Jakarta, Indonesia

Originally published in 

In the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Ahmad Djuhara is on a one-man crusade to blow away the conservative cobwebs of the city’s dowdy suburban architecture.

Wisnu Residence

Combine the eight and a half million people living in Jakarta, Indonesia’s humid capital, with those dwelling in its nearby satellite conurbations of Bogor, Tangerang, and Bekasi (together known by the portmanteau “Jabotabek”) and you’ve got a combined population that approaches 20 million. Amidst the largely planless urban sprawl, you’ll find gleaming modern skyscrapers jostling with mounting ruins of the city’s crumbling colonial heritage.

Bekasi, just down a highly accessible toll road, isn’t as densely packed as Jakarta proper, but with a population of more than two million, it’s hardly a garden suburb. Nonetheless, the prospect of a little more space, cheaper housing, and the work of architect Ahmad Djuhara got Nugroho Wisnu and his family thinking about a new home outside of town.

Wisnu and his wife, Tri Sundari, both come from Indonesia’s rather conservative Javanese culture; however, the couple, who both trained in the petroleum industry—Wisnu now works for BP and travels around the country—clearly have a sense of architectural adventure. And considering that the first house they bought in Bekasi proved better for insects than humans—it was uncomfortable, badly designed, and infested with termites—they thought it was time to shop around.

“We thought that an all-steel house like the one that Mr. Djuhara had built just down the road would be termite resistant,” Wisnu explains. “However, he proved difficult to pin down as he is a very busy man. We also feared that an in-demand architect would be prohibitively expensive.” 

Djuhara + Djuhara, the firm Ahmad runs with his wife, Wendy, designed several high-profile bars and restaurants in central Jakarta, and as chair of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Institute of Architects, Djuhara helped to modernize the city’s rather draconian planning regulations. His first attempt at a suburban house—the one that caught Wisnu’s eye—was startlingly original and cocked a snook at critics who claim that young Indonesian architects only work on luxury hotels. 

When Wisnu and Djuhara finally met, Djuhara was intrigued by the project’s budgetary and physical limitations. He took the job and responded to the architectural free hand the couple gave him by tearing down the existing house in preparation for realizing his climatic and aesthetic vision.

After razing the original structure, Djuhara commenced his new design, sourcing 90 percent of the materials from within a half-mile radius of the site—a feat that may sound impossible to an American, but in densely populated Jakarta, building yards selling serviceable materials can be found on pretty much every few streets. Partially due to the elimination of shipping costs, the whole project cost approximately $20,000, two-thirds the price of a small, more conventional Indonesian home. The combination of local and existing materials from the site couldn’t have pleased Djuhara more. “Ad-hocism is my religion,” he crows.

The street-facing facade of the house is boldly original, if not downright eccentric. The metal grilled fence and wall at the front of the house functions as the front door, swinging to the side and opening up the entire front of the house like an amphitheater. Floor-to-ceiling window walls let in plenty of natural light and give the family a direct interface with the external world. “We love to entertain our friends in this rather atypical but jovial downstairs area,” Wisnu says.

Perhaps even more shocking, though, is the bit of social inversion the family has taken on. Like many middle-class Jakartans, they sometimes employ a live-in maid, whose quarters are usually tucked out of sight toward the back. But in this case, the maid’s room is front and center on the ground floor.

The house is split-level, and the ramps that connect and inform the home’s circulation feel at once novel, fluid, and slightly groovy. They afford the place an airy openness and sense of calm, one that invites the tropical landscape in but asks it to check all the urban tumult at the door. Rough stone from the site is mixed with smoothly worked surfaces, ghostly echoes of the original property. Djuhara hopes the house “will age and grow old gracefully. Style is the consequence, not the objective.”

The new kitchen opens out completely and magnificently into a sloping garden. There is no wall, no door, no windows, nothing: just straight out into the yard. “Family breakfasts are great in here,” says Wisnu. “And the open kitchen encourages the kids to head out into the garden and run and play.”

Upstairs, the master bedroom is large and ventilated by an airflow cavity above the ceiling. A mini balcony offers space for the couple to retreat from the kids, and the huge, eye-catching wooden sliding shutters stuck to the front of the house can be closed to shade the space from the strong tropical sun. “The shutters are unusual, but they are thick and sturdy,” Wisnu explains. “They really shade the master bedroom to the extent that it feels mellow and cool. They let us reduce our air-conditioning consumption, even during the height of the day.”

Yet despite the open kitchen, ample garden, and restful master bedroom, Wisnu reports that much of the family’s domestic life takes place upstairs in the children’s bedroom and in the family sitting room. The sitting room features a window wall, balcony, and ramp down to the garden. “We play around with our sons; it’s a fun, informal, and cozy space. Sundari and I also spend a lot of time in here in the evenings,” Wisnu explains.

Considering how wonderfully the house performs environmentally and economically as a respite from the city, it would seem that Djuhara could earn some serious money by duplicating the design. “My friends have asked me why I don’t patent my low-cost houses,” he explains, “but they completely miss the point. I actually want my designs to be copied. I want Indonesian society to rethink its attitudes towards urban architecture.”

That may still be a ways off, considering what a dramatic break the house is from the neighborhood. But Djuhara believes his gospel of radical design, which is at once cheap, energy efficient, and surprisingly comfortable, will catch on. Wisnu agrees, though he jokes that it might take “a certain adjustment period.” Jakarta is a city in need of new ideas, and a younger generation must reimagine what it is to build if it is to survive and prosper. Wisnu and Sundari’s family, happily ensconced in its slice of Bekasi modernism, just might point the way to Jakarta’s future.

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