Meaningless Architecture in Contemporary Vernacularism

The Beginning

Traditional Javanese culture has been part of my life since I was little. Traditional ornamentation, handicraft, furniture, woodcraft, and philosophy have influenced a lot in my design thinking and process. The culture itself emphasises a lot on symbolism and philosophical meaning in every part of their cultural products. This approach thus subconsciously make me always think architecture as a symbolic representation of an embodied culture on where it sits. Accordingly, I am always trying to embody meanings behind every form, angles, and program in my architectural design.

Intricate traditional Javanese pattern and ornamentation also influenced me to appreciate intricate forms and perhaps that makes me easily grasp design that is intricate, either philosophically and/or form-wisely, and not design that is shallow, meaningless, and pragmatic.

I am always intrigued with meaningful and thoughtful architecture. It shows that the designer really thinks about it and actually loves what (s)he is creating.

Architect is also a philosopher. The design that is produced is a manifestation of the designer’s philosophy. The design philosophy itself blooms subconsciously from the cultural trait that the architect experienced.

As I am mostly influenced by the Indonesian culture, this manifesto will be based on the case of Indonesia and I believe that this will also be applicable into most of the parts of the world that has a strong link to its cultural heritage.


What are things that make architecture meaningful? Why should we copy if we can make our own?

Fig 1. Traditional ornamented Javanese carved wood door.

When Vernacular Architecture Loses its Meaning

Modern architecture, especially in Indonesia, is (again) in the trend for referring back to the traditional architecture and incorporating it as part of the design. However, I believe by incorporating vernacular architecture in the modern context does not simply mean copy-pasting the form of the vernacular. It shows how lazy and shallow we are in the process of design thinking.

... It humiliates innovation and creativity. ...

This eclectic approach of design can be very acontextual and dangerous. In contrast to postmodernist approach that believes “creativity could and should come through the inventive reuse of existing forms and images”,1 vernacular architecture cannot be treated like that. Instead, it should be understood deeply and contextually.

Vernacular architecture is generated from the adaptive process between the building and its environment. Similar to that, modern architecture should be adaptive to its environment. Thus, we cannot simply copy-paste its form and apply it in the modern context as it is contextually different.

If we copy vernacular architecture and paste it in the modern context without even have the understanding about it, at the same time we humiliates tradition as vernacular architecture was born from a long iterative process of making-testing-adding-testing. There is a complex process and consideration in the making of every form and allocation of elements. Moreover, as the elders in the ancient Indonesian archipelago were heavily influenced by the culture of animism and Hinduism, the idea of microcosm and macrocosm is principal to their life and is reflected in the way they design their house and neighborhood.

This is evident in almost all Indonesian vernacular architecture, whereas the house is a representation of a microcosm of the universe and the afterlife: the realm of the gods and the ancestors, the mundane world of everyday experience, and the underworld populated by souls of the dead and spirits.2 This rich culture is astonishingly an asset, and taking that for granted would degrade the meaning of its philosophy and process.

Accordingly, preserving the philosophy of the traditional heritage architecture is, therefore, more important than copying the form. Not to say that the traditional form is not remarkable, but I think each generation has its own rights to invent something new. As life changes, so do form and shape must also change to adapt to the way we live right now.

Therefore, it is wiser to learn and understand their philosophy and history and create your own architecture based on those, because the strength of the traditional architecture is in its philosophies. Modern lifestyle obviously will not fit the way our ancestors live. Thus, you have to re-translate it into your own design.

For instance, modern Japanese architecture does not simply copy-pasting their vernacular architecture, but despite their use of advanced modern technology and material, they still carry their ancient philosophy into their design without compromising the innovation of form and shape. This can be seen in Kengo Kuma’s design philosophy which he created his own distinctive style but at the same time, he still using Japanese timber joinery techniques. Another Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, uses Zen Buddhism philosophy to drive his own architecture style even formwise it is very minimalist and out of the Japanese vernacular and traditional ornamentation.

Historical Trace

The journey of copy-paste behaviour can be traced back to the pre-independence Indonesia of neo-vernacularism. This movement had developed a truly local style of contemporary architecture for the Indies. It seeks for the appropriation and reinterpretation of existing building traditions by combinations of vernacular roof, forms, and construction, with modern Western building techniques.

The post-independence era (post 1945) was an attempt to erase all past colonial associations and embrace the nation’s self-determination that drew the urgency to search for a brand new architectural template to create nation’s identity that can unite different cultures.

The New Order in the 1970s was the era where reaction against alien aesthetic of the international style emerged. This regime attempted to refer back to the local culture, including architecture. The demand for regional architecture vocabulary was so strong that “many local governments decided that all public buildings within their area of jurisdiction would incorporate local architectural elements in their design.”3 Sadly, this process of

incorporation mostly ended up taking the traditional roof type and enlarging it to suit whatever new purpose it was intended to serve.

At the same time, Bali started to become a prominent international tourist destination. As flows of business and tourism came to prosper the economy, a call to revitalise discourses in traditional architecture and craft to celebrate their “Balineseness” had put into account to support the tourism industry.4 This event also supported the attempt to re-put vernacular architecture into the modern context that bitterly unsuccessful as what happened was just an eclectic manner of combining things together instead of appreciating the process of understanding the traditional philosophy.

Looking back at history, we know that we have been accustomed into the behavior of copy-pasting. This is what inspires the thinking behind this manifesto. This manifesto prevents those things to occur again in the future.

What We Can Learn from China

The recent Chinese city trend of copying and recreating iconic global landmarks such as Eiffel Tower and Sphinx in China has sprouted global discussion on the ethical and appropriateness of the copy-paste behaviour. The influx of economic boom forced Chinese developers to keep up with the momentum and this has led them to “bring the objects of desire into their own territory”.5

As part of their marketing strategy, this seems to be successful in some growing cities to actually attract local tourism and investor to put their money on the adjacent properties. However, instead of simply copying the monument, they had to scaled them to fit Chinese standards, which consequence is lost in the original quality and proportions.6

Therefore, some copied towns are not working successfully because of simply it is contextually different in values and environment. There is an irrelevancy in context and design, from the original place to its new ‘copier’s’ home.

This is a degradation of the spirit of vernacular architecture as it sees merely as an object of politics and commercialisation.

Vernacular forms in modern architecture have been used as a symbol of identity and to communicate cultural self-existence. However, does it successfully inherit the philosophy/story behind its form or is it actually degrading the symbolic meaning and rationale behind every formulated form into just an attempt of copying the architectural language into a historical monument to communicate power and identity?

As traditions are inherited through the vernacularity, it is important to recall the elements of vernacular architecture, that is: continuity and authenticity. Continuity means it has to keep evolving and adapting to the change of the environment and the user’s social norm. The latter demands a genuine translation of symbolic traits. Hence, those are things that are more important and we actually have to praise: the spirit of adaptability and ingenuity from vernacular architecture, not just the beauty of the form per se.

Fig 2. Left is the Eiffel Tower replica in Tianducheng, China, compared side by side with the original Eiffel Tower in Paris, France (right).

Fig 3. A copy-cat of London Bridge in Suzhou, China was built in 2012, with 2 more towers than the original.

Not Really Good Examples

The example below is a proposal for the new airport in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The roof shape resembles the traditional motif of a local batik which is shown above. However, the roof simply copying the form itself, not the philosophy of the motif.

Architecture should not work like that. Instead, it should be working by understanding the philosophy behind each batik motifs to drive the architect’s design vision and program.

Fig 4 & 5. Batik Kawung motif that is copied as a roof form.

Another example below is a modernised version of a Honai house in Papua, Indonesia. The designer tries to create a dialogue between modern aesthetic and traditional vocabulary of their culture. It might be successful in terms of how the form semiotically become a reminiscence of their cultural heritage. However, the use of materiality fails to bring in the emotional feelings of the vernacular into the contemporary context.

Fig 6 & 7. Honai vernacular house from Papua that is adopted in the the modern context.

Another example is shown below which the Lombok International Airport in Indonesia tries to resemble the traditional house in the area. Instead of trying to re-translate the philosophy of the traditional house, it is just simply an act of borrowing the traditional form.

Fig 8 & 9. New Lombok International Airport design tries to incorporate local architecture into the design.

This Minangkabau vernacular architecture from West Sumatra, Indonesia, might be one of the most popular traditional architecture that is copied thoroughly across Indonesia simply because of its elegant roof line. Due to its strong public association with the Minangkabau ethnic group, this architecture vocabulary is widely used in restaurants that serve their local food. Moreover, the local Governor Office of West Sumatra also uses it as their building roof, which at the same time, the use of concrete and colorful paintings on their wall and most of their structure creates a peculiar contrast to the architectural language.

Fig 10 & 11. The ingenious and distinctive form of Minangkabau vernacular roof resembles the traiditonal West Sumatran identity and widely used architecturally as a symbol of their identity.

Fig 12. This office building in Jakarta is an example of eclectic manner of bringing the traditional form into a modern building

What Should We Make Then?

I am not working against vernacular architecture. I love vernacular architecture, along with its intricacy and deep philosophical thought. I just could not understand why people and architect do not appreciate it the way it should be.

Vernacular architecture is a metamorphosis of creation that is not instantly created as it is, and the way we could appreciate and respect it is by not simply just copying it to the modern context, but understanding the whole process as a way of creation. We cannot work in an eclectic way of putting things randomly in the spite of preserving local traditions.

We should learn from Ma Yansong, in which he says: “There is a philosophy behind [traditional Chinese cities]. That’s something that’s lacking in modern cities. Modern cities are all about traffic, function, and so on. But that focuses too much on daily life and not on the quality or soul of the city. I think there should be a philosophy, a very high level of thinking, behind it.”7

Moreover, he adds: “If the ancient city concerned religion, and the modern city concerns capital and power, then the city of the future should concern people and nature.”8 The future city would concern things that are different to things the ancient had concerned. Thus, it is no longer relevant to copy their form literally as their concerns and our concerns are different.

What can we take from the vernacularity? The answer is the process, not the form itself. There is a process of discussion, mutual cooperation and work, and material locality that encapsulated in the vernacular architecture. Those are more important rather than the work itself. Those are the way of working into architecture. Architecture must have a meaning. Architecture without meaning is not architecture, it is just a building, and I guess that what differs us as an architect to the non-architect. We can give a meaning to the thing that we created and to the built environment.

It is our job to create meaningful architecture that embraces more on the intangible quality in every creation, not just for the sake of functionalism and preserving the form of traditional architecture.

Some Better Examples

The Kampal Showroom by Cheong Yew Kuan in Bali sits on top of rice paddies to reduce the building footprint. This 90-foot bamboo structure is intended to be “float” as to respect the local Subak -a sacred system of irrigation, but it is also a reference to the life blood of communication and connectivity between communities that irrigates water from upstream to downstream. A good example on how cultural values are understood and in response creating an architecture that is not only using local material (shows the process of vernacularity), but also adaptive to the local climate (open air, natural sunlight and ventilation).

Fig 13. Bamboo structure dominates the atmosphere of the Kampal Showroom.

Al-Irsyad Mosque by Urbane in West Java, Indonesia is unique as it does not adopt the traditional typology of mosque with its dome, but instead the architect experimented with another form of mosque that is still in line with philosophy of mosque as a sacred place of worship and carry out various other religious activities.

The mosque is designed to ‘blend in’ with nature, so people would feel the presence of God in the nature and at the same time could provide natural cooling and lighting.

Fig 14 & 15. The mosque was designed to be original in form but still incorporating local traditional values such as respect to nature.

Kengo Kuma’s mastery of incorporating traditional Japanese timber craftwork and joinery into modern architecture is evident in most of his works. The bridge at Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum (top left) is one his most famous works which he successfully blends in Japanese traditional aesthetic and timber craft. His Nest We Grow (top right) and SunnyHills (bottom left) indicate that his work is not bounded by the norm of Japanese vernacular architecture, but open for the creation and exploration of new forms. Moreover, his inspiration from traditional Japanese culture is also shown in his creation of Chidori Furniture (bottom right) which are made from simple timber components with unique joints.

Fig 16, 17, 18 & 19. Kengo Kuma’s design exploration in Japanese traditional timber crafting and joinery.

Final Statement

This manifesto is ultimately not a rejection towards history. Instead, it takes history as an important part for the formulation of ideas. What we can take from the history is not the form, but the idea, rationale, and philosophy behind every curve and angle it generates. It is about what we can learn from the past and how we can use it as a lesson for today’s practice.

The question is then how we can incorporate new ideas, and in turn, how will people know that our design is actually in reference to the heritage? My answer to that is by creating the same emotion as how we feel when inside the vernacular building. Thus, we could inherit the story of the vernacular architecture.

One of the ways to achieve this symbolic remembrance of the past is by using similar materials that are used in the vernacular architecture. Instead of copying the form, the use of material will have a stronger response to the emotion and association of the past. However, please be careful when combining modernist material with the vernacular materials, as it has to be harmonically and appropriately blend together.

The diagram below shows steps on how we could “copy” vernacular architecture and apply it into the modern context. To understand the process of how our ancestors translated their values and principals into architecture is something that we have to learn and follow.

5 Easy Steps to "Copy" Vernacular Architecture

Some Books that Inspired Me

Goad, Philip, Patrick Bingham-Hall, and Anoma Pieris. 2005. New Directions in Tropical Asian Architecture. Balmain, N.S.W.: Pesaro Publishing, 2005.

Indonesian heritage. (1996). Jakarta : Published by Buku Antar Bangsa for Grolier International: Distributed exclusively by PT. Widyadara, c1996

Lim, William Siew Wai, and Hock Beng Tan. 1998. Contemporary Vernacular : Evoking Traditions in Asian Architecture. Singapore: Select Books, c1998.

Ma, Yansong. 2016. MAD Works, MAD Architects. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 2016.

Maas, Winy, Madrazo, Felix, Ravon, Adrien, Ibáñez López, Diana, and Why Factory. Copy Paste: The Badass Architectural Copy Guide. Rotterdam: Nai010 Publishers, 2017

Nute, Kevin. 2004. Place, Time and Being in Japanese Architecture. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004.

Sopandi, Setiadi. 2017. “Modern Indonesian Architecfure: A Cultural Discourse.” Docomomo Journal, no. 57 (February): 20–29.

Image References

Fig. 1. Sri Mebel Jepara. Gebyok Jepara. 2013. Fig. 2. Vecteezy. Batik Kawung. 2016. Fig. 3. JalanJalanTerus. Rumah Sasak. 2008. Fig. 4. Kartapranata, Gunawan. Modern Minangkabau Indonesian Architecture. 2010.,_Matraman,_Jakarta_cropped.jpg. Fig. 5. Ota, Takumi. Yusuhara Wooden Bridge Museum. 2012. Fig. 6. Oguri. Honai. 2006. site. Fig. 7. Arsitag. Rumah Gadang. 2013. Fig. 8. Anonymous. Masjid Al-Irsyad. 2012. Fig. 9. Brownell, Blaine. Sunny Hills Minami-Aoyama. 2014. Fig. 10. PPBIY. New Yogyakarta International Airport. 2018. Fig. 11. Dewi. Lombok International Airport. 2013. Fig. 12. Hardy, John. Kampal Showroom. 2016. Fig. 13. Sha, Shinkenchiku. Nest We Grow. 2015. Fig. 14. Welkis. Honai Plaza. 2008. Fig. 15. Merekayangpeduli. Kantor Gubernur Sumatera Barat. 2017. Fig. 16. Emilio. Masjid Al-Irsyad. 2010. Fig. 17. EJP. Chidori Furniture. 2011. Fig. 18. Prost, Francois. Paris Syndrome. 2017. Fig. 19. Reuters. Chengdu’s Tower Bridge. 2017.

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