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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Dr Green’s cool prescription

When Tri Harso Karyono was a little lad in Yogyakarta back in the Soekarno era his Koranic teachings included this epigram: ‘Stop eating before you feel full’.

The words made a great impression and have become the foundation for his philosophy as a green architect.

“I learned that from an Islamic teacher,” he said. “It’s in line with green ideals. I’ve extended it: ‘Don’t buy if you’re not going to use’.”

Now a professor at Jakarta’s Tarumanagara University where he teaches in the School of Architecture, Dr Karyono knows he’s climbing a greasy pole in trying to get his message understood and accepted, even among his peers.

It’s not as though his views are radical, though he admits some think he’s a mite eccentric. Why would an academic in a prestigious position with high overseas qualifications still live in a kampong and use public transport?

“I want to be with ordinary people,” he said. “I don’t travel executive class when I use the trains – I go third class to hear what the passengers talk about so I can learn from them.”

His house in Tangerang has been built on green principles with cool 3.5 metre high rooms, but it’s not adorned with solar systems and wind turbines. “I don’t like to stand out from my neighbors,” he said. “I want to blend in.”

It wasn’t till he studied in Britain at the Universities of York, where he got a masters degree, and Sheffield where he earned a doctorate, that he found his opinions were not off the planet. In an environment where the past was often treasured and nature treated with respect Dr Karyono thrived.

He chose to study in the UK rather than the US because he’d been unimpressed with the arrogance of American architects and engineers.

“Britons’ respect for Shakespeare and the regular performance of his plays reminded me of my childhood in Yogya when the gamelan and wayang were once commonly heard and seen,” he said.

“I liked the public discourse on big issues, but I wasn’t so keen on the British reserve. You can be in a crowd there and still be lonely – impossible in Indonesia.”

Back in his homeland he works in a profession known for its flamboyant characters. But the designer is unassuming and treads so lightly he hardly makes an impression.

Which is exactly what he wants because his speciality is examining the way we live, asking whether the housing decisions we make are efficient or wasteful. Equally important is the question: Do we find our choices lead to comfort and happiness?

Being a scientist this means a fancy term has to be concocted – EF, or ecological footprint. It’s a measure of how well (or badly) we use the earth’s resources.

As part of his research leading to a book on sustainable architecture planned for publication late next year, Dr Karyono has been working in New Zealand with his former supervisor, Professor Robert Vale who moved from Britain to Wellington.

In Indonesia Dr Karyono has been looking at traditional homes, those built during the Dutch colonial period, and contemporary housing.

Although modern homes generate comfort through air conditioning and electric lighting, and make life easier with running water, washing machines and gas cookers the impact on the environment and the wallet can be harsh.

By contrast people living in simple homes built from materials that can be replenished like timber and bamboo that grow nearby, are being gentle with our damaged world.

But are traditional homeowners content? Surprisingly yes, according to Dr Karyono’s research into ‘thermal comfort’. He’s been interviewing people in their homes and measuring their satisfaction.

Not so happy have been those survivors of natural disasters in Aceh and Yogya occupying homes provided by overseas aid agencies. He said many houses have been built to resist earthquakes rather than create a comfortable environment, resulting in temperatures inside and out being much the same.

Although wanting to become an engineer Dr Karyono’s drawing skills led him into architecture, displacing earlier ambitions to be an artist. After graduating from Bandung Institute of Technology he worked with BPPT – the Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology. Here, among other jobs, he designed hospitals.

Clearly smart he was selected by his employer for higher education overseas. On his return home he moved into teaching and currently lectures at Binus, Parahyangan and Trisakti Universities along with his home campus.

Now 54 he plans early retirement next year to concentrate on promoting green architecture and sustainable living. Although his book will be about sustainable architecture in Indonesia it’s being written in English and will probably be published overseas.

“There are problems with copyright in Indonesia,” he said. “You sell one book and find a million copies have been made.

“It’s a pity that we follow so many bad things from the West instead of good things, like taking a scientific approach to planning. We can learn so much from the ordinary people and the way they live.

“However that view isn’t popular among my colleagues. They think differently from me, and their students follow them because they just want to pass.

“They know green issues must be taken into consideration, but their clients tend to be developers who are only interested in making money. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur do it better by preserving their history, which is what overseas visitors want to see – not new hotels that will never attract foreigners.

“Indonesian architecture is even worst than in the past. We just build houses to keep out the rain

“We have to be better educated. Indonesian education isn’t good. Soekarno was interested in culture and set up four arts institutes, but the Soeharto era was just about money.

“We need a president who is an architect and appreciates history. In this country the influences for change have to be top down.

“To be green we have to reduce consumption and live in a modest way – and we need a leader who does this.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 December 2011)


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