The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, July 02, 2006


CARING FOR THE KAMPUNGS © Duncan Graham 2006

Surabaya is Commerce Central, raw and gritty.

The Republic’s second biggest city hits the newcomer with a concrete statement wreathed in smog: Here the rupiah rules. There’s plenty of room to make millions, but little space for intellectual debate.

Particularly for those who think a pinch of chaos is a good change promoter but unrestrained development a damaging ethic, especially for the poor.

That hasn’t stopped award-winning architect Johan Silas from pushing urban planning issues with vigour. He’s been doing this through the mass media to an often indifferent public and a bored bureaucracy for much of his professional life.

Now people are listening – and reacting. He spoke to Duncan Graham in the housing and human settlements’ laboratory at Surabaya’s Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS).


Like any good architect Professor Silas has a well-hewn, lived-in face. That doesn’t mean homely; though polite and accommodating you get the feeling that if he tolerates fools he does so reluctantly.

The niceties have to be observed – particularly in cultured East Java. So there’s a bit of dancing around before he gets a grip on the questions and wrestles them down. He seems to be thinking: Is this going to be a demanding discussion – or can I just go through the motions then get back to something more important?

As a veteran of the media he understands the value of the one-liner. As an acclaimed academic he knows that planning is an immensely complex issue that demands seasoned responses.

To be fair he’d just come back from two weeks in Aceh and was due to return in a few days time. His job there is with the Asian Development Bank where he runs a team of 30 supervising a huge rebuilding program.

With his ITS colleagues Silas has designed a temporary timber house that can be nailed together in around a day using basic tools and limited skills. The materials cost about Rp 10 million (US $1,100). So far more than 600 have been built for survivors of the 2004 tsunami.

For this and other innovations he was awarded the Scroll of Honor in 2005 by United Nations Habitat. It’s not his first international recognition; governments and professional bodies in France, Japan and ASEAN have shown their appreciation.

He’s been a guest lecturer in Australia, Europe and Japan. The wonder is he stays in East Java. He’s not even a local but a native of East Kalimantan who graduated from the seminal Bandung Institute of Technology 43 years ago.

Now he can claim to have lived in Surabaya for longer than two thirds of the present population, such is the huge and continuing movement into the port city of people from other towns and provinces.

For anyone sensitive to the ambience of place, the tone and mood of a community, the importance of blending past and present to create an acceptable new way of living, Surabaya must seem the pits.

A map of this sprawling ancient city looks like an upturned plate of noodles. There’s no easily discernable centre, no grid, no locus of power with radiating boulevards. A river twists and turns to the north, but also slices directly to the east. One arm is obviously natural, the other artificial.

Most cities make waterways the focal point for transport and recreation. A riverside home is usually prime real estate. But this is Surabaya, and the silt-laden sewer Kali Mas (Gold River) is grossly misnamed.

So the rich have left the once busy river to the poor and jobless who squat on its black banks and watch Styrofoam scum bob by. Those with cash and work have settled in gated suburbs to the west. Here they display their absence of taste by building European-style mansions. These don’t even chance a nod of recognition to Javanese culture and traditional design, let alone a tropical climate.

Is planning in Surabaya an oxymoron?

It seems that way. There are building codes and penalties for those who break them. Local governments have the power to demolish unapproved constructions but that seldom happens. So people just pay the fine and regard that as the fee for bypassing regulations.

We certainly have urban planning, but there’s a discrepancy between plans and implementation. I’ve been fighting this for a long time.

Was Surabaya always such a mess?

No, not at all. We’re dealing here with a city at least 700 years old, probably more, which was planned on the mandala of Javanese cosmology. There were two keratons (Javanese ruler’s palaces) north and south where Jalan Pahlawan exists. Now only the names remain.

There were also two alun-alun (town squares). People lived in villages around the points of the compass according to their trades and backgrounds. The planning had harmony.

What happened?

It’s very difficult to say. The Dutch tried hard not to disturb the structure but the centre shifted to Grahadi (the governor’s palace) about 200 years ago. Then early last century the Dutch did development work to the south around Wonokromo and excavated a canal to drain flooding to the east.

They also attempted to build a walled city to the north but the soil wasn’t suitable. It was still European thinking.

What to you think of these developments to the north- west where the rich are now living?

I hate them, their bombastic names like Singapore in Surabaya and European street statuary featuring Greek and Roman myths. There’s nothing Indonesian about these estates. It’s all crazy.

But this is the private sector and it can build housing very quickly. I’m more concerned about homes for the poor.

Do you favour the destruction of the kampongs as in Singapore and their replacement by flats?

No I don’t, though I recognise space is at a premium. We’ve already designed rental flats for workers in the centre of Surabaya and these have been a success. They’re four or five storeys high and still retain the sense of community and togetherness that’s such an important part of Javanese living.

But the kampongs are horizontal living and can harbour and spread disease. They get crowded as more people come to the big city for work. There are problems with access and services.

Remember that the kampongs house 60 per cent of the population. They are the places where people from the villages learn to live in the city. They’re like a school.

There’s a need to nurse the community and help people make decisions about the way they want to live. Through ITS we started Citizens’ Councils where planning issues can be discussed using the people’s language. Some of these discussions are broadcast on radio.

The Kampong Improvement Program (KIP) was first introduced in Surabaya in 1924 and focussed mainly on sanitation. It’s been intensified since then to improve the quality of life.

The program has been quite successful, but it can’t keep up with the rate of growth. In the late 1970s KIP was introduced nationally for all urban areas.

We don’t want the kampongs invaded and taken over by the middle classes. They are so important to maintaining cohesion. Without workers from the kampong the city couldn’t function.

The idea is that the kampongs should be maintained as a transitional zone and improved. They should co-exist with commercial and urban development to supply the labor and services they need. This is the ‘shared-space’ model of planning.

We can and should get a closer relationship between the middle upper and middle lower segments of society. The next generation should be better educated and trained and they’ll be the ones who want to move out of the kampongs and find the privacy they seek.

Why is the river such a mess?

Bad maintenance and planning. It used to be the principle means of communication and transport. But a bridge collapsed across the river near the port about 50 years ago and has never been repaired, so water traffic can’t get upstream.

In the 1960s and 70s it was regularly flushed. Not now. It all comes back to costs. Don’t ask me why – I’m not in control! It certainly needs to be dredged.

Yes, I do get very angry about these things. The government raises all these taxes but doesn’t spend the money on urban maintenance. Where does the money go?

The shopping mall construction boom continues. Where are all the tenants and customers going to come from? Many shops are empty. I can’t understand how they can survive.

Neither can I. The data used to sustain these developments is flawed and there’s definitely an oversupply. There’s been too much speculation and a lot of bankruptcies will follow.

They have also created problems of traffic management and infrastructure because planning codes have not been followed.

Count your successes.

Till recently we’ve managed to constrain development to the south and prevent Surabaya linking up with Sidoarjo – though that’s happening now. We also contained industrial development to the southeast.

There’s a master plan taking us through to 2025 and a law prohibiting the clearing of kampong unless required for a major road. The kampongs survived the economic crisis surprisingly well.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Surabaya is so different from anywhere else. People here have a great sense of attachment and egalitarianism. It’s not like Jakarta – we don’t demand local identification cards – anyone can move in. About 50 per cent live close to their work.

It’s the second best solution to Jakarta, the major transport, business and supply hub to most of Eastern Indonesia. It’s the whole diverse deal, moving very fast and hugely important to this nation. The bridge to Madura (see The Jakarta Post 3 February 2006 ) will make a major difference.

You can’t compare Surabaya to anywhere. It’s twice the size of Kuala Lumpur with one tenth of the resources. I stay here because it’s so interesting.

The people are starting to understand the issues because they are feeling the effects of bad decision-making through crowded streets and cramped living space. They have the right to enjoy urban facilities. I detect frustration. But they don’t yet have the power.

Democracy in Indonesia is still a kind of ritual. It’s not yet a way of life. I hope that soon it can become a bargaining chip for the people to make a better city.

I’m an anarchist – change comes from chaos. And change is the only certainty. We have to understand the past so mistakes are not repeated.

Improving the kampongs has been my lifetime’s work. Yes, I’m always optimistic.

(First oublished in The Sunday Post 2 July 2006)


1 comment:

AC said...

I saw your posting of "Caring for kampongs" about architect Johan Silas and wondered who might cooperate on a report I'm preparing about kampong reconstruction work in Aceh. Any contacts to comment on the architectual perspective. See drafts and research in