In Conversation with Eko Prawoto
March 16, 2022
Living more authentically with Nature
For Eko Prawoto, understanding Nature is of utmost importance, and the key premise of sustainability is in humbly practising it primarily in everyday life. He has taught at the Faculty of Architecture and Design at Duta Wacana Christian University since 1985, and established Eko Prawoto Architecture Workshop where he has been Chief Architect since 2000.
He gained international acknowledgement for projects and installations that utilised natural materials at the Venice Biennale; Arte all’arte; Gwangju Biennale; Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale; Common Ground Australia; Regionale XII in Austria; Singapore Biennale; Holbaek Denmark; Sonsbeek; and Europalia-Indonesia in Belgium, among others.
Seven years ago, Eko moved to the village in order to study and articulate a new rural ‘architectural language’, something he feels would hold our key to survival in the future. I chatted with Eko about his projects and philosophies, as well as current issues that are rooted in our distance from Nature, and how to live in a more authentic way by minimising that gap.
A CONTEXTUAL REBUILDING OF VILLAGE HOMES
What happens after Nature shifts and stirs? This is a question that people living in disaster-prone areas often deal with in an urgent, life-or-death manner. Some disasters linger in the collective memory due to their unforeseen magnitude, such as in 2006 when an earthquake destroyed the entire region of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Within a span of minutes, over 140,000 structures were heavily impacted, leaving many residents homeless with little to no recovery plan. The matter of rehousing quickly gained national attention—and for architect Eko Prawoto, it began a personal journey of involvement out of his deep care for fellow villagers.
“I wanted to visit my friends, the builders who used to work with me, in their village on the second day following the earthquake,” Eko recollected. Located 10 kilometres away from the epicentre, Ngibikan Village saw many of its timber-and-plaster structures flattened against the ground. However, Eko noticed that a wooden truss system he had devised for several buildings around the village remained standing. “I discussed with Pak Maryono as the village leader, ‘can we use the leftover timber to rebuild?’ So, we tried to make a prototype of the truss.”
The design that Eko proposed was based on a traditional structure familiar to the villagers, called the limasan—characterised by tall beams, a peaked roof and a tripartite division of space that could be flexibly developed. His modification allows the structure to be resistant to compression and tension, making it more resilient against earthquakes. “Because [the villagers] were still traumatised by the earthquake, the walls were not all made of bricks, and measured only 1 metre high. But the houses are made to stand tall so that it could be easily developed later with good ventilation, and also does not psychologically ‘store’ the trauma. I deliberately avoided a ‘sad’ expression for the house, to not say, ‘oh, this is the house of an earthquake victim’. So, the houses stand proudly, optimistically—bringing dignity for the community,” Eko explained.
SHIFTING OUR PERCEPTION OF NATURE
While natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are an inevitable part of Earth’s geological activity, many more disasters occur due to human interference—the exploitation and destruction of Nature. Landslides and flooding, for example, are caused by drastic modifications of forest resources or water networks that run through the urban fabric. The pandemic that is ravaging globally since the past couple of years has also been traced to a zoonotic disease that mutated from animals to humans—in no small part exacerbated by the growth of human settlements that destroyed natural habitats, disrupting the ecological balance.
“I am sometimes asked, ‘If you live in a village, are there snakes? Are there mosquitoes?’ Sure, there are. There are also termites, all kinds of critters—and so what? This is their home—I’m simply a boarder; I live alongside them.”
I asked Eko how he felt about this intensity of development, since we are entrenched in an economic system that rewards continual building, especially in the urban context, which has brought about an all-too-convenient way of life while often masking the true costs. Eko believes that a reorientation is in order—the solution rests upon the awareness of the younger generation, although the process may not be instant. “We need to create alternative scenarios, as in how to build or reformulate a simpler—a comfortable but simple—way of life. The first [principle] is to not force Nature. I think this ethical understanding is very important … try to live in harmony with the larger system, and to be sufficient with what is around. This is very difficult, because we are used to being very consumptive and absorbing or wanting a lot of things. But the question is how do we try to minimise what we actually use, consciously? The sufficiency limit is indeed very relative, so it needs to be exercised more often. It’s a learning process.”
Eko considers his daily activities in the village to be a continual process in respecting Nature, which he documents through his Instagram account. Filled with pictures of insects, plants and artful compositions of natural objects, I asked what the ‘land art’ project meant to him. “I found it fun because I had to understand the characteristics of the seasons and try to appreciate everything that Nature gives,” said Eko. “When leaves fall, it is part of the dynamics of the seasons. This means not seeing the leaves as trash, and considering the place as dirty. The concept of dirtiness or waste is actually unknown to Nature, since trees shed their leaves as a mechanism of their life cycle, and the fallen leaves merge into the soil to become nutrients, which are then used as their food.
“It’s not fair to consider the leaves as garbage. That’s why I tried to create artwork from the fallen leaves—making land art to communicate with the landscape on a micro basis. I just want to change [people’s] perception. When we see leaves as art materials, it will be different from seeing leaves as dirty, as something that must be swept away.”