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Contemporary Indonesian architecture

Realrich Sjarief defines new norms
Meeting award-winning architect Realrich Sjarief in his famed office space in Jakarta, is a reminder of how architecture and philosophy have always shared an inherent bond.

by Apurva Bose DuttaPublished on : Jun 03, 2019

A meeting with Jakarta-based architect Realrich Sjarief, founder of the award-winning dynamic architectural firm RAW Architecture was a revelation in terms of how profoundly the present generation of architects connect with architecture. One of the acclaimed names in Indonesian contemporary architecture, Sjarief’s commendable contribution to architecture has been multi-faceted.

Simplistic, candid, zen-type, reflective, passionate and philosophical about his craft, a silent activist, workaholic and a visionary wanting to make an earnest difference to architecture, Sjarief is all of these. Hailing from a humble background, his inclination to draw drew him to architecture. His bachelor’s from the Institute Technology of Bandung (2005) and master’s in urban design and development from the University of New South Wales, Australia was followed with work experiences at Foster + Partners in London, DP Architects in Singapore, and Urbane in Indonesia, till he established his own firm in 2011.

  • Alfa Omega School, Banten Image Credit: Eric Dinardi
  • Alfa Omega School, Banten Image Credit: Eric Dinardi
  • Alfa Omega School, Banten Image Credit: Eric Dinardi

Architecture and philosophy have been closely linked; an integration that has been explored by lesser number of architects, Sjarief being one of the few. Presently researching on the contribution of the unconscious mind to an architect’s creativity, he says, “The unconscious mind contributes to stereotomy, and all of the technicals, history and practice contribute to tectonics. This is a phase to understand my own practice as well, in order to try to find the answer to so many questions.” The lifelong learner in him is arresting and he confesses that he is still trying to get the essence of what he is doing.

It is this soul-searching in architecture, and of its manifestation in life which has led him to design path-breaking projects involving distinctive materiality and spatial expressions in diverse scales in Indonesia. This includes his award-winning competition proposal for the National Gallery of Indonesia—a study on how innovatively the spirit of heritage can be retained in harmony with the natural environment; The Alpha Omega School, where craftsmanship in bamboo and steel gels with the naturalness of the surroundings; the Puncak Keemasan Group Head Office, where plywood creates myriad expressions in a parabolic shaped structure, and The Green BlossonVille where bare concrete is reminiscent of the Corbusian style of architecture. The Guild, that houses his own studio (a masterpiece in bamboo architecture), his residence and the OMAH library, is the ideal integration of the investigations of tectonics in space, materials, technology and craftsmanship that Sjarief is most well known for.

  • Akanaka Residence, Jakarta Image Credit: Eric Dinardi
  • Akanaka Residence, Jakarta Image Credit: Eric Dinardi

Born into a family of builders where craftsmanship has lasted for almost three generations, Sjarief has taken ahead this mastery of building construction in his firm through two laboratories—the ‘DOT Workshop’ (Design Oriented Territory Workshop) that promotes construction and research activities in construction, and the ‘Made in Jakarta’ urban design study laboratory that focusses on urban design principles in Indonesia.

To ward off his frustration due to the lesser importance attached to younger architects in the country vis-à-vis the seniors, Sjarief’s efforts and constant endeavour to motivate and support them in the profession is noteworthy; one can not miss the respect that these younger architects have for him. He offers architecture and building related courses and workshops through the firm and welcomes budding architects to come and research there. One of the few architects in the world who has opened a public library in his own studio space—the OMAH Architecture Library houses a delightful collection of approximately 1500 volumes on architecture and fiction. The need for this library came from his own desire to escape into a world of reading and writing. His wish remains though that the public comes and spends time in the library to understand architecture. The space is celebrated for hosting regular architectural talks/presentations/discourses, all to further the cause of architecture and design. Happy with the ‘optimism’ that he is able to provide, he says, “OMAH is like a personal space, a sanctuary, and now it has become a community. Reading books is important because I always feel that it is easier to grasp the technique of designing by reading.”

  • The Guild, Jakarta Image Credit: Eric Dinardi
  • The Guild, Jakarta Image Credit: Eric Dinardi

Sjarief also provides annual fellowships to more than 50 students from South East Asia to intern under him. He is involved with architectural education as a lecturer at the Pelita Harapan University and a visiting professor for multiple universities in the country. He teaches philosophy of architecture, poetics of architecture, tectonics of spaces, grammatology, utility in architecture, architecture grammar, and has a special interest in architectural pedagogy. “There are two types of people who teach—one for whom it is all about their individual universe, and one, for whom, the students are their universe,” in all honesty, he acknowledges.

His sensitive evaluation of architecture, cities and lives we lead are omnipresent in his prolific writing. His observation, avid reading and philosophical bent of mind have come forward in the many articles he has penned over the years. Co-author of Rise of Asia in 2018 in Le Havre France and editor of Alpha: Never-Ending Discussion in Strange Library of Architecture, he is also a passionate blogger on My Mayoonise Jar . Sjarief along with Indonesian architects Andy Rahman and Eka Swadiansa have established SPIRIT_45, a platform for explorations on architecture in Asia through the medium of travel, dialogues, discourses and written words.

  • The proposal for the National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta Image Credit: Courtesy of RAW Architecture

He laments about the state of architecture in Indonesia (there are between 13000-15000 architects in the country!) stating that the profession there is harsh and pays less, the reason why many architects are shutting off their practices and turning to academics. In Indian architecture, he admires Studio Mumbai and has travelled to Kerala with his students to research on Laurie Baker. Not surprisingly then, out of the limited number of books on Indian architecture at OMAH, most of them are on Laurie baker.

  • Omah Library, The Guild, Jakarta Image Credit: Eric Dinardi

Sjarief’s approach to architecture echoes in his quiet demeanour too, which is simplistic, humility-personified, emotive, poetic and imaginative, although explosive in ideas and efforts. With architects such as him, Indonesian architecture is surely in very safe hands.

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