Culture / interview

Harjono Sigit: Build, Educate and Witness

Harjono Sigit was born to a prominent family. His grandfather was an influential national hero of Indonesia, Oemar Said Tjokroaminoto. For Harjono, one of the first architects in Surabaya to develop modern architecture in the city, education has always been a major element in his life. He tells Indonesia Design's Barbara Hahijary how he came to be an architect and an educator while also living out his role as a proud resident of Surabaya.

Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono and Harjono Sigit Doc.

How did you decide to become an architect?

When I was finishing my high school years in Madiun, I would visit my family in Surabaya during the holidays. At that time there were a number of developments of grand residential areas in Surabaya, designed by the Dutch contractor NV Tiekind. These grand houses somehow inspired me and when I graduated from high school I decided to take the architecture major. At that time, the major was only available at Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB).

What was your first architectural work?

PT Semen Indonesia’s Research Centre and Auditorium building. At that time I had just graduated from school and therefore was quite idealistic. The project was considered rather large for a fresh graduate like me, but back then the situation was “too many projects, not enough architects,” unlike nowadays. At that time there were only seven architects in Surabaya, including me.

In its construction, I used the arch construction technique, which also appears as the accent in the facade. The building is still in operation to this day, but it is not for public use because it is located inside the cement factory compound and is not visible from the main road.

How has Surabaya developed, from the time you started designing until now?

It’s very significant. Since the mid-1970s, Surabaya has started to build some high-rise buildings, both in the suburbs and in the centre of town. It is true that the development is a decade slower than Jakarta, which had already constructed its first high-rise buildings in the 1960s, but this is understandable because the infrastructure in Jakarta was developed first.

At that time, some people had the opinion that too many high-rise buildings would create more problems such as traffic jams and excess demand on the clean water system, among others. Many people in Surabaya had the same concerns but so far the developments have been mushrooming and yet the city’s original landscaping and planning is still intact, including the city parks. To this day, traffic is still considerably fluid and people can easily get around.

As an industrial city, Surabaya is blessed with a growing business community that is an obvious target market for real estate developers. Therefore, seen from this point of view, the main focus of Surabaya is still as a trading, industrial and seaport city.

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As an architect who took part in the development of the city, do you think that the development has satisfied your expectation?

The emergence of high-rise buildings in the city is of course a part of the city planning development. But I think we still need to maintain the face of our archipelago in the facade of these buildings, especially in government buildings and in the gates into the city such as harbours and airports. It deeply saddens me whenever I hear the opinion that the face of our country is becoming obsolete. For me, ever since I was a student, there is a certain pride when I take a picture in front of the ITB hall with its traditional appearance.

Even Paul Rudolph, a foreign architect, implemented a traditional tropic concept in his works in Indonesia such as meru and pagodas. In Surabaya, it will be such a waste to see the old landmarks of Surabaya, like the Governor’s Office Building, get eclipsed by a future concrete jungle that bears an international facade.

Your designs are modern in style but on the other hand you have a keen interest in Indonesian architecture. Some people think these two genres are completely different. As a modern Indonesian architect, what are your thoughts?

Modern architecture is rooted in its function. And this function should be rooted in tradition. In my works, I always include sunshades so that there is never any “bare” glass in the design. In this case I always stress that Indonesian architecture should also incorporate the values of tropical architecture. These values should be cultivated because it is more or less similar to the principles of green building architecture. Our vernacular buildings also implement these values and, therefore, when we employ tropical architecture it is in keeping with traditional architecture of Indonesia.

HOS Cokroaminoto was an influential figure of the country, and he was one of the people who taught Sukarno. Did this influence your decision to become an educator in the architecture department of Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember (ITS)?

Education is indeed an important topic in my family, but I actually joined the ITS architecture department quite by chance. After I finished my university, I returned to Surabaya. At that time there was still no architecture major in ITS so in addition to working as local contractors in the city, several friends and I initiated the architecture department there. Since that time, I have been a permanent member of the institute and a few years later I was elected as the rector of the university.

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What do you think about the study of architecture at the moment?

In my role as a lecturer of architecture design in ITS’s architect profession program, I have noticed that today’s academic program of architecture is focused on the concept and art. This is very much different from my time at university when the study of architecture had a 50/50 percentage of architecture and building technique.

How much has the course that you took in France influenced your works?

The six-month long course was held by the Department of Public Housing so the experience was akin to being an apprentice in the Ministry of Public Works. The development in Paris at that time was extremely modern, both in design and construction. That was the main inspiration for me in designing the Forestry Directorate building where the boxes are supported by pilotis columns.

As an architect with many decades of experience, you have obviously witnessed your works survive during those times. What do you think about timeless design?

In timeless design, in addition to function and durability, the principle of aesthetic is also needed because we tend to preserve things we consider beautiful. Let’s take, for example, the structures built during the Dutch colonial era such as Universitas Indonesia’s Medical Faculty building in Salemba, Jakarta. Functionally, the building serves as the place to study for UI medical students. Yet its continued existence goes hand-in-hand with our admiration of the building’s remarkable architecture.

I went to school in the modern era, where ornaments were regarded as a crime. So the design should be plain as long as it is honest and suits the function. It feels like a person without any adornments. In several cases, like constructions in Paris, Rome and London, I feel that buildings bearing ornaments somehow last longer- they are considerably more timeless because the ornaments showcase the human touch, making observers become more familiar with the buildings. Plain buildings, on the other hand, can evoke a cold and unfamiliar vibe. Perhaps they are more challenging to enjoy but will it welcome us to stay longer?

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