Acehnese & Bugis Vernacular Houses

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Table of Contents

  • Dwelling as a Shaper of Social Relations – Spaces and Tectonics
  • Horizontal layout of gendered spaces with distinct circulation pathway in an Acehnese house
  • Clear horizontal delineation of male and female spaces within the Acehnese house
  • Details of wall panel and floor joist construction in Acehnese house model which is a device that promotes the daily practice of gender segregation
  • Front facade of a Bugis house showing the sole shared entrance which imply everyday interactions between males and females
  • Dwelling as a stage that reaffirms social values – Space and Rituals
  • Sitting position of the newlyweds in the house navel of a Bugis house
  • Conclusion

The Dwelling and its Social Role “A house is a machine for living in” – Le Corbusier. Such functionalist view of the dwelling espoused by the Corbusier during the age of industrialisation is still embedded in today’s transactional societies. Dwellings, in the contemporary context, is often generalised as a building used as living quarters for one or more people. However, one has to forgo such pragmatic associations when examining vernacular houses built in an era prior to industrialisation, where indigenous social norms are still preserved and practiced. In these contexts, the home transcends the function as a mere shelter. It shapes, transmits and reaffirms norms and customs, thus contributing to the functioning of society.

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Through comparing nineteenth-century house models of the two Indonesian tribes, the Acehnese of Northern Sumatra and the Buginese of South Sulawesi, this essay explores the extent by which the social role performed by the house can manifest in the built forms. Form, Structure and their association to Social Role. West elevation of a Bugis house model from South Sulawesi, showing formal characteristics and materials used in its construction. Model owned by the Museum for Ethnology in Vienna, dating back to the early eighties of the nineteenth century. West elevation of an Acehnese house model from Kampong Mon Tasie, southeast of Banda Aceh, showing formal characteristics and materials used in its construction. At the first glance, the Acehnese and Bugis houses share strikingly similar formal characteristics.

Similar characteristics shared by the Bugis (right) and Acehnese (left) house models which belong to the same house typology. Both are classified as the tripartite house with multi-leveled floors and H-frame timber structure (Reimar 2004). These post and beam structures are primarily constructed using mortise and tenon joints. Timber columns rest on stone footings raised above ground, responding to the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago’s tropical conditions (Dall 1982). Practical usage of locally-sourced natural materials is observed. Structural members are constructed out of timber, while non-structural members such as floor, wall, and roof are constructed using bamboo and thatch. One shall be wary to hastily associate these close structural and formal resemblances to similar social norms practiced by the tribes. Instead, the form and tectonics of both houses are primarily informed by the pragmatic goals of building a shelter. One has to examine the dwelling from the inside out – delve into the spatial layout and subsequently form and tectonics, to comprehend the social role of the house.

Dwelling as a Shaper of Social Relations – Spaces and Tectonics

The dwelling acts as a sphere for standards of acceptable behaviours to be established, transmitted and assimilated into each individual in the household. Inhabitants create rules of space usage, which form an environment that molds and reproduce certain patterns of social relationships (Waterson 1991). An inclination towards segregation of sexes in everyday life, a practice most likely in existence during the paganist period predating Islam, (Waterson 1991) is a social norm shared by both Acehnese and Bugis. This shared practice manifests itself through spaces within the dwelling. Intentionally infilled non-structural walls in the relatively free-plan post and beam Acehnese and Bugis house models demarcated clear boundaries of gendered spaces.

Horizontal layout of gendered spaces with distinct circulation pathway in an Acehnese house

Four distinct volumes of spaces are evident in the Achenese house model. The male verandah is situated at the front, “public” end while the female spaces, namely the kitchen and female verandah, are located at the back of the house (Dall 1982).

Clear horizontal delineation of male and female spaces within the Acehnese house

Gender segregation further emphasised on through placement. The four by five grid is divided rectilinearly along its long axes, with walls running from the western end to the eastern end of the house at every row of timber columns. Exclusive gendered spaces, which is the first, third and fourth sections belonging to males and females respectively, are physically set apart. An intermediate space, where the bedrooms and passageway are found, acts as a spatial buffer that elongates the physical separation of these two spaces. Nonetheless, demarcation of spatial boundaries between genders is ambiguous in practice. The kitchen, theatricalised as the domain females, is, in fact, a shared space used by both genders for dining (Dall 1982).

Distinct circulation routes intended for each gender enforce the strict practice of gender segregation in Acehnese society. Additionally, the Acehnese house subconsciously reinforces patterns of space usage by dictating gendered circulation routes. Tectonics and construction of elements within the house have the ability to express the idea of a spatial divide, contributing to the transmission of social patterns of gender segregation.

Details of wall panel and floor joist construction in Acehnese house model which is a device that promotes the daily practice of gender segregation

In this particular model of the Acehnese house, 18cm strips of overlapping timber wall panels positioned vertically in relation to the floor were nailed to wall beams, terminating at the base by resting on the bottom plate forms a visually impermeable layer that delineates the definite boundaries of each room. Juxtaposed against the visually porous timber floor of immediate proximity, which comprised of 6cm of slats spaced apart, the solidity of the vertical partitions of the house is accentuated. This enhanced sense of spatial division intensifies the boundaries of spaces already divided along gender lines. Critics may argue that this differential treatment to floors and walls stems from logical decisions guided by practical usage of valued building materials, instead of an intentional emphasis on spatial division. Overlooking the origins of such forms, one cannot deny that the resultant structure highlights the sense of definite spatial boundaries through vertical division, inhibiting physical and visual connections between male and female spaces.

In a similar vein, gender relations are normalized within the Bugis house through spatial division, brought about by the placement of walls, and circulation, shaped by the number and placement of staircase. Figure 8 Spatial layout and usage which normalise the practice of gender segregation within a Bugis house.

Position and orientation of male and female spaces within the Bugis house, reflecting the extent of adherence to the practice of gender segregation.

The five by five grid plan of the house is divided in both the long and short axes, forming four different rectangles. The house provides separate spaces for each gender to inhabit, reflected by the large two by four section space for males and small two by one section space for females. The short axes of female space meet the long axes of male space perpendicularly, with a direct connection enabling through access. and female spaces are in close proximity to each other, with a direct opening that connects both spaces together, thus blurring the boundaries between these two spheres. In reality, women occasionally spend time in the front part of the house, which is only avoided when unrelated male guests are visiting. For ordinary meals, the Buginese eat together in a circle on a large mat in the kitchen house. It is only during visits by unrelated male guests when men then eat alone in the front part of the house while females dine in the kitchen (Pelras 1996, 227). The Bugis’ liberal attitude towards gender segregation is echoed by shared circulation spaces within the house.

Presence of shared and distinct circulation pathway according to gender within a Bugis house, reflecting the lenient attitude towards gender segregation

A single bamboo staircase placed at the only entrance, an opening on the main façade, provides access to the inhabitable space elevated 2 meters off the ground. In this model, the staircase placed perpendicularly to the main façade of the house, most likely facing a road, acts symbol of social status due to the fact that only the nobles are permitted to have such layouts. This circulation space leads to the tamping, a shared covered gallery which functions as a dining room for both males and females, before the circulation branches off to single-gender usage.

Front facade of a Bugis house showing the sole shared entrance which imply everyday interactions between males and females

Material and construction of lightweight prefabricated wall panels within a Bugis house, which is the device for segregation of gendered spaces. Prefabricated, lightweight, porous walls panels made out of sheets of plaited bamboo (split or flattened bamboo in other models) are physical manifestations of spatial dividers which separate spaces along the lines of gender and program (Pelras 2004). In comparison to the timber walls in the Acehnese house, visual and spatial boundaries between rooms in the Bugis house are less defined. This is attributed to the inherent qualities of materials used, and their respective methods of construction. Contextual differences, such as types of available construction materials within the region and local building customs, are primary factors behind these different forms. Scrutinising both Acehnese and Bugis houses yields the fact that gender segregation can outwardly manifest itself in spatial layouts and tectonics. Subtle difference in the extent by which each tribe adhered to the practice of gender segregation is captured by spatial dissimilarities between these houses. Dwelling as a possession that regulates power relations – Settlement pattern and decorative forms.

In the matrilineal Acehnese society, the house becomes a possession passed down along generations. The dwelling indirectly reaffirms kinship ties and asymmetrical gendered power relations through the practice of female inheritance. Acehnese dwellings are often situated in a fenced courtyard, with some courtyards containing additional houses belonging to married daughters. The women in each courtyard were descendants of the same female ancestor (Peter J.M Nas and Akifumi Iwabuchi 2008, 36), attesting to a society organized according to the mother’s lineage. The house, and sometimes, the surrounding rice fields, are customarily betrothed to married daughters. Such settlement pattern conveys the significance of the domestic role females played over that of males, which contributes to the tendency towards males being treated as “guests” in the wife’s house (Dall 1982, 50), playing a subsidiary role in the domestic realm.

Dimensions of gendered spaces and furnishing within these spaces reflecting different spatial usage and the implying asymmetrical power relations between males and females. Formally, interior of the house expresses the idea of asymmetrical power relations. The elaborately ornamented male verandah situated at the front of the house (Dalls 1982) can be interpreted as a gesture of courteously shown towards the male “guests”. Female house owners presumed a more pragmatic relation to the house, without the need of pompous ornamentations, evident from the plain female verandah situated at the back. Alternatively, this difference in detail treatments of the house can interpret this practice of matrilineal inheritance as a form of tokenism. Such ornaments are also possibly superimposed onto the original house due to the introduction of a different belief systems. Ambiguous power relations can only be guessed due to the gaps between documented history of the Acehnese houses.

Dwelling as a stage that reaffirms social values – Space and Rituals

Special occasions that marked the rites of one’s life occurs in the domain of the house for the commoners (Waterson 1991, 177), which implies the inherently significant role of architecture in the social domain. Marriage, a highly symbolic social event involving grand, symbolic processions observed by the community, emphasises on the social weight given to the act of coming together of a male and female. During this event, the house itself is a vehicle for such values to be revered and reinforced, where elements of the dwelling become highly symbolic features to reinstate the importance of marriage. For the Acehnese, newly-weds are expected to sit still for hours at a pair of gendered posts, namely the “prince” and “princess” post, made out of the soundest and most refined wood (Dall 1982, 45).

Sitting positions of the newly-weds, defined by the relative positions of “Prince” and “Princess” ritual posts within the Acehnese house, seen in relation to the most hierarchical section of the house. The posts are situated at the inner section of the house, known as the dalam (“inside”), corresponding to the second section of space on plan (Dall 1982, 56). This most elevated, hierarchical space encompasses the idea of a sanctuary, nested between the male and female verandahs of lower floor height, and that of the pairing of gender. Associating marriage to these structural posts, linked to superstitious animalistic beliefs, borrows the idea of sacredness and permanence. Alternatively, it can be interpreted as a personification of main posts and their identification with the husband and wife who occupies the house (Waterson 1991, 190). Apart from these symbolic processions witnessed by family members and fellow tribesmen, it is also a custom for the married couples to sleep in the highly furnished, most important bedroom located on the west in the dalam (Dall 1982, 57). Similarly, in the Bugis tradition, marriage rituals revolve around a ritual post.

Sitting position of the newlyweds in the house navel of a Bugis house

The specific location of this ritual post, namely within the “proper” body of the house, identified by a series of three by three posts, located diagonally across the entrance (Pelras 2004, 211), accords its symbolic meaning. The post defines centrality of the “house navel” (posi bola) (Pelras 1996, 154), thus holds much weight in the Buginese cosmological beliefs. It underpins the idea of the navel as a vital center and a source of power, where the spirit of the house (semangat rumah) lives (Waterson 1991). Symbolic marking of the “navel” post with blood by the bride’s father on the eve of his daughter’s wedding (Pelras 1996, 154) was observed to keep the spirits “cool” and happy (Waterson 1991, 180). Subsequently, newlyweds are expected to sit still together for a period of time at the posi’ bola to make the marriage public and official (Pelras 1996, 155). Such highly symbolic procedures orchestrated within the domain of the dwelling, witnessed by the community, demonstrate the dwellings capacity to transmit ideas that society held in high regard.


In a nutshell, the house act as various agents to serve its social role. Forms, layouts, materials, and construction have the ability to hint at social norms, such as gender segregation and gender roles. However, these materialistic modes of expressions have their shortcoming in conveying the value of marriage, which has to be manifested through rituals. In fact, the architecture of a house is limited in its ability to communicate the obscured, intangible differences embedded within the Acehnese and Bugis. Ultimately, the way we built has to be complemented with the way we use the built spaces to imbue rich layers of meaning into the dwelling.

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