Josef Prijotomo: Heritage Savvy


Josef Prijotomo, a professor of architecture at the 10 November Institute of Technology in Surabaya, has dedicated his career to exploring Indonesia's architectural heritage. To mark this special focus edition on Surabaya, we spoke with Josef, who is also the founding editor in chief of Indonesia Design, about the city he has long lived in.

IntervIew by Barbara Hahijary
Photo by Antonius Wijaya & Josef Prijotomo Doc.

What is the traditional architecture of Surabaya really like?

A lot of people have the impression that because Surabaya is located in the island of Java, then the traditional buildings of Surabaya are oriented towards the architecture of Jogjakarta and Solo. However, ethnically and geographically Surabaya is located quite far away from the two cities, and it is situated on the coast of the island, so naturally it has a different way of looking at and constructing its architecture. In addition, there are a lot of people with different ethnicities in the city: Madurese Chinese, and a mixture of several other ethnicities. People from Madura bring pigeon houses because they can use pigeons for gambling.

Yet these pigeon coops from Madura are not considered the traditional building of the area. In Surabaya, there are many kinds and shapes of pigeon houses. About 15 years ago I made a remark that the structures that are used for keeping pigeons can be thought of as an architectural heirloom of the city. The people of Surabaya usually refer to these buildings as bekupon or pengupon and they have been around for quite some time. Even during the Japanese colonial time, the word pegupon was already used in some of the traditional limericks.

I realise that some people are averse to my opinion because of the illegal nature of pigeon racing. These games are still around in Surabaya to this day although they are unlawful, and therefore most of them are done in small kampongs. This is probably another reason why the pigeon house is unsuitable to be used as the architectural icon of Surabaya: it is a building generally found in small hamlets, not a posh or noble structure and it is made for gambling.
Yet we must remember that colonial buildings are part of the heritage of Surabaya architecture. These structures are abundantly found in Kembang Jepun area. At the moment, this location is unbearably crowded during the day-it is a place where trucks carrying goods and a Lamborghini can go side by side. But at night time, the area is completely deserted.

How do you describe the people of Surabaya?

The people of Surabaya are not the typical caste-minded Javanese type. There is probably a segregation based on caste, but without the strict and complex set of etiquettes, manners, and rules to follow like in Jogjakarta and Solo. Surabaya is a city where a becak (pedicab) driver might curse a nobleman if he thinks the nobleman is in the wrong, and the nobleman would not feel offended by it. This is a very democratic city. We are very familiar with the terms cak and ning to call a man or a woman from all walks of lifeÑfrom labourers, businessmen to government officers.

What do you think about Surabaya's nickname as an industrial city?

The city has been known as the City of Heroes or an industrial city for a long time. But since Mayor Tri Rismaharini was elected, this image has been lessened- not totally removed but a bit cast away. She has started to rebuild parks and other commodities belonging to the city so that it is now also known as a green city and a city of kampongs. This fact means that Surabaya is not only rich in history and industry, but also hamlets where each kampong has one commodity to feature, such as Kampong Tempe, Kampong Tahu, among others.

In spite of this, the image as an industrial city had stuck to Surabaya until the 1960s with the Ngagel area that houses so many factories. However, the city's industrial area is geographically not significant enough to disturb the going ons in Surabaya because of its location at the edge of the city. After the Ngagel area was closed down, the centre of industry is now located in SIER (Surabaya Industrial Estate Rungkut) and Manukan. In addition, the image of Surabaya as an industrial city has shifted to that of a trade centre, unlike the city back in the 1930s.

Can features of a coastal city still be felt in Surabaya?

These features have lost their glory at the end of the colonial times, especially when motor vehicles began to appear in the 1930s. During that era, industrial pockets had been developed in Ngagel, a southern part of the city. There were two access point from this area to reach the harbour in the north of the city, by water or by land. The advancement of land transportation that introduced two-wheeled vehicles and four-wheeled vehicles became a new landmark in the development of Surabaya. The 1975 city masterplan clearly showed that Surabaya was going to be developed as a city that could accommodate wheeled vehicles instead of water transportation, especially the city's expansion towards the east and west. In the past, people used to be able to travel from Surabaya to Sidoarjo and Mojokerto by river boats.

What about the development of residential areas in Surabaya?

For years, we have had the Darmo area which can be considered the "Menteng" of Surabaya. The area was designated for middle-upper residents so that only businessmen and Dutch people could reside there. After the Dutch left the city, Chinese people took over the area as the majority dwellers. At the moment there are a lot of residential areas in the form of real estate with the target market of the middle-to-upper class. However, we also have several modest kampongs that enrich the residential pool of the city.

I have noticed that in some locations Surabaya has been developing mixed-use projects...

Personally I believe that this is a good thing because we can effortlessly avoid heavy traffic. I think Surabaya was not designed as place with a central/radial point and lots of branches. On the contrary it has a lot of central points. This is good because public services and facilities can be distributed evenly and optimally. I see this as quite a successful strategy for a metropolitan city to handle the problems of transportation and other public matters because it can disperse the main activities into several central points.

You have so much expertise regarding Surabaya, are you a native of the city?

My father originated from Solo and my mother from Yogyakarta, but I was born and raised in Malang. However, you can say that my life and culture is very much Surabaya because I have lived here for quite some time. I moved here when I enrolled in ITS, where I later worked as a lecturer, a job from which I will retire in the next two years.

How did you end up becoming a lecturer in ITS?

My decision to live in Surabaya more or less was a result of my father's words of wisdom that he spoke to me many years ago. He said that if we want to look for a successful livelihood in our lives, hold on to one means of living, be faithful to it, and you will never be lacking in anything. At the time of my graduation, the late Bapak Djelantik who happened to be the dean of the Architecture Faculty in ITS congratulated me and made a remark, "You will join ITS, right?" And just as quickly, I said yes. Two months later, I finally got to thinking, why did I come up with that kind of life-changing decision without thinking thoroughly about it? Like other lecturers in the 1970 and 1980s, I was also involved in several architectural projects, until my wife asked me to focus on becoming a lecturer. But that did not make my pace of life more relaxed. For years I still used to go home at eight o'clock in the evening because I also gave lectures in private universities. Although I don't currently handle any projects any more, the more important thing is that I am never behind in the world of architectural projects. People still frequently ask me for a consultation regarding their on-going projects, even though my main focus is ethno-architecture.

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