On November 5, 2014 Matthew Teismann presented the current state of his research on cultural estrangement in the post-colonial context of Indonesia. Titled Redesigning Cities with a Better Understanding of Well-being, Identity and History, he presentation was organized by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Teismann spoke along with Edgar Mora Altamirano, Mayor of Curridabat, Costa Rica. The presentation was given to students, faculty, and members of the general public. More information about the lecture can be found here.
Excerpt from the presentation:
In the nineteenth century under the directive of Dutch ethical policy, many great communal omo sebua (chief's house of origin) were razed, particularly on the smaller islands off the coast of Java and Sumatra. Justification for this destruction was the 'fear of tuberculosis and promiscuity.' This act, however, was control manifest through the erasure of a non-European cultural way of life. Furthermore, because of vast improvements to infrastructure resulting from a fledgling economy, colonial rule influenced mass immigration of ancient peoples from their traditional homelands into new urban centers, such as Jakarta and Medan.
Devoid of social identification and cultural identity, the political and economic forces of postcolonial Indonesia do not seem to acknowledge an awareness of the displacement of indigenous cultures wrought by colonization. This phenomenon poses a serious methodological question of how to link postcolonial Indonesia to its broader historical legacies if it remains curiously muted within the cultural framework of the former. Inspired by Lévi-Strauss' suggestion of the house as a social institution, my investigation aimed to deepen the limited understanding of the impact on social and cultural identity made evident through architecture, both rural and urban.
Relatively unknown outside of Indonesia, Bawömataluo, a small village in southern Nias, exemplifies vernacular architecture culminating in its monumental omo sebua. This house-type has been studied, surveyed, and codified little either by colonial experts or post-independence Indonesian architects.
One of the few remaining, the omo sebua is the symbolic center of a web of customs and social relations that bind villagers together. Derived from cardinal directions, the omo sebua is a microcosm of villagers' cultural place in the world, and like the universe itself, is vertically stratified into heaven, earth, and the underworld. To Indonesians, the way of life and the web of life are mutualistic and inseparable.
The underlying narrative of my research, which is now starting to emerge, was aimed at understanding the impact of 300 years of occupation (less so in Nias) and colonization's impact on the ways of life of Indonesians. Bawomataluo itself was a direct manifestation of colonization - fouded immediately after the burning and eradication of the village of Orahili. Built on top of a hill to protect against further attacks, the growth of Bawomataluo, visible in plan, was organized around the omo sebua, and limited by topography both in length and direction.
What legacies are now carried through into Nias culture, what legacies are lost, and what are the implications of such a shift? The direction of my work moving forward is that the colonization era ushered in the Christian era, washing away many ancient traditions.
Pre-Christian symbolism has disappeared, only that which is good for positive story telling has remained. While not directly denying it, the people of Bawomataluo tend not to discuss negative aspects of their past. The people of Nias value their culture. but seem to have a selective engagement with it, tending to remember only that which is contemporaneously relevant - or, quite frankly, profitable.
Perhaps it is not that the omo sebua lacks symbolic cosmological relevance, but rather that it is of little use for them today. In the past perhaps, the symbolism was underlaid beneath and within their culture. Regardless, the omo sebua remains powerful. It still retains a means of placing the people of Bawomataluo in this world.
Culture and tradition, as they can be applied in architecture, has been largely relegated to sociopolitical realms and is viewed by many contemporaries as either superseded or nostalgic. It is my position, however, that cultural tradition can rightly be claimed as an integral and vital component in both the philosophy and practice of architecture. It is precisely this cross-disciplinary approach - the study of architecture through the lens of geopolitics - that inspired me to pursue this research through the Kennedy School.