• Steve JM

Town Development

The four main culture/tradition that influence the form of Indonesian city and town are Indian-Hindu, pre-Hindu-Malayan, Chinese immigration and European.


Influence of Indian-Hindu mostly found in oldest towns in archipelago. The urban structure arrangement was determine by the ruler’s seat/palace, the palace of worship, and the central meeting place around a central cross roads which located following the four main point of compass. The traditional nucleus usually formed by a rectangular meeting place in centre of settlement as central square and streets that radiated outwards to the for main point of compass. This four main compass orientation was based on Hindu religion as mythological sources. The main central point of these settlements was a crossroads at which a sacred bayan tree was planted.

Pre-Hindu Malayan towns had an irregular structure of village settlements with detached houses. This structure is recognizable until today as ‘kampung’

Immigration of Chinese traders in the middle of first millennium AD also brought significant influence since rather adopted local structure; they imported their own traditionalist culture, a closed two-storey constructional form.

Europeans influence can be seen in some towns that founded during the 17th century. The effect of colonial period still can be seen today in the extensive upper-class residential areas. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, almost of all towns were exposed to the dominant influence of European industrialization.

The Indonesian town has always been composed of a mixture of heterogeneous elements but, as long as the towns remained small, there were no problem in spatially relating the individual districts. The Malay peoples found no means of combining other foreign elements with indigenous ones in order form a new, unified whole. Each new element was added on to the traditional nucleus according to its function.


Factors like dominant functions, special features and physical location characteristic were also influenced the modification of structural pattern in Indonesian town. The local building structures also depend on those factors, for example, where towns had to be built on narrow river embankments or along sea walls and the extended into surrounding swampland, the were constructed on stilts.

There are several points that could be found in most expanding towns, such as:

The traditional nucleus tends to be situated near the spatial centre.

It is usually the Chinese business districts which constitute the functional nucleus of the town (which therefore must be regarded as the architectural centre).

Modern multi-storey office block usually sited near to traditional nucleus and the Chinese business districts mostly become dominant elements.

Districts in Indonesian towns and cities can be characterized by specific structural elements into four main elements: The traditional Nucleus, The autochthonous kampung, the business districts and the upper-class residential areas.


Traditional nucleus

In Java and Bali, most of the town nucleus has a regular ground plan, drawn up under strict adherence to the main points of compass, which then gradually merges into more irregular forms as the town spreads outwards, away from the nucleus.

In original Hindu-Javanese nucleus, which is the basic structure of towns centre that mostly found in Indonesian towns, the main square meeting place was usually to be found in north-west quadrant of the main road junction since Hindu-Balinese philosophy believe these quadrant was to be occupied by the ruler’s palace.

In the 16th century, with the acceptance of Islamic religion, a certain amount of change was affected in town structure but the basic form still survived. One feature which did disappear was the ritualistic element of the original Hindu towns.

The Mosque, which built on the western side of the main square meeting place and had to face west-northwest, was responsible for significant change in the basic ground plan of more recently built towns and cities.

In sultanate on the Malacca peninsula and on the east coast of Sumatra, large mosques, surrounded by a school and working quarters, form the dominants of the towns and cities. In the Mukim settlements on Aceh, the building of the mosque actually gave rise to the emergence of towns.

Current basic pattern that could be found in mostly Java towns town consist of the regent’s residence on the south side of alun-alun, the Dutch assistant resident on one side or in vicinity together with the police station and other regional offices (during 19thcentury), a small European district developed (usually consisted of spacious living quarters, a society house and a school) in one of the street adjacent to alun-alun, and workshop of the craftsmen, which usually developed into small trading districts in the south of the palace complex.

Trend towards liberalism, political changes, the economic pressure and development in 20th century affected the development of town centers. New institutions such as administrative offices were housed in new building, erected on public land around the central square.

The Autochthonous Kampung

Kampungs, which are very similar in structure to the irregular form of village settlements constitute a typical feature of modern towns and cities, where they are to be found both on periphery and in many central areas. The kampung as a settlement form would still be suited for living as long as there was remained widely spaces and had low population density. But this condition was not lasted long towards the end of 19th century when large scale migration began.

The kampung periphery soon lost their semi-rural character because many open space adjoining to the towns were built on illegally. They were transformed into purely urban residential areas for the lower class. Many problems such as overcrowded, overburden utilities, and inadequate hygiene happen because the uncontrolled development and the absence of building regulations or of a means of enforcing them in kampungs.

The demand for housing increased faster than the rate at which accommodation could be made available at a price which the lowest income groups could pay; this is still the problem today. Currently, improved kampungs mostly were inhabited by a new lower middle class of junior employees and tradesmen since the original inhabitants, which unable to increase their income to meet the rising cost, were forced to move out to sub-standard kampung right outside the town.


The Business Districts

The ‘market place’, where the exchange of urban and rural products took place, was originally situated not far from residential area of the urban castes, that is, one or two streets away from alun-alun. In case of Bali, the market place was to be found in the south east quadrant of the main crossroads.

The business district premises, built in the Chinese tradition, were mostly two-storey and were originally built of wood. The size of these closely built-up business districts varies quite considerably, depending on the size and function of the town itself; the rows of houses occupied by foreign traders were always built on those streets through which the greatest volume of traffic flowed. In smaller towns, these rows of two-storey houses were usually to be found along the road leading out town, near a ford, a bridge or at a landing stage.

As the towns and their business functions grew, so the extended road system was orientated more and more towards the business districts, these then developed into the new town center. The unplanned spread of this kind of multi-storey building is one of the main causes of the imbalance in the structure of Indonesian towns.

Other form of business and trading district is called Pasar (a term borrowed from Persian language). The nucleus of the pasar complex was formed by an orderly arrangement of permanently sited sales booths, but as a rule these could not adequately supply the needs of overpopulated towns or urban districts, so that further semi-permanent buying and selling activities developed in many of the neighboring open spaces, squares, and streets.

In smaller towns and in almost all central places on the lowest level (kecamatan) there is a permanent pasar, usually situated adjacent to the Chinese business district.

The pasar is typical feature of many towns throughout Indonesia. In some towns, the open street and riverside are also used for a large variety trading and service activities.


The upper-class residential areas

The original form of European settlement consisted of enclosed two-storey buildings built in the style of 17th and 18th century European houses. Due to the several unsolved problem and disease, Europeans started to build their ‘manor houses’ outside the town. European houses were built around 1900 mostly had colonial ‘art nouveau’ style and the shape become more picturesque.

During the 19th century, the position of these new residential areas was oriented towards the older town centers; they were built in immediate vicinity of alun-alun or else to one side of the main streets, usually on a rise or slope. From about 1910 onwards, these districts took on a more orderly aspect and standardized.

In the 1930s semi-detached houses and other space saving forms of building were developed. The garden has been reduce to little more than a terrace, bordered by a few flower beds which act as a boundary between the neighboring plots of land.  Due to land shortage, two-storey buildings become popular.


Structure of Banda Aceh

The mixed and combination of those urban form and structure also found in Banda Aceh. Some basic urban structure were applied with some adjustment according to the it’s culture, physical situation and characteristic. The grand mosque and its adjacent open space create the traditional nucleus. On the west-south side of this nucleus, were found row of colonial houses with a large urban park in the middle of its street. Business district also could be found in the other side of the grand mosque. In the north-west side there were settlements of ‘kaum ulama’.

Kampung type settlements also could be found in Banda Aceh. The influence of Islamic culture strongly affected the settlement forms and structure. The Meunasah - a small kind of mosque, was become the nucleus of the settlements.

The fishermen use the river that flows directly to the center of the town as main access to reach the town. They usually a trade their goods – mostly fish directly from or in their boats. These activities create what so called floating market.

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an excerpt from Article: Cities and Towns in Indonesia Prof. Dr. Werner Rutz


by Stevanus J Manahampi

for Joint Studio – Architecture Post Graduate Program


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