Realrich Sjarief: "Architecture should not just appear. It's a response to challenges"

Realrich Sjarief is the founder of the Indonesian bureau RAWArchitecture. He also works for DOT Workshop, a tectonic research company, and OMAH Library, a research group and public library with about 1,500 books on architecture.

Realrich is active in teaching at several universities in Indonesia and giving public lectures on contemporary architectural discourse. He is also the author and editor of several books on architecture. Ahead of his presentation at 100+, Realrich talked about what he thinks architecture's primary mission is and why it's important for builders to go back to their roots, such as wooden buildings.

- You have written several books for students about the theory and formation of architecture and the "secret" of the architect's life. If you summarise everything you say in them, what is architecture after all? And who are the people who choose this profession?

- I believe that architecture is the bridge between building and art, it's all about the ecosystem of life. Architecture should solve the problems of humanity. It shouldn't just arise - first there must be a problem, such as the need for good housing for people. Architecture is the answer to that. And then the technology comes along with it. That is what everything must be based on.

The people who have chosen to be architects are the people who believe that architecture can bring changes that will improve our civilisation.

- One of your most recent projects is the AlfaOmega School for 1,200 people in Indonesia, which was built literally from improvised materials. Did you know it was going to be like this from the beginning, or was it an accident?

- It was both. The Alfa Omega School project was a charity project. We had done a similar building before, and we did it very well: first of all, we kept the budget small, and secondly, we used local materials such as bamboo. The client liked it so much that he gave us the Alfa Omega project. It was an exceptional case. Usually our companies invest very rarely in such social facilities, especially in education, because they are not commercialized in any way. The company joined this project specifically because they liked the philosophy: Alfa is the beginning, Omega is the end, and in the middle between the beginning and the end they want to help people. And that's really rare.

It's so coincidental that our design method has adapted to local resources and builders. It is a case where knowledge from two worlds - theory and implementation methodology - converged. It is a good version of a school, which can be an example of efficient construction, where more aesthetics are added through the use of local materials. Also, the project helps to understand indigenous, grassroots architecture.

- Still: should architecture obey circumstances or should circumstances obey architecture?

- All together, and we architects are the bridge between the two. The architect's job is to change circumstances. Where is that possible? For example, we had a project to realise on an area prone to flooding. In order to optimise the construction site, we had to build a bridge for the workers so they could walk over it and carry construction materials. We ended up spending quite a lot of resources and time on this, but we improved the conditions on this site, thus having a positive impact on the circumstances. Generally speaking, 60-80% of every project is based on context, on an understanding of local circumstances. You have to be attentive to the terrain in order for the facility to work more effectively as a result.

- You said in your interview that you prefer to take on projects where you can experiment. And what is your attitude towards standard development? In your opinion, is it necessary or should every project be unique?

- If quantity is the problem we want to solve, in my opinion, stopping at model projects is not the worst option. If you know the theory of design, you can achieve a balance. We ourselves have developed a certain methodology by which we determine when a project should be experimental and when it should be typical. In fact, I have come to the conclusion that in one city usually about 20-30% of the projects are unique and the rest are typical. In Indonesia, this is a certain standard for the construction industry.

I don't think that this amount of typical development is a bad thing. In fact, it's like an iceberg with a top side and a bottom side. Here it is very important to understand that as architects we still have to be connected to the community and to feel that it is not always necessary to have some unique housing; on the contrary, we often need standard designs. Not every project can be unique. By listening to people, we can influence the industry in some way. Listening to what humanity needs is the main thing.

- Do you communicate with Russian architects? (Maybe you follow someone.) If so, what useful things could they teach you and you teach them?

- I don't know any contemporary Russian architects. But two years ago I studied the history of Russian architecture. I like to look at beautiful structures made of wood. I also love discussing and seeing some of the brilliant work of Russian architecture, including churches built hundreds of years ago. I especially love the churches located in the town of Torzhok in the Tver region. They are made with very great skill, it's handiwork. One can feel the collective work and understanding of the community.

Of course, those old techniques can be used in modern architecture. The wooden buildings that we studied had quite interesting structures. In general, I think the future of architecture is in combining materials: permanent ones like concrete and organic ones like wood and bamboo, based on what's available in the area. Because using organics is the only way to create more sustainable buildings and come to a more sustainable architecture.

- The theme of our forum this year is conscious building. What do you mean by that, and how do you go about building consciously everywhere?

- I believe that to do something consciously is to do it in the best possible way. We're used to doing as usual, and to start doing consciously is to allow ourselves to take a break, sit down, think, rethink how we can become better, become the best we can be. We have to look back, look at our history. In Russia, they made beautiful wooden buildings, you had a well-developed craft. Now we have to use it in some way for the future. It will be more environmentally friendly construction. Maybe the role of an architect is just to be a bridge between the past and the future, to go back to your traditions, but also to use modern technology and to understand how we can make the unconscious conscious.

I believe that we architects are the representatives of change that will change the perception of society. Your forum is good because it pushes for change in the future through meetings of the brightest minds in the world.