How an Architect Rebuilt a Papuan Village


Visionary architect Yori Antar believes that instead of copy-pasting modern architecture, people should put Indonesian vernacular architecture into account. His latest projet in rebuilding and archiving Suroba architecture in Papua is the first attempt in history to alter Papua’s oral lore to written record.

Photo by Michael Sunders and Griselda Vania Chandra

Yori Antar’s fervour in enjoying the Indonesian landscape has given birth
to a movement to restore Indonesia’s architectural heritage. In 2008, he named this movement ‘Rumah Asuh’. The initiative has restored and documented traditional houses in publications, and quickly gained recognition from UNESCO and Aga Khan for its attempt to save and preserve the local wisdom of the Indonesian architecture. In May 2017, Antar completed part of his ‘Rumah Asuh’ project called ‘Suroba Memanggil’, which translates to Suroba is calling. “This is not to romanticize traditional houses,” he says. “It is an attempt to reorient our views and to stop calling our traditional architecture as the heritage from the age of foolishness.”

Suroba is known as the land of warriors. Located 30 minutes away from Wamena, Papua, Suroba was first seen by the world in 1961 in a documentary that filmed war tribes in the area, Dead Birds. Michael Rockafeller was the sound recordist before he disappeared. As hunting and cannibalism were common at the time, Rockeffeler was 
speculated to be eaten by the natives.
“Although the war has stopped, Suroba
looks like it’s been frozen in time since
1961,” Antar says.

Ceremonies were important for the tribes. In 1973, one of the head tribes Obahorok of Dani tribe married an American anthropologist Wyn Sargent
as a ceremonial symbol to prevent wars between tribes that disliked the presence of foreign anthropologist in Baliem Valley. “It was similar when I was there,” Antar says. “The Dani tribe made a ceremony for me. They asked their dead ancestors to see what kind of intentions I had.” Antar was accepted. This means that anyone who came under his name will be accepted as well.

The plan for Suroba calls for the reconstruction of traditional honai houses, two guard towers, two bridges, and a honai homestay compound consists of eight honai stays, a honai kitchen, and a honai toilet.

In 2015, Antar started the project with building Kayou watch guard tower,
a 10-metre wooden tower located at the west border of Suroba village. “The Kayou tower used to be a watch guard tower
for wars,” he says, “but when we rebuilt the tower, it became a symbol of victory for the Surobans in preserving their own culture.”

After finishing the first tower, Antar, whose full name is Gregorius Antar Awal, received donation to build the second tower in 2016. After the second tower was built, Antar initiated the idea to renovate the homestay facilities and was given the permission by the head
of the tribe. With the help of 20 people from Suroba and two university students from Tarumanegara University, Antar envisioned the homestay restoration project as an empowerment for Suroba community for their tourism.

In 2017, the first to be built were the bridges and honai houses for Suroba people. Akikulakma bridge is a 39-metre- long bridge made from oak tree panels that passes over the Aiki river. The big bridge is an important facility for Suroba women, whose daily duty is to harvest food and bring livestock back to the village. To prevent flood and erotion in rainy season, an additional smaller bridge was also built close by.

“All the materials used were collected from the jungle,” Antar says. “Suroba people also replanted the trees after they cut them.” The trees that were picked included 20-year-old oak and ironwoods and some local trees, such as wip and opuruk trees.

Honai houses for Suroba people are set in one compound called a Silimo.
A honai house is a two-storey round- shape windowless house that measures 2.5 metre in height. It has a fireplace at the centre, and a void with a ladder for access to the second floor. Weed flooring is used for both floors, while the the domed-shaped ceiling is covered with thatched roof using dry vegetation, such as straw and weed, which offer significant insulation to withstand the cold mountain climate.

Two honai houses were built this
year: a Pilamo, for the males; and an
Uma for the females and their children. Typically, a Pilamo is bigger than an
Uma, but the structure is the same. The main difference between a Pilamo and Uma is the functions of the ground floor. In Pilamo, the ground floor is a place to receive guests and to relax, while in Uma, it serves as a storage and a place to watch the kitchen straight from their entrance.

Antar believes that the documentation will be useful as a model for people who live in a similar environment across 
the archipelago. He is aware that the implementation needs to have a strong environmental context behind it, which
 he notes as another major issue in Indonesian architecture.

“Indonesian houses has one similarity across the archipelago,” he says, referring to the two-season house. A two-
season house is mainly used for resting, encouraging people to do activities outdoor. Antar believes that if architects omit to explore outdoor activities and build a house the serves all functions, such as a four-season house, people will eventually abandon the importance of community living.

Nine years of ‘Rumah Asuh’ projects, Antar and his team have completed 15 traditional villages including in Suroba, Wairebo, Sumba, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Sumatera, in which there would be some university students involved to document the projects. “The main aim is to create a synergy and to transfer these oral lore into a book so we can take lessons or even implement it in the future,” Antar says. Some of the completed projects are recorded in the book titled ‘O Kika O Suroba’, which also documents the culture and traditional architecture of honai houses.

Antar is certain that if the ‘Rumah Asuh’ movement can provide good records on traditional houses, young Indonesian architects would start idolizing vernacular architecture that would aspire them in creating cutting-edge innovations. “Eventually young architects will have new idols beyond Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid buildings, and it will be Nusantara architecture,” Antar said. On top of the two honai houses, ‘Suroba Memanggil’ has completed one honai stay, while the rest is planned to be completed this year.

Visiting Suroba

Andre Liem

Honai Stay Coordinator from Papua Tour Guides Community (PATGOM)

What can we look forward to in Suroba?

If you go in May, you can see pink reed all over the place. For all the other months in the year, the traditional houses, coffee plantation, beach, and mountain are still pristine. Our ‘Jungle Chef’, Charles Toto, use a foreging technique to serve
the guests. He would hunt and take ingredients from the woods and cook them that with international flavour. Celebrities who have had a taste includes Rolling Stone vocalist Mick Jagger, who visited in December 2008. This year, Charles Toto was invited to the Ubud Food Festival and the Indonesian Culinary Festival.

How important is Honai Stay for Suroba people?

Honai Stay is important for the Suroba community because tourism is one ofthe main income sources in Suroba. A few years ago, tourists only came to trek and see a culture that was already too commercialized. Now, since the ‘Suroba Memanggil’ project was launched, tourists are invited to learn a more detailed story about the local architecture, food and culture. For example, the honai philosophy and honai structures are big assets for our knowledge for us and for people who want to know our culture better.

In most cases, who are your visitors?

Until today, it’s 99% foreigners. For example, there were tourists from Japan visiting us recently. Mostly, they are here for a week to visit different areas, and spend five days camping. They usually come in pairs, or in larger groups of 10. Ten years ago it costs US$200 - US$500 for five people, but now there is a need increase the price to maintain everything and to empower people here.

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Banyubening Prieta
Banyu has been a contributing writer to The Jakarta Post, Sorge Magazine and Metronome Indonesia after graduating from Parahyangan Catholic University with a degree in international relations. She is the owner and co-founder of the Jakarta-based organic restaurant and healthy catering business Burgreens and the co-founder of Suazad Media.