Humid City, Cool Home

Humid City, Cool Home

By Simon Pitchforth
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.

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.

The sliding wood partitions also give the place a tree-house feel, which one of its young residents couldn’t like more.

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.

Ahmad Djuhara’s drastic redesign of the typical suburban Indonesian home is certainly unusual, and yet the house appears far from grandiose.

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.

Maximizing space is crucial in this densely populated city, and Djuhara put every last interior cubic inch to good use in his design, as Wisnu’s work nook attests.

"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." 

The sliding wood partitions on the upper floor help shield the master bedroom from the strong tropical sun.

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. 

The transparent walls are completely open to the entrance hall.

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.

Much of the family’s furniture was inspired by minimalist design but was made by local craftsmen.

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 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.

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.

A kitchen that opens onto the garden is the complete antithesis of Jakarta’s often dim and dingy suburban interiors.

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."

Djuhara deliberately incorporated ghostly echoes of the original property into his design. Here, the skeletal frame of an original wall perfectly flanks the metal runway that descends from the living room and lends the garden the evocative ambience of a ruin.

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."

Little fits the extreme indoor-outdoor living of the family better than an accessible spot for their sandals.

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."

This home in suburban Bekasi aptly serves the needs of Wisnu and Sundari’s two young sons.

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.

The house’s uncluttered and airy feel make it a playground par excellence, especially in the cheery upstairs sitting room.

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."

Not only does the open kitchen permit breezes in under the second floor, it encourages the kids to race outside to play. A large yard and lush foliage make for an inside-outside living dream.

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.

Wisnu and Sundari have a chat at the gate, which just barely keeps Jakarta's heavy vegetation at bay.

Because keeping tidy with a pair of young boys bustling about can be something of a headache, this clever storage option tucked alongside the stairs is both useful and a nod to the house's clean aesthetics.

An orange door and metal grille make for a warm, if industrial, contrast to the stones and plants on the patio. They also weather well, something critical in a place where the climate leads to a palpable sense of decay.

The family poses in the driveway out front of the house. The sliding panels on the facade allow a peek into the balcony just inside.

This metal door pivots to close off the rest of the house from the driveway while still letting cool air through.

The family room upstairs is the heart of family live at the Wisnu residence. The view to the private backyard gives a sense of serenity, even if the kids' toys find their way across the floor.

Here's a look at the other side of the sliding panel on the street-facing facade. The materials of the house were sourced locally so a good bit of Indonesian timber went into the house.

Here Sundari puts a bit of food together in the kitchen. A gas-fired grill and concrete countertop give the place a rough-hewn feel, and certainly evokes architect Ahmad Juhara's rally cray, "Ad hocism is my religion."

Naturally all that openness makes the Wisnu residence the perfect place for lizards and the like to stop off for a nap.

That orange accent is carried from a door downstairs to the family room upstairs and a glazed facade keeps things very bright indeed.

Concrete stands up quite well to Jakarta's sultry climes, and it does pretty well against dirty dishes as well.

Just a handful of slick touches keep the house from feeling too industrial. This custom wooden furniture was made locally and inspired by what Wisnu and Sundari had seen in catalogs.


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