Lantip Kuswaladaya shudders when he recalls the earthquake that struck Yogyakarta in May last year. "My wife, who was six months pregnant, was trying to get down from the second floor of our house," says the professional dancer, who lives in Kembaran village, just outside the quake-prone Indonesian city of half a million. "Even though the house was swaying like a palm tree, she eventually made it down safely." His neighbors were less fortunate. The quake, measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale, struck before dawn. Most of the houses in Kembaran were reduced to rubble. In Yogyakarta's immediate region, the disaster claimed nearly 6,000 lives and leveled an estimated 135,000 homes. But Lantip's was unharmed. "We knew then," he says, "that we had chosen the right man to build our house."
That man is Eko Agus Prawoto, a 49-year-old Yogyakarta architect trained locally and in the Netherlands. He is belatedly winning plaudits for his blend of contemporary design, sensitivity to local conditions and use of materials bamboo, coconut wood, terracotta that are sustainable, often recycled and highly suitable for regions liable to geological disturbances and flooding. Immediately after the quake, this self-styled "village architect" used Japanese and Indonesian aid money to build more than 130 shelters. He hoped the design of the rough-and-ready structures would serve as models for local villagers, encouraging them to give up their attachment to concrete seen as a symbol of modernity and affluence and return to the kinds of building materials used throughout the archipelago for centuries. Eighteen months later, the shelters are still occupied.
To date, Prawoto's commissions have included a bookshop, a museum and 10 houses in Yogyakarta (none of which suffered more than superficial damage during the quake) as well as churches, cafés and community centers in Bali and Papua. Then there was his contribution to a 2003 architectural exhibition in Siena, Italy: large Roman-style archways, made of straw instead of triumphal stone because straw happened to be the most common local material.
It's not an expansive portfolio, but Prawoto isn't aiming for one. He favors a slow, deliberate approach, taking up to a year to understand a client's requirements and produce appropriate designs. "I consider myself a midwife giving birth to homes that look like their parents," he says. "Too many architects are obsessed with showing themselves, whereas I want to show who and what is living there." And if the original occupants include trees, so be it. At a Prawoto house, they are often left standing, their branches stretching through holes cut in the roof.
In much of this, one sees the legacy of Prawoto's mentor, Yusuf Bilyarta Mangunwijaya a famed Javanese polymath who was a writer, priest and the founding figure of modern Indonesian architecture. Mangunwijaya stressed the importance of spending money on training first and materials second a teaching adhered to by his disciple. "He wanted to empower the people," recalls Prawoto, "by giving them a skill that would last beyond any one project." And that accumulated knowledge informs Prawoto's attitude to construction. "I have learned a lot from local builders and carpenters who know best how to use materials from here," he says.
When it comes to design, Mangunwijaya spoke of the need for buildings to be intimately related to their external environments. Says Prawoto: "A building is not an autonomous object but also an emotional and social being." One of his more celebrated commissions, the award-winning Cemeti Art House museum in Yogyakarta, illustrates this well. In choosing neither to reference the imported Dutch Art Deco nor the syncretic "Indies" forms that proliferate in the city center and by eschewing the predictable Modernist box Prawoto has made a building that resonates with sense of place while seeming up to date. Its entrance is in the style of a limasan, or traditional Javanese house chosen because the Cemeti is intended to be a "home" for art, not a cold exhibition space. The humble materials used (timber, bamboo, woven bamboo) are welcoming, and natural light floods the premises. Unenclosed verandahs reinforce the connection between the building and the street. "Eko has a special concept that believes in letting the clients design their space," says gallery founder Nindityo Adipurnomo.
Prawoto built Nindityo's home as well; its high ceilings and skylights create the sort of serenity one associates with a jungle retreat. Recycled teak doors and stained-glass windows reflect local style but not excessively and that is signature Prawoto. "A home should reflect one's culture but also empower the inhabitant," he says. "In the end I just try to create a home for the soul."