Exploring the intersection between architecture and cultural identity

Roro made the move from Indonesia to Australia to pursue her PhD research into Indonesia’s architectural identity.


Can you tell us a little about your PhD topic?
I’m looking at the contestation of Indonesian architectural identity both from the scholarly and professional point of view.

The recently emerged concept of Nusantaran architecture is now considered a new direction of the representation of the country’s architectural identity. This terminology has massively been adopted in Indonesia’s national tourism development strategy applied in the ‘Ten New Bali’ agenda and the series of ‘Nusantaran Architecture Design Competitions’.

Nusantaran architecture, to some extent, has been considered as the official version of architectural identity. Despite public acceptance, this celebrated term has been deemed as problematic as it does not sit right with the established historical, political, and cultural studies. Many Indonesian scholars and professionals are problematizing this articulation, especially its definition and its inclination to traditionalized architecture. The tourism agenda is also questioned as it is merely a commodification of architecture and this profit-oriented purpose has made Nusantaran architecture merely a branding tool for the country, without much to do with local people and culture preservation.

Doing this research, I am not only aiming to unfold the complexity of this terminology by pointing out the arguments of both supporters and opposers of this term, but also to see how Indonesian prominent architects respond to this uproar and how they bring this idea of ‘Indonesia-ness’ into the design.

As part of my findings, there are some pivotal design considerations that all professional interviewees in this research agree upon, and interestingly, these design considerations have no direct connection with the acclaimed notion of Indonesian and Nusantaran architecture. This research, hopefully, will broaden the theoretical discussion of Indonesian and Nusantaran architecture and unroll the commonly tacit design approach in responding to the idea of Indonesian context and identity.

What were you teaching at ITB before coming to Melbourne?
I was a new lecturer in ITB when I was accepted to the University of Melbourne. After initially assisting in design studios, I was accepted as a lecturer, and tandem taught two subjects: ‘Communication and Presentation Techniques’ and ‘Architectural Design Principles’. As a member of the Architectural Design Research Group, I have a passion for contextual design and design method and approach, and these areas are what I hope to teach when I return to ITB after finishing my studies.

What were the main factors which helped you to decide on your PhD topic?
Having a topic that you are passionate about helps you stay dedicated throughout your study.

My identity and my pride as a Javanese person have always had a strong influence on how I see architecture. I have always taken design inspiration from the traditional Javanese house which is a magnificent example of architecture as it can be very humble and rich at the same time.

Delving into my own culture has brought up many questions, especially what culture is actually about and how culture is supposed to sit together with the ever-changing development of contemporary architecture. These questions became my lead in shaping my PhD research.

What attracted you to the pursue your PhD at the Melbourne School of Design?
I was very lucky that I was offered a scholarship from the University of Melbourne. Before I arrived, I only knew about the University’s well-known reputation and the fact that it was located in one of the world’s most liveable cities.

I heard that the Uni had very good facilities and the work atmosphere was relaxed yet encouraging, something that seemed to be ideal for me as a student and a mother.

I also had a very positive experience with all the staff who I had been in contact with during my application process. They were all friendly and very helpful to a clueless new student like me.

After I arrived in Melbourne, I realized that all the positive things I had heard were true and was really happy I chose this school for my post-graduate study. Melbourne is a safe and friendly city where exchanging smiles and greetings with random people you meet on the tram or in a supermarket is an everyday thing.

This city also has many strong Indonesian communities, one of which has become a solid supporting system for me in my neighbourhood.

How has studying at MSD in Melbourne assisted your PhD progress?
MSD offers abundant facilities to its Ph.D. students: 24/7 access to a personal working desk, printing facilities, extremely fast internet connection, access to the staff lounge, and my highlight is the library with its generous collections and its wide connections with many academic journal providers and book exchange systems like BONUS. The school is also full of highly-qualified lecturers that are experts in their own field.

The system requires each student to have an advisory committee and panel member at every progress meeting which is particularly helpful as their fresh eyes and feedback helped me to better direct my arguments.

MSD also offers fieldwork funding and conference travel grants which have greatly helped me financially when I returned to Indonesia for data collection. The university also offers many free services to students, from academic training to health care. As a student, I feel spoilt physically and intellectually with all these facilities, and it has made my Ph.D. journey smoother.

Roro with ABP Dean Julie Willis
Image: Roro with Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne Professor Julie Willis on a trip to Indonesia. 

Who has inspired you during your study here? 
I am inspired by both of my supervisors,Associate Professor Gregory Missingham and Dr Amanda Achmadi. They are both brilliant and hard workers andhave been very supportive and encouraging. They have both helped and challenged me to develop my topic. Sometimes it was overwhelming to catch up with their level of thinking especially in the early stages of my study, but I feel like they gave me a constant push to keep going.

You also teach at MSD. How have you found this experience?
Teaching at MSD has been a great opportunity for me. It has given me first-hand experience in tutoring design subjects based on a different approach and different curricula. This has significantly broadened my perspective on design teaching.

My position as a lecturer at ITB set some initial teaching standards in my mind, but teaching here has allowed me to develop a sense of comparison which I can reflect upon. I have been teaching at MSD for 3 years in two subjects: Design Workshop (a bachelor-level subject) and Design Approach and Method (a master-level subject). Both these subjects focus on the process of design, something that has never gotten much attention in Indonesia’s architectural education. In the subjects, students are freed from the burden of finishing up every exercise given so that they have more time to reflect on the process and critically analyse why they design in a certain way. I have many takeaways from these subjects which I believe I can implement in my subjects when I return to Indonesia.

What are you doing or planning to do when you have completed your studies at Melbourne?
I hope to bring the result of my thesis to a broader academic discussion among Indonesian scholars and professionals by presenting in various conferences, submitting for architecture journals, and engaging with formal and casual talks and group discussion.

I plan to write teaching books about architectural identity in design which introduce the complexity of culture and offer an alternative viewpoint compared to the established perspective that is usually dominating architectural education.

I also intend to continue to develop my passion for design method by actively engaging in an academic community with the same interest. There is an emerging movement by young architecture lecturers to disrupt the establishment of design teaching and design pedagogy in Indonesian architectural education.

It tries to stimulate a new way of teaching design by focusing on the surrounding real-life contemporary context rather than designing based on theories and assumptions that, most of the time, do not match with the actual condition. I cannot wait to collaborate with my fellow lecturers from various universities in Indonesia and delve deeper into this movement. I believe it is time for academic society in Indonesia to revisit the aim of teaching architecture and rethink the outcome expected from the students to adapt to the contemporary development of architecture. Times have changed, so why don't we?

What would you like to achieve in the architecture realm in the future?

This Ph.D. journey is not only development for me intellectually, but also personally.

Social consideration, which I have extensively discussed in my thesis and in many of my papers, has started to seep into my thinking, and I feel like whatever I do in the next chapter of my life, I have to give a real contribution to the people.

In Indonesia, we have so many unsolved problems in society and any of these problems, no matter how big or how small, could benefit from an architect’s contribution. Architecture as a profession has too long been associated with rich people, that we only serve people who own capital and power. This symptom has also infected architecture students to think that they only become a ‘real’ architect if they build something extravagant. We need to change this, and I hope I can be part of this change.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the concept of “architecture for the people”. Although it might be a utopian dream, nothing will change unless we start dreaming. And my biggest dream is to take part in the betterment of society.

Interested in studying a PhD?
Find out more