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Yori Antar: Cultural Treasures

Colours speaks with Yori Antar, a passionate, modern Indonesian architect known for breaking boundaries and tapping into traditional Indonesian culture in creative collaborations.

Interview by Denverino Dante

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It all began with a chance meeting between Yori Antar, director of Han Awal & Partners architecture practice, and a random stranger in Nepal in 2008. Yori was asked, “What are you doing in Nepal when there is so much beauty in Indonesia?” The traveller then rattled off a list of Indonesian places,many of which Yori had never heard of. As an architect, Yori travels around the world to be inspired, but this chance encounter ignited his wanderlust to explore more of his native archipelago.

Upon his return, Yori started to focus inside Indonesia, finding many architectural gems he was previously unaware of. One of his earliest fascinations was Wae Rebo in Manggarai village, Flores Island, East Nusa Tenggara, so he assembled his team of 15 staff members to search for the elusive destination. The purpose was simple: to be inspired and learn their way of architecture. Finding it, however, proved not to be so simple. After two days’ searching and travelling by car, and finally going on foot for six hours, Yori and his team arrived at Wae Rebo where seven traditional homes (called the Mbaru Niang) had been reduced to just four. Providing the locals gave their permission, Yori wanted to help rebuild Wae Rebo.

“Although in the beginning some locals were suspicious of our presence, it didn’t take long for the villagers to befriend us,” said the Universitas Indonesia architectural engineering graduate. “Even the village chief told us that we from Jakarta were considered their ‘elders’.”

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With the village ready to accept Yori’s help, thus the Rumah Asuh programme was born. “For the [Rumah Asuh] programme we didn’t hire contractors or a team of experts from Jakarta; rather we mobilised the locals to create and build in the way of their forefathers,” said Yori. “We did not come to change their way of living, but we did advise about the importance of preserving the environment, including replanting the trees cut down for making the houses.

The Rumah Asuh programme also sought to resolve a common problem with Indonesian traditional homes: proper documentation. Up until Yori’s arrival, all Wae Rebo building knowhow was handed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. As the building went on, the village people involved the local young people so that they too came to know the techniques, so they could continue the Wae Rebo legacy.

Yori invited architecture students to document the whole process, and with them came digital cameras, laptops and even drones, which documented the locals building houses with the simplest tools.

“It was a clash of civilisations so to speak,” said Yori. “Living with them we got to see how building a house involved many ceremonies, the purpose of which many modern-day people probably can’t understand – but it is undeniably their way of life.”

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The Rumah Asuh programme became about more than just building traditional houses – it became a cultural project with architecture as the gateway to exploring other aspects
of the local culture. Soon not only were architecture students involved, but also students of anthropology, medicine, language and arts. The fascinating findings were documented and published in Pesan dari Wae Rebo (Messages from Wae Rebo). Now the Wae Rebo way of life is an open book that is archived and can be studied by everyone.

Yori Antar’s visit to Wae Rebo has had a profound impact on the society there. Since his expedition, the once almost forgotten village has become the prime destination in exotic travel, on a par with Komodo Island and Raja Ampat. The influx of tourists wanting to experience the Wae Rebo way of life has become an economic boost for the locals.

“Before we came, the people in Wae Rebo felt the pressure to move on from their traditional ways and adopt the ways of the modern world,” said the son of architect Han Awal, who designed the Indonesian Parliament building. “Now they are proud to embrace their heritage, and people travel from all over the world to experience it with them.”

The cherry on top of their collective efforts is that Wae Rebo was honoured with the 2012 Award of Excellence from the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.

Yori estimates that there are over 560 ethnic tribes in Indonesia – the most of any country in the world. “Imagine if more of these traditional cultures were uncovered and documented. Indonesia, instead of importing foreign culture, would be the inspiration for architecture and traditions of the world. We are truly sitting on top of a treasure chest of culture.” Local traditional knowledge has enriched Yori and his team in creating new projects. So much so, his firm has now built a reputation as the go-to company for ‘refined-traditional’ design.

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Aside from the many philanthropists and the Ministry of Tourism who support Yori, the Rumah Asuh programme has been adopted by the Ministry of Education to become the Rumah Budaya (House of Culture) programme. The plan is to develop 90 villages per year, and they have already had successes in Sumba and West Sumatra. In an attempt to spread the love and appreciation of Indonesian traditional architecture, Yori has made a push to add a National Architecture major in universities. Moreover, he has also started competitions for architecture students, architectural graduates, and established architect firms, aimed at raising awareness of traditional architecture in Indonesian society.