xt/javascript" src="../static/js/analytics.js"> Indonesian Architecture
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Indonesian Architecture
Material and Construction
Sumatra, Island of Gold
Java and Bali Island
Borneo and Sulawesi
The Outer Islands
Lamin Architecture
The Architecture of Dayaknese

Indonesian Architecture

Indonesian culture is steeped in tradition. The customs and beliefs, social organization, vernacular art and crafts of this vast archipelago have developed over many centuries, evolving in harmony with the natural environment and the rhythms of daily life. Despite the diversity of its peoples - spread over the 13,000 islands that stretch over 3500 miles in an arc from the north-west tip of Sumatra to the jungles of Papua - Indonesian society as a whole displays a remarkable cultural unity, which centers around a deeply held belief in the world of spirits.

The people of the archipelago are often materially rich and of great cultural sophistication. With a few exceptions, such as the inhabitants of Papua, they belong to the Austronesian language group whose members can be found as far a field as Madagascar and Taiwan. Strong similarities exist among the far - flung Austronesians, particularly in their material culture, their textiles and their domestic architecture.

The Indonesians who, outside populous Java and Bali, inhabit the rugged interior of the main islands and most of the outlying islands, are known collectively as the 'ancient peoples' and, until recently, lived in cultural isolation. Their megalithic, often head-hunting societies reach back to the Dong-Son culture of the Annam region of north Vietnam, which was driven into Indonesia and other parts of South-East Asia between the eighth and second centuries BC as a result of military pressure from China. Their bronze kettle-drum, traded all over the archipelago, were covered in bas-relief motifs, prominent amongst which was a stilted boat-shaped wooden house with great upsweeping ridge ends. Variation of this ancient prototype constitute the predominant style of domestic architecture among the Batak of Sumatra and the Toraja of Sulawesi. The houses of these animist and conservative societies form some of the world's most impressive traditional architecture.

 The Indonesian islands are spread across the trade routes between China to the north-east and India, Arabia and Europe to the north-west. To the coast of Sumatra, the Kalimantan and Sulawesi littorals, and Java, Madura and Bali regarded by many as the heartlands of the Indonesian peoples. The most pervasive of these influences was that of India. India had established trading links with the coastal peoples of Java by the 2nd century AD, and by the 5th century a Hindu kingdom had been founded; the kingdom of Srivijaya grew up in the South Sumatra in the 7th century. Srivijaya, situated around modern Palembang, later became a major center of Mahayana Buddhism, and its political influence was to be felt right up through the Malayan Peninsula as far away as modern Thailand. The Javanese kingdom of Mataram assumed regional power in the mid-ninth century, and it was here that a fusion of Indian Buddhism, Hinduism and Javanese animistic religions engendered an architectural style that was manifested in the glorious structures of Borobudur, Prambanan, and the temples of the Dieng plateau.

The influence of Indian Culture is also evident in the mandala-like grouping of gouses in villages in Java and Bali. Here, and in the settled parts of Sumatra, the villagers' labor and agricultural produce would have served the needs of the palaces, cities and the religious establishments. Although these large, Indian-style constructions were of stone, the villages would have been built of wood.

 The Chinese were another major influence on Indonesian culture. Initially they came as traders, bringing silk and exquisite Ming porcelain so esteemed in the archipelago, later settling predominantly on he coasts of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan and Sulawesi as miners, laborers and shopkeepers. Their effect on Indonesian domestic architecture was not so profound, however, being limited mainly to carpentry techniques, although it is likely that the longhouses of Borneo were inspired by Chinese bazaar architecture.

Islam came to Indonesia in the fifteenth century, by way of Muslim traders from Gujarat. Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra was the first area to be converted. Islam spread rapidly through Sumatra, coastal Borneo and Sulawesi and into Java, bringing to an end the Hindu-Buddhist era on the islands and leading to the fall of the Majapahit Empire and the flight of the Javanese aristocracy to the safety of Bali.

The Europeans were the next interlopers. The Portuguese first reached the Moluccas at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but by 1600 the Dutch East India Company had taken over the trade with the archipelago and had begun the process of turning itself into the ruling colonial power. The Dutch, like the Chinese, lived in the cities in ground-based building in extremely in sanitary conditions. For more than two centuries they did little to adapt their European habits to the tropical climate, surrounding themselves with canals, which provided ideal breeding grounds for the anopheles mosquito, and then dumping then full of noxious rubbish and sewage. Epidemics of malaria and dysentery were rife. 

Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies, consequently became the most unhealthy city in the Orient. The average life expectancy of a Dutch colonial soldier stationed there was no more than a year; and it was after his stop in Batavia that Captain Cook lost nearly half his crew from sickness, on the return leg of his circumnavigation of the globe. The Dutch had little direct effect upon most indigenous Indonesian building style, although the balconies of the spectacular houses of the hill villages of south Nias were supposedly inspired by the bulbous sterns of the old Dutch galleons sent on punitive raids against the slave-trading and head-hunting Nias islanders. The Islamic influence was more pervasive, not so much in terms of structure but more in the way living accommodation was divided between the sexes. The front, public, parts of the house in the Malay-influenced areas, for instance, became the male domain. Women were restricted to the rear, though restrictions applied, were very often the actual owners of the house and land. This policy of sexual segregation is still observed, as can be seen from new converts in the Bima region of Sumbawa.  

Each of the many Indonesian ethnic groups has its own distinctive form of traditional house. These house are known as 'rumah adat', and are the symbolic center of a web customs, social relations, traditional laws, taboos, myths and religions that bind villagers together. The house provides the main focus for the family and its community, and is the point of departure for the many different activities of its residents. As the house forms the center for social and religious life, it will be consecrated and undergo periodic cleansing rituals, as will the village as a whole. Beyond the village perimeters lies the outside world, the realm of uncontrolled spiritual forces. 

Images of guardian spirits are place within and around the houses, at the entrances to the village and even among the crops, to ward off evil. Some parts of the house, therefore, are not structurally essential, but are decorative elements that have a cultural function. Rafters, pillars and roof friezes are frequently carved or painted with talismanic symbols and spirits imagery, especially in the remoter communities. Building has evolved to cope with the equatorial conditions of the islands, their hot and humid but even daytime temperature and their vary heavy monsoon rains. The Indonesian 'rumah adat' has a post-and'lintel structure with wooden or bamboo walls and a thatched roof, and all over Indonesia, with the exception of Java and Bali, houses are traditionally built on stilts.  

Stilts are often quite tall and can either be set directly into the ground or, more commonly, rest upon flat foundation stones. This has many advantages for life in a monsoon climate, raising the house to a height at which the cooling upper breezes can penetrate and away from the rain muds, and providing excellent under floor ventilation in the hot weather. Tall piles lift the inhabitants free most of the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and in the more troubled times of the past would have added to the security of the house. Foundations stones allow the pile-built houses resting on then to move without damage during earth tremor; they are also much less affected by dry rot and termites than those set directly into the ground. 

The Toba Batak of Sumatra and the Toraja of Sulawesi give the substructure of their houses added stability by mortising a system of beams into the piles, thereby also creating night-time stalls for their cattle. Traditional houses are renowned for their dramatically inclined roofs, which allow the vast amounts of tropical rainwater to run swiftly and safely away, and the overhanging eaves shade the windows and protect them from the driving rain. In the hot, humid coastal areas inhabited by people such as the Acehnese and the Bugis, houses usually have plenty of windows. 

Over much of the archipelago, however, the peoples living in the colder hills occupy houses whose walls are dwarfed by a vast roof, and will have few, if any, windows.  The wall in many traditional Indonesian forms of building is insignificant compared to the roof, whose great weight is supported by piles. The Bataks and Minangkabau of Sumatra and the Toraja of Sulawesi live in houses whose sharply sloping roof ridges ends curve dramatically upwards like the prow and stern of a boat. 

Houses with steeply inclined roofs can also be found in parts of Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi and Borneo, famous for its Dayak longhouses. Buildings are usually of wood - hardwood for the piles - and hardwoods for the upper part of the house, but coconut woos and bamboo are frequently used for the non-load bearing elements. They are thatched with leaves variety of palm will depend on altitude and ecological zone. From the beginning of twentieth century, however, zinc roofs have largely replaced thatch. An ingenious combination of joints, wedges, pegs and lashing ensures a sturdy yet flexible structure needing no nails. 

This has two main advantages: firstly, by removing the wedges the buildings can be dismantle densely, and reassembled at a new location; and secondly, this type of jointed wooden building is better able to withstand earthquakes. The architecture of houses built to the Malay model, such as those in Aceh of Sumatra and that of Bugis, Minahasans and other coastal in habitants of Sulawesi, is less dramatic but conforms to the same broad configuration of stilt, step roofs, and overhanging eaves. Malay houses have large, open interior space with only a few partitions. They are light and airy, and characterized by their lightweight structure, abundance of shuttered windows and palm-leaf thatched roofs. 

Malay houses make good use if low thermal-capacity building materials and have evolved a variety of means to control heat and ventilation. A prefabricated building system has been developed for the Malay house, as has a very sophisticated extensions scheme, which allows it to be enlarged to suit the growing needs of its occupants. House derived from the Ding-Son prototype persisted in Java until the thirteenth century, but the model upon which the current Javanese houses are based was established in the Majapahit era of the fourteenth century.

This is not built on piles, but on the ground, sometimes set on a masonry foundation. The simplest houses consist if one rectangle room with a mud floor and walls made up of rigid matting of split bamboo, which are fixed from the inside onto the pillars that support the roof covering. Roof shapes vary regionally, but most commonly the central of the Javanese ground plan is that the house can be easily extended.  

In Bali, housing consist of series of small constructions grouped together within the same compound. They mostly consist of wooden pillars raised on a masonry base, which supported a roof structure of radiating beam work, covered by thatch, tiles or bamboo. More rarely, the walls are built of brick or volcanic tuff masonry, but are still set on the same kind of foundation. The domestic architecture of Balinese parts of Lombok is ground-built, similar to that of Bali. In both case, buildings are richly decorated with floral patterning. 

The Sasaks of Lombok, however, traditionally live in ground-built thatched houses set on two levels. The independence of all Indonesua was finally gained from the Dutch by 1950, followed by years of political confusion, secessional evolt and economic chaos, which at last came to an end in 1965. The stability then provided by President Suharto's military government has allowed the abundant natural riches of the Indonesian islands to flourish. 

Economic development has had major effect on construction in Indonesia's trafitional societies. It also caused mass immigration of the 'ancient peoples' from their traditional homelands into Jakarta, Surabaya, Ujung Pandang, Medan and even Kupang on Timor. Though this prcess of urbanization has of course exacted its toll, the different ethnic groups in these large Indonesian cities have mostly held on their cultural identity through grouping together in ceratin quarters of town. 

Although housing styles in the towns will conform to the certain urban norm, one of the characteristic features of the Western-style public buildings is the way in which elements of local traditional architecture such as saddle foorfs or finials in the shape of buffalo horns are incorporated into them, sometimes using the old building methods. The migrants are ever mindful of their homeland, spending the saving they have accrued back in their ancentral villages. The Toba Bataks build great concrete tombs for themselves in the boat-shape of the traditional Toba house, and the Minangkabau erect profusely carved clan houses with their many gabled roofs. 

The Toraja construct modern European-style bungalowsto live in with new but traditionally fashioned tingkonan (the term of origin for house) or rice barns set beside them. The same process applies to all the other migrant goups from the different tribes of Indonesia. Further funds for new building are available in areas that attract large number of tourist, such as Bali, Tana Toraja and Lake Toba, and of course traditional building in its turn lures yet more tourists. Traditional housing forms still constitute a very large percentage of Indonesia's housing stock, and many of the most culturally conservative societies of the archipelago, they still have a vitally important talismanic role, both as storehouses for sacred heirlooms and as centers for ritual celebrations. 

Although a new 'rumah adat' is now no longer inaugurated by placing newly taken heads at each corner of a room, massive feast will still be given by the founder, with pigs and buffalo providing meat for all who labored on the house. The feasting turns the house into a spiritual entity and the founders into a living ancentors, ensuring that cosmic harmony, so essential to the Indonesian well-being, will prevail.  

On the other hand, however, traditional 'rumah adat' are being replaced throughout Indonesia by houses built to the contemporary Javanese model, with brick and cement walls and zinc roofs. This because it is usually cheaper to build, and increasingly appeals to Indonesian villagers who are succumbing to the attractions of the dominant Javanese culture, which are reinforced by television and film and compounded by the effect of progressive government propaganda. Villagers in the more remote parts of the archipelago have largely discarded or are in the process of discarding their indigenous animist religion and adopting Islam or Christianity. 

The abandonment of the 'rumah adat' with its often communal living arrangements and its now disparaged cultural association is actively encouraged by missionaries of all persuasions. These two opposing forces of modernism and conservatism seem to be moving towards a resolution, whereby the traditional 'rumah adat' is conserved and in many cases renovated, either with the helped of remittances from wealthy emigrants or through access to newly available tourist revenue. 

The majority of the villagers now live in single family units in their own local version of contemporary Javanese housing, but will continue to preserve and sometimes build afresh 'rumah adat', to maintain the vital link between themselves and their ancestors and to express the natural pride they feel in their own native culture.

Material and Construction

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