/fresh-perspectives/a1232-vernacular-architecture-of-indonesia/ ).
Thriving on sustainability and mobility concepts, the designs of the traditional architecture of Indonesia craft the tourism industry of the archipelago today. But it is not just local ingenuity or relations to the environment that make the indigenous dwelling structures so popular. Indonesia’s architecture has been a melting pot of cultures for centuries. There have been several ethnic discourses mixed with Arabian, Chinese, Indian and Colonial flavors. Their interventions spanned through history make Indonesian architecture what it is today and give it its unique character.
All villages in Indonesia are bound together by mythical, social, or spatial relations that shape the region’s architecture. For instance, in the Sumatra highlands, the matriarchal descent rule influences the distinctive type of local houses (Rumah Adats) found in the area. The communities and their vernacular structures thrive on the web of these customs and taboos. Whenever there have been external influences in the form of piping up religions or kingdom-wars, these traditional webs have adopted and absorbed the foreign forces. The conventional structures have molded themselves accordingly, rejecting the orthodox ways and accepting the global styles. For Indonesian architecture, this has been a gift as well as a curse!
The vernacular architecture of Indonesia revolves around the crux of community building. The distinct variations of houses built on stilts to adjust to the tropical climate, with prominent gable roof styles, are inherently Austronesian. The first set of cultural influences and the biggest is Indian. It is seen in houses that have rejected the stilts and started building on the ground. Though the use of natural materials such as bamboo and wood remained the same, changes seeped gradually. Apart from common dwelling structures, religious forms saw the most fluent transitions. Candi temples, mosques, stupas, and churches all coexist across the secular nation and exhibit the rich cultural milieu of the state. These varied architectural typologies represent the styles that have bloomed in religious specificities throughout history and adorn Indonesia’s landscape today.
The earliest surviving Hindu-Buddhist temples found in the region belong to the 4th century. One of the most excellent examples is Prambanan in Dieng plateau and Candi Borobudur. You can read the Hindu epics through exotic sculpting and carving on various temples spanned across Java and Bali, each drawing influence from the Hindu kingdoms of the bygone era. The most important contribution of the Indianized Indonesian architects has been the detailed carving of rocks, the use of limestone, and the interlocking construction with bricks.
As one hears the rhythmic Buddhist chanting, mellifluous prayers are also sounded from mosques decorated in aniconic patterns. The earliest traces of Islamic influence can be found from the fifteenth century in Sumatra and Java. These old places of worship were built, infusing the local styles of Chinese and Hindu-Buddhist architecture. However, with the entry of the Arabian merchants and invaders, minarets and domes soon started springing up. They broke the rigid barriers of rock-building and added colored tiles to suit their patterns. Indonesia’s palette expanded not just in terms of colors but also its materials.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, Dutch took control over the archipelago and decided to revamp the local dwellings (Rumah Adats) because they found them unhygienic. It meant large scale demolition and reconstruction using western ways, rejecting timber, and adopting masonry construction.
The Dutch constructed row houses with small openings and a canal network all over the city but failed to anticipate the negative impact of these structures due to the tropical climate. Soon, the canals became breeding grounds for diseases, and the Dutch realized that vernacular features of verandas, porticos, and drooping eaves responded well to the local climate and had to be resurrected. A new Indo-European style of architecture was born, focusing on vernacular features such as gable roofs with Neoclassical or Art Deco style decorative elements such as ridges of the roofs. Much work has been done to preserve these structures.
With technological advancements in the late nineteenth century, the Dutch exerted control to construct train stations, offices, hotels, hospitals, schools, etc. These were heavily influenced by the West and lifted Indonesian enterprises on the World market. Post-independence, the Javanese Art deco style was recognized as a national style in the 1950s. Architects engineered marvels that were modern in all sense but found their roots in the native elements. The Government also promoted the Indonesian forms of architecture through large scale administration blocks.
The fall of the colonizers, the spread of traders, and missionaries’ practices carved a new nation through an exquisite mix of architectural styles that they left behind. Indonesia evolved culturally to become an inclusive and enlightening abode of captivating structures for tourists to admire and for future architects to get inspired.