The History of Java: Vernacular Residential Architecture, Simplified


It is widely believed in the history of Java that the Javanese people are descendants of Austronesian-speaking peoples. The Borobudur temple from the 9th century depicts Javanese houses that were archetypes of Austronesian dwellings with resembling pile foundations, pitched roofs, and an expanded roof bridge. The advent of the Europeans in the 16th and 17th century introduced bricks and masonry that were later adopted in house construction for the prosperous ones.

Javanese traditional house forms had begun to influence the evolution of Dutch colonial architecture in Indonesia. Since the early 19th century, Dutch Indies country houses were constructed to resemble local indigenous Javanese houses as it could survive better in the intense tropical climate with heat and heavy rain.

In Javanese vernacular architecture, houses are classified according to their roof configuration following the established hierarchy in the Javanese society and tradition. From the lowest to the highest, there are Omah Kampung, Limasan, and Joglo.

Omah Kampung

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Structurally, omah kampung is the simplest roof style among the three Javanese residential designs. It consists of four central columns and two layers of tie beams to support the double sheet rectangular gable roof on each side. This type of roof reflects the commoner status of the owner and is usually seen in the countryside. Back then, omah kampung was ubiquitous—even now, it is still frequently found in the rural area—asserting the lowly social image it portrayed. Sometimes it is also used for contemporary purposes with no or less local values.

Omah Limasan

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In the history of Java, omah limasan was usually possessed by the higher status families. Compared to the omah kampung, it is structurally more involved with an extended ground plan of the four-post structure. The house extension is formed by adding a pair of extra posts at each gable end. Above, the house is covered with hip roofing formed by rafters, usually of timber, that expands from the end of the ridge board to the outer posts. The extended sheet roof style features a trapezoidal longitudinal section and five roof ridges, rendering a pyramidal shape from top to down, hence the name limasan. Below the extended roof, a verandah further extends the habitable space outside the rectangular plan shaped by the inner four posts.

Omah Joglo

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Being the most sophisticated form of the Javanese traditional vernacular settlements, omah Joglo comprises of a steeper but shorter roof design compared to omah limasan. The roof ridge is particularly high in the Joglo-type house, supported by four main posts called soko guru that bound guru sector,the innermost area in Javanese building. On top of the soko guru, lie a layered beams structure called tumpang sari. It is a unique structural element exclusively featured in joglo roof configuration, a distinct component that differs from that of omah kampung and omah limasan which otherwise utilize king-post truss.

Tumpang sari structure | Image source:

The area beneath the tumpang sari is usually left empty as it is deemed a sacred place. Looking back at the history of Java, it is not unusual for Javanese people to blend vernacular architecture with traditional beliefs and philosophy. Any damage inflicted occur to omah joglo must be repaired without changing the original form. Should this rule be broken, ill-fated events would inflict the house dwellers.

As of today, omah joglo remains the most iconic Javanese architectural structure. However, it is no longer exclusively associated with the high social status of nobility or people who hold a significant position in Javanese society, such as the royal family or priyayi. It has been prevalent for commoners to use this design for their homes, but even those are still limited to middle-upper class, for it costs quite a lot to build a true omah joglo.

House Compounds

In the history of Java, it is stated that a Javanese traditional residential complex ideally comprises of three main buildings and at least two supplements. The three main buildings are pendopo, peringgitan, and omah, while the supplementary sections are senthong and gandok.

Javanese house compounds | Image source:

The Pendopo, commonly known as the pavilion, is a building or hall with no walls located in the front sector of the compound. It is usually used as a semi-public space where people host social events and perform ritual practices. The Pendopo is usually built using a joglo-type roof configuration.

Peringgitan is a space connecting the pendopo and omah and is customarily used for ringgit¸ or otherwise known as wayang (leather puppet) shows, hence the name peringgitan. It features either kampung or limasan roof configuration.

The third main section, omah, is the main house. Traditionally features a rectangular shape with an elevated floor, it provides the living space for the dwellers with its separate rooms. Deep inside, there is dalem, an enclosed structure typically north-south oriented. It is the main space where living rooms usually located at.

The rear portion of the complex consists of three enclosed sectors called senthong. Crops harvested from the noble’s rice fields are stockpiled in the western senthong while the farming equipment is stored in the east one. The middle senthong, usually small with elevated floor and lavish decoration, sometimes is used for newlywed couples.

Last but not least, one or two extensions called gandok are added as the family size and wealth increase. Typically coming in the form of an attached pavilion, gandok is positioned at the west and east side of omah.

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