A sobering journal entry written by Ridwan Kamil, an Indonesian architect/urbanist.
The following is originally written in Indonesian (ridwankamil.wordpress.com “Terjebak di Rumah Susun”, published February 5, 2009):
Once upon a time in 2008 I was asked to design an apartment project in Jakarta. (I) felt challenged, because (I) often saw apartment designs that were very sad, not innovative, lined up and boring like a line of soldiers. (I) initially wanted to produce an apartment concept that is cheap and humane through innovative design. Initially, (my) head was very excited and full of various ideas. However, in the journey there were so many contradiction of priorities. At the end of the process, the reality of market economy and government’s rules that were immature finally stripped away those dreams. Design ideals shrunk one by one.
Because (it) was given to the market’s mechanism, private sector has the strongest role in producing apartments. In order for their business to make sense, they calculate very carefully. If prices have to be cheap as requested by the government, they ask for many compensations. The trick is to build with very high square meters, reflected through the many number of floors and pressed construction costs. On the other hand, they also demand that design must be very efficient, where 85 percent floor area is rentable while the rest is for circulation. Every floor must be double loaded where both the left and right side of the corridors are units for sale with minimum required floor area. The dimensions are 18, 21, 27, 30, or 36 meter squared. From the economic perspective, those requests make sense.
However when design lines are drawn on paper, all the conflicts are revealed. When design plans are created, all the problems surface. Just like opening the Pandora’s box.
For apartments in Jakarta, government generally gives an FAR of 5.0 or the total of built area is equal to 5 times the plot area. If the plot area is 2 hectare then the total built area is 10 hectare. The effect is shocking. Because the units are tiny, the total population in this 2 hectare plot can reach up to 16 thousand people. When simulated, if all those residents exit downstairs simultaneously for evacuation, the available open space which is around 60 percent of total plot size cannot hold them. This is very unnerving. These rules give incentives for developers but ignore the effect of population boom that happens.
With the very large square meter on this very limited plot, building heights become layered up to dozens of floors. Corridors become very long and dark. It is even more complicated when ideas to widen corridors or to take out a few units for light wells are rejected in a flash. The reason being the proportion of rentable and circulation area is no longer efficient. The project is then no longer feasible. And the story of Pruitt Igoe’s project in the US that was demolished due to acute social and safety issues haunt the journey of this process.
Ideas to add elevators to humanize (the project) are often rejected by developers as well. The reason being the expensive cost. The truth is with such a high density of dwellers, during morning or night commute, many dwellers can pass out or die standing due to waiting time of over 30 minutes just to go down or up these apartments. Not to mention the problem of density can trigger sociology issues. Those who are used to live in small rented houses suddenly must live on the 20th floor. They need large social and cultural adjustments. The issue of safety in corridors, parking, or street vendor spaces will always be there as well. And don’t even hope that apartments built by private sectors will have the concept of single loaded corridors as imagined by the government. The architect will be thrown shoes by the developers, a la ex-president Bush.
Weeks after this project’s assignment were weeks full of debates and arguments. At the end there were compromises, but those on top were always arguments about economic calculations by the developers. Current position: creativity is beaten down by economic calculations. A very tiring valuable lesson indeed.
The beginning of the previous fight is the result of the country’s weak role in guaranteeing the rights of citizens to own a house. The government should provide houses or these apartments without too much private sector involvement. Once given to the laws of the market, the calculations of economy (immediately) becomes the driving engine. Issues of sociology, culture, and ecology are often ignored. The 1000 tower campaign by the government eventually sounds like a political joke above clouds in comparison to nonsense planning.
Indeed sale price has been locked to be no higher than 144 million (rupiah) for buyers with maximum income of 4.5 million. It is assumed that with this estimated affordable price, all the problems are solved. However developers continue to think of business. It’s understandable that prices are pressed low but give me thousands of units, they think. They calculate, it is okay to receive change (small money), as long as the amount is very high. That is the origin of density 5 times the plot area.
The funny thing is, after contemplation, it turns out that all sides were still figuring out what apartment building really means. Sloppy government, economy-driven developers who don’t care about social and cultural costs, and of course worried architects who are are trapped in this wormhole. Those who often critique apartments often forget that apartments which are ideal based on sociology and culture can only become reality if the project is provided 100 percent by the government with a large amount of subsidy. In this vortex of market laws, I myself saw directly how apartment projects that pass (building) permission processes are very minimal in design innovation, lined up like soldiers, very plain buildings soaring high up. Even competition entries of apartment designs which are said to be very innovative are guaranteed to be non-applicable when plunged into this market context. The process of architecture is the process of compromise.
That is the first lesson of this exhausting journey. Tired because (I) must trade arguments or ideas between ideals with an overwhelming pressure of economy. The next lesson is a conclusion that the country should be the concept driver and developer of these apartment houses. But hopelessly, this country always claims there is not enough budget.
But the most important lesson of this tiring journey is that apartment homes with extremely high density still remain as the dwelling concept that are most contextual in responding to the weights of many large cities in Indonesia. This is why, dear architects, you should not lose hope and keep innovating blessed by prayers. For the future of our civilization, cities, and the future of our children and grandchildren.