Profile: Ridwan Kamil

A star architect at the peak of his career and a champion of community action for sustainability  has brought Ridwan Kamil full circle to his hometown of Bandung, Indonesia. From designing cities, now his creativity  is channelled to making places greener and friendlier  to live in – from community gardens to bike sharing schemes. The advocate of greening is also a keen recycler, and incorporated 30,000 used drink containers into the design of his house which he built in 2007. Read more

By Zakir Hussain for The Straits Times:

At 30, architect Ridwan Kamil was on the cusp of his career, having worked in New York, San Francisco and Hong Kong.

Now 40, the man many young Indonesian design professionals regard as a “starchitect” is trying to transform his home country’s built – some say overbuilt – environment in more ways than one.

Dismayed that cities like Jakarta are too drab, he initiated the idea of “Indonesia Berkebun” – Indonesia Gardening – on Twitter two years ago to suggest that barren spaces in between buildings or slum areas in cities could be turned into vegetable gardens.

In a country with over 20 million Twitter users, the idea took off and community gardens sprouted, growing everything from spinach to soya bean. The gardens now exist in 26 cities, with many urban gardeners eating their own produce or selling it to nearby restaurants or markets.

The movement, however, is not just about greens. Mr Ridwan says it is about getting ordinary people to take part in changing their country in small – and creative – ways that also improve their lives.

Mr Ridwan is among a growing number of Indonesians with global experience who are actively seeking to make things better for their countrymen, rather than relying on bureaucrats.

“We want to make things happen. If the government is not on the same frequency, never mind, we do it ourselves,” he quips. “A community effort is more powerful and sustainable.”

“I’m fortunate to be from the middle class, and I thought why not push my creativity into solving problems for the less fortunate and rope others in?” he tells The Straits Times. “If the cause is interesting and not that difficult, people love to join. This is how communities can push change.”

Since returning home in 2003, he has helped spark a slew of changes to his hometown Bandung, from getting friends to collect used books for street children, to starting a community- run bike-sharing scheme that encourages residents and visitors to the increasingly overcrowded city centre to leave their cars at home, modelled around similar city-run schemes in Europe.

Bandung, a city of 2.5 million on a volcanic plateau with a cool climate, has developed a reputation as a creative hub in recent years, as dozens of art galleries, fashion designers, musicians and cafes opened up. The city has a young population – 60 per cent are under the age of 40 – and over 50 universities.

Four years ago, Mr Ridwan helped create the Bandung Creative City forum. It brings over 25 arts and other creative groups together to organise festivals and initiate cultural projects.

“We are world-class in terms of human and social capital, but not our city’s infrastructure. If we fix this, Bandung can leapfrog to higher status,” he adds.

One of their recent plans is to get various communities – from musicians to performing artists – to each adopt one of some 300 parks in Bandung, many of which are abandoned.

Their efforts have attracted wider notice. Mr Ridwan is travelling to Milan in November to share Bandung’s experience with city planners.

Mr Ridwan has proved that urban design is not just about buildings, but also “communal activities, collaboration and understanding among different stakeholders in a city”, said Ms Tita Larasati, a product designer.

Isn’t it ironic, Mr Ridwan muses, that things somehow don’t have to work before creative breakthroughs get sparked.

The second of five children of an international law professor and a pharmacy lecturer, Mr Ridwan graduated in architecture from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), before getting a master’s in urban design at the University of California, Berkeley.

He also spent eight months at the National University of Singapore in 1994 on a Singapore International Foundation fellowship.

Projects he worked on while abroad included Singapore’s Marina Bay waterfront masterplan – the urban blueprint before Marina Bay Sands came up – as well as Beijing’s CBD masterplan.

He set up his own firm, Urbane – short for urban evolution – an architecture and urban design studio in 2004. It now has 40 staff and their more notable projects include Jakarta’s Rasuna Epicentrum complex and the landmark Tsunami Museum in Banda Aceh.

He now spends a third of his time teaching at ITB, a third of it working at Urbane, and the remainder for his time on community activity. He is also writing a book, titled Rebuilding Indonesia Through Civil Society.

The advocate of greening is also a keen recycler, and incorporated 30,000 used 150ml Red Bull energy drink bottles that typically litter city streets into the design of his house which he built in 2007.

One current project he is grappling with involves designing a mosque in Garut, West Java, for an entirely blind community that would be the first such purpose-built mosque around.

“How do you create something beautiful for people who can’t see?” he wonders.

“Some people say Indonesia has so many problems. I see it has so many challenges.”


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