A visit to the kampung community that is next to Jakarta’s traditional port. Building houses on stilts is one of the prime architectural designs of human culture and appear all through history all over the world.
The neighborhood surrounding Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s traditional port, is an area of kampung houses that grew out from the coast over the bay. The houses were built together into a singular, complex mass of wooden planks, corrugated metal, brick, and plastic scrap that hover just above the water’s surface on wooden stilts. A complex network of covered tunnels weave through the community, connecting the houses and tying everything together. Many of the houses have two stories, with the top floors being reached with a ladder. It was all organic sprawl, with one scrap-material house sprouting up from or being connected to the side of another.
But it was also a complete, mature community. There were docks for boats, stores, markets for selling foods and other goods, a mosque, and nearby was a school.
Beyond initial appearances, this community was almost completely modern — the only thing archaic about it was the architecture itself. On the inside the homes were all connected with electricity, and many had washing machines, televisions, refrigerators, internet, and every other amenity that you could expect in a modern concrete urban home in a more formal area on solid ground in Jakarta.
Although this area was by no means off the charts of modern tourism — stragglers like myself sometimes wander over from the port or the nearby market — it hadn’t yet been invaded. The people living in these hodgepodge, superaquatic wooden alleyways did not seem irritated by my presence, I could detect no territorial sentiments, and nobody was selling anything to tourists except for one guy who carved little wooden ships by hand. The people here would just say hello and smile. They were generally willing to chat — sometimes inviting me to sit down with them in the shade of the narrow wooden passageway that meandered by their homes.
Stilt homes make it possible for people to live in tidal areas, where bodies of water ebb and flow given the time of the day, allowing for a better use of land and closer access to aquatic resources. On solid land stilt houses also have the benefit of inhibiting the entrance of vermin as well as providing shelter in the space beneath for livestock.
Stilt houses are not uncommon around the world. Building homes on raised platforms is one of the general architectural designs of humanity, and is not relegated to any particular place or any particular point in history. In coastal areas, on the banks of rivers or lakes, or many other places where the ground surface is inconducive for placing a structure, people have built homes on stilts. There is evidence of this architectural adaption extending back to the Neolithic and Bronze ages, and stilt homes have been built in locations as varied as Switzerland, Scandinavia, Greece, the Kamchatka Peninsula, West Africa, the Mosquito Coast, the Amazon, Micronesia, as well as all through the islands of Southeast Asia. Stilt houses are global, they are everywhere the natural conditions demand them, and today they are even undergoing a resurgence of popularity in floodplain and coastal regions of even developed countries as flooding becomes more frequent.
From Shivaji Das in The Highs and Lows From the Canals of Banjarmasin: