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Architecture and Urban Space of Jakarta: Interview with Erick Kristanto

Architecture and Urban Space of Jakarta:
Interview with Erick Kristanto
How did you start Studio Kota?
I always wanted to come back to Indonesia to work. The Indonesian market [for architecture] is very big, but the extent to which design has actually penetrated this market is small, which made me think that there may be a very real opportunity here for young architects. Before opening Studio Kota in 2015, I worked as the project leader for OMA (Office For Metropolitan Architecture), an architecture office located in Hong Kong. I entered so many competitions with my colleagues that we became competition junkies! After many attempts, we won a project in Jakarta, which brought me back home to start Studio Kota.
How many colleagues do you have? What are their individual roles?
We are a very small studio. There are four architects who are each supported in their work by interns. Instead of dividing the workload, we work in a horizontal relationship structure in which we constantly exchange opinions. We carry out all processes together, from research to studying about design, drawing plans, and project management.
Where do you get ideas for compositions?
Rather than intuition, our compositions are mostly based on context. "Context" can be the topography of a building site, trees, composition of the building plan, circulation, structure, or one of many other things. We are always looking for elements that can improve the composition of our buildings--things that can add performance value, rather than only having aesthetic value.
Are there similarities between the works of Studio Kota and ancient or modern Indonesian heritages?
We think about the details of each project. Individual projects have their own contexts and require different approaches for each. For projects in Indonesia, we take principles from the country's tropical weather or the unique characteristics of Indonesian buildings. However, we do not use them as a visual or branding strategy.
I was intrigued and deeply impressed by the design processes you suggested for Jasindo Tower, Serambi ASEAN, and The Meeting House you proposed in Daegu. You showed a way of creating a space by combining individual forms. It could be said to be Studio Kota's unique style. Can you tell me why you use this method?
We simplify a complex building program using geometries, which are used in the process of categorizing and organizing spaces. It helps to be able to understand a project better and lead it in a better direction. We thought about ways to clearly show our design in 3D, and we use such methods to see and review ourselves.
When you start forming a space using a big lump, it is very interesting. It opens up many possibilities. It can create an unexpected empty space or chasm, a strange corner, or distorted forms. This process is helpful in understanding and constituting the internal space.
I would like to also ask about the differences between the architecture project regarding the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) in New York and the National Gallery of Indonesia project. For MoCCA, you built the museum by assembling individual modules. On the other hand, the National Gallery of Indonesia has an open space. In some aspects, it reminds a viewer of the "Knot Bench" design you introduced in China. Both projects were museum designs. Where do the differences between the two projects come from?
The MoCCA project was done 10 years ago, but it was a good opportunity. At that time, we were less concerned about making architecture "serious." We applied cartoon word bubbles into the buildings. As you pointed out, we intended to make separate designs look like one big lump. The design is like a mosaic, so to speak, in which small parts together form a big picture.
For the National Gallery of Indonesia (GNI), we tried to avoid campus typology, instead proposing a compact building with consolidated programs. By minimizing the footprint of the museum, we can "give back" the land to the city for a public park, which also functions as rainwater run-off. This is important because Jakarta needs more rainwater drainage to overcome its flood problem.
The museum programs are categorized into two big chunks: exhibition and non-exhibition. We arranged the spaces for these programs vertically, with exhibition on top and non-exhibition on the bottom. We inserted a public terrace in between the two that is free of charge for the general public. The new museum building acts as a background for existing heritage buildings while its shape also suggests that this building is a big "shelf" for artworks.
Among designs for parks, schools and educational institutes, I found Sekolah Garis Depan to be especially impressive. I assume that the process of designing a public facility is different from designing an ordinary building. What are the things that you consider to be important when designing a public facility?
The site for the school is in remote area of Papua, which is in the eastern part of Indonesia. There are some issues that for us are bigger than architecture, such as food scarcity, deforestation, security and education. For the square-shaped site, we proposed a single-story perimeter building with a big courtyard in the middle--a design that provides a protected environment for the students. We wanted to reclaim the forest that had been cleared out for this project and ended up putting it back in the middle of the school so that everyone can enjoy a view of it as a landscape.
The courtyard provides food for students and serves as a safe outdoor space for school activities.
The Sekolah Garis Depan project made us realize that there are some circumstances that makes architecture inferior in importance to other issues.
Each building or architectural work seems to have its own intention, and I believe that these intentions come from the architect and the client. Do you think the intentions of the architect and client have a practical influence on the people who use the space?
I believe architecture has impact in society. We design a physical space which has direct interface with its users: This definitely affects the users, but sometimes we can't control how people use the space. I think that even programmed space should still leave some degree of freedom for people to decide how they are going to use and interact with it.
Have you ever seen this influence play a role in the reality of your work or the works of other architects?
We are quite happy to see that the outdoor mini stage we designed as part of the Office KL project is being used regularly by workers, albeit not for the program we initiated. The factory workers seldom use the stage for cultural events: instead, they use it as a gathering space to socialize amongst themselves after work. The mini stage brings people together and gives them a sense of belonging to the facility.
It is also interesting for us to see how people are interacting with our public artwork project, which is called "Infinite Cycle" and located in Tamar Park in Hong Kong. We saw people doing yoga under the shelter and kids playing hide-and-seek around it. Some people climbed it just to take a selfie.
The size of the project doesn't matter. Architecture affects people on a different scale.
As an architect, what do you think of the urban space in Jakarta?
Jakarta is known as a "car city:" you pretty much enjoy the city from your windshield. The city was not planned for pedestrians: Sidewalks are small, conditions are poor, and there is not much of a street life. I hope for significant change following the introduction of the new transit system, which could make the city more walkable.
I also think there should be more character in Jakarta's neighborhoods. Jakarta is so diverse, but everywhere you go the communities look pretty much the same. More cultural presence in Jakarta would be nice so as to give people more reasons to visit Jakarta other than business. 
Proper public space and facilities (other than shopping malls) are also lacking in Jakarta. It is good that more architects are involved in public domain not only as designers but also as bureaucrats who make critical decisions. This should lead to better planning of urban spaces in the coming years.
How has the culture, climate, and history of Jakarta changed the city's urban space?
I believe this is rather complex. Each of these things has made its own contribution to the development of architecture and urban space in Jakarta.
In my opinion, Jakarta’s architecture is still searching for its identity. It is still evolving and open for interpretation. It’s not easy to describe what Jakarta or even Indonesian architecture really is.
Urban space is complex because it accommodates large and diverse populations. Just like other metropolitan areas, the city’s development (including infrastructure) is racing against the rapid speed of population growth.
One last question: what is your vision as an architect? What do you want to show people through architecture?
I like architecture that contributes to the city on a different scale-namely, programs and typology. I’m very happy to see architecture that can be enjoyed by the public and contribute to the liveability of the city.
Our office trys to develop architecture that is specific and free from stylistic approaches or predetermined aesthetics. Our task as architects is to design for the future. We don’t want to settle on being a problem solver: instead, we want our architecture to focus on possibilities.