Adi Purnomo | interview 
Adi Purnomo of Mamo Studio has changed his attitude towards architecture and the profession. In 2009, when I reported on a house and studio that he had designed for a photographer and art collector in Jakarta, we talked about architecture without air conditioning as part of a strategy tailored to the demands of a tropical climate (Green and Tidy, Mark 21, page 154). It’s a strategy that still forms his point of departure, but today he has other concerns as well. For starters, he wants to accelerate his output.
When we meet again, Purnomo says he’s working on about ten projects. ‘In 2009 I had just opened my office, and I was playing around too much. If you were to ask what’s different now, I’d reply that I try to meet new people and new types of clients. Rather than attempting to figure out what makes a good design, I want to know what obstructs an efficient building process. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m working on it – by forcing myself, for example, to follow a tight schedule in order to discover whether I can still deliver good work in less time.’
Ten projects – among them a couple of villas, a public park, a governmental building and a school – are a lot for a small office like Mamo, which consists of Purnomo and only a handful of employees. Factor into the equation the fact that design and construction are only two of his activities. He’s also engaged in research into the smart use of Indonesia’s resources in urban environments. This is not speculative or abstract research, but a series of highly meticulous studies, such as one he shows me with detailed lists of materials: cost, weight, carbon-emission data, productive potential et cetera. ‘One of my studies shows the results of only one Bandung university relocating to a spot 40 km outside the congested city centre,’ he says, zipping through slides of his research. ‘What is the impact of such a move? Can you estimate the effect of moving only one function? This study shows a considerable impact. Indonesians believe in modernizing the country, but what kind of modernization do we want? Currently, my conclusion is that the future of the town lies in the countryside, which has two vital resources: food and timber. Cities are built only for consumption. So why not spread out and be closer to our natural resources?’
A major issue is the nation’s (un)willingness to accept new architectural ideas. Purnomo believes that architects should be given the status they merit. ‘In big cities, architecture is beginning to be recognized as a profession that deserves more attention,’ he says. ‘But in general, people in Indonesia know nothing about the discipline and have no appreciation of the built environment. Most are prepared to accept anything, good or bad. The concept of acceptance is simply part of our lives. We even seem to accept corruption.’
Tucked away in a corner of Tanah Teduh, a 20,000-m2 gated community in Jakarta, Purnomo’s house – one of 20 large residences within the boundaries of the project – is under construction when I visit. In an earlier conversation with Andra Matin, the man responsible for the master plan, Matin had related the saga of the house in question: ‘Purnomo designed many alternatives for this house, maybe 12 or 15. Every time we met, he had a new idea. The frustrated developer told him repeatedly to stop thinking. “We’re out of time,” he said. “Start building.”’
So it’s no surprise to find Purnomo at the building site, engaged in intense conversation with a team of construction workers. ‘I enjoy improvising during construction,’ Purnomo says, more or less negating his assertion about keeping to a tight schedule. ‘When I see the spaces actually being created, I add extra touches here and there, like this extruded beam. I want this house to represent a dialogue between timber and glass: rough versus smooth. I like to experiment. I enjoy having the construction workers interpret my design. But not every contractor can work like this, and I’ve never done it before either. Building this house, I’ve come to realize that making decisions on site is a method of working we seem to have forgotten about.’
Purnomo’s choice of timber for the house is ulin, or ironwood, which withstands the conditions of a humid, tropical climate. Purnomo found the wood in Samarinda, a city in East Borneo, where it was part of an old pier on the Mahakam River. Following the demolition of the pier, the architect bid for the timber, which he recycled for use at Tanah Teduh. ‘In Indonesia, wood and bamboo are still the most commonly used materials because of the climate. It’s challenging to find ways to replace concrete with timber. I still see wood as an ideal renewable resource.’ Purnomo says that, with his design for this villa, he hopes to promote awareness of the disastrous deforestation of Indonesia – and to reach a wide audience with his message.
Ironwood was used to build the oldest traditional structures in Borneo, which have been standing for more than 300 years. ‘Why does our traditional architecture last so long?’ he asks rhetorically. ‘These buildings have stood the test of time because they absorb both tangible and intangible influences. Architecture is not only physical structures but also an expression of culture. To get a better understanding of the building process, architects should involve artisans and builders in their designs. We need everyone’s expertise. The resulting building will have a far better dynamic than you get when an architect hands exact specifications to the construction workers and asks for strict execution of what’s on paper. Today, we have lost the dialogue between thinkers and makers.’
Back at the office, we talk about a school Mamo Studio recently completed in Jakarta. Purnomo says the big white building ‘was not supposed to have air conditioning, but during the design process the parents asked us to install air conditioning.’ The interiors are well protected from direct sunlight, and a large space at the entrance satisfies the need for a drop-off area that accommodates cars, as ‘there is no school bus.’ The design is quite removed from Mamo’s normal style. Because it is all white, the building has been criticized, according to Purnomo, as being ‘not tropical at all. But my objective was to manage the humidity and temperature inside. Tropical architecture should be like a thermosflask, with the highest temperatures at the top, good air circulation and double walls. I combined these elements with a garden on theroof. Trees provide additional cooling.’
Another Mamo project is in Banyuwangi, a city at the eastern tip of East Java, where the team transformed a historical central area, originally closed off, into a public park, with a youth hostel hidden below the grass. Purnomo says his goal was to breathe new life into the place, which he seems to have achieved, as ‘people enjoy walking around there.’ We also discuss a guesthouse in Bali, where he made use of the experience of local bricklayers to experiment with red brick. Subtly hidden steel components allowed him to erect a façade with an incredibly sharp angle. The necessity to find a ‘new construction method for an old material’ is the basis for his uncommon exploration of craftsmanship. Efforts to imbue his work with a range of requests from everyone involved, however, often land him in the middle of a conflict. ‘A dialogue often results in opposing views. I have to accept that what I do is not perfect.’
The last project that comes under review is a holiday house near Medan, which has an average temperature of 15 degrees C. ‘That’s really cold for Indonesia,’ says Purnomo. ‘I capture and keep the sunlight inside the house, so that it still feels warm at ten in the evening.’ He used corrugated polycarbonate sheets on exterior walls to create a thermos-in-reverse system that stops warm air from circulating freely, confining it inside the house. ‘The house is so popular among my clients’ friends that they hardly have time to enjoy it themselves.’ These clients are planning to build another house next door.
The project prompts me to ask how he feels about working on commissions so far away from his office. ‘I have to deal with not being able to supervise the execution properly,’
he says, ‘especially when contact between the site and our office is poor. Sometimes I go to check things out, and they’ve already solved the problem on their own.’ What has he learned from such experiences? ‘That if God is in the details, I’m an atheist.’
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Pictures by Mónica Carriço /movingcities.org
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