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Tsunami Ravaged City’s Architecture Preserved in Digital Archive

Parul Dubey on September 5, 2017 - in Buildings

AN emerging architectural research method is being used to document the architectural heritage of Indonesian buildings wiped out in the 2004 tsunami.

Banda Aceh, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, was one of the worst affected areas in the December 26 tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people in 11 countries.

A reconstruction effort has since seen much of the city rebuilt, but few of the modern structures remain in keeping with the traditional Acehnese style.

Under the guidance of lead researcher Dr Julie Nichols, 25 architecture students from the University of South Australia recently travelled to Banda Aceh to study traditional building techniques.

The group used an uncommon research methodology known as VERNADOC (vernacular documentation) to record oral histories of Acehnese architecture and produce measured drawings of the city’s surviving traditional buildings.

The method, developed in Finland in the past decade, combines ethnographic research and manual measured architectural drawing to record and preserve heritage structures.

Dr Nichols said it was the first time the VERNADOC research method had been used in Banda Aceh.

“Vernacular documentation isn’t common at all, in fact, we’re the first Australian group to do what we’re doing,” she said.

“Basically it’s a data collection method. We had local people talk about how they used the space, and why the buildings were designed in a particular way.

“It’s more of a craft-based process using knowledge passed down to generations. That knowledge is then used to build in a traditional style.”

The students’ drawings are kept as digital records and will form part of the reinstated Acehnese architecture archive, which was destroyed during the tsunami.

“It was a lost archive after the tsunami, everything washed away, including many of the people who had the knowledge of this housing,” Dr Nichols said.

“The broader aim is to get the local Indonesian people to look back on the designs, take up the method and continue the work.”

The trip was funded through the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Mobility Program, and involved Indonesian universities, Thai researchers, and local and international architects.

Dr Nichols said modern-day architects could learn by looking into the past.

“The argument in this current climate is that old buildings are too expensive to retain, which is just a fallacy. Everyone perceives new to be better rather than looking at how you can remediate something old to be useful now,” she said.

“We really have to seriously start investigating ways of restoring, refurbishing and reusing our current stock.”

The University of South Australia will bring the VERNADOC research method to Australia for the first time in 2019 as part of a study into early colonial fishing shacks in South Australia’s Coorong National Park.

“The shacks will soon get destroyed because they need a lot of maintenance. We’re hoping to work with the South Australian Environment Department to document the shacks so that we can do something with them, maybe develop them into a sustainable tourism location,” Dr Nichols said.

“Vernacular documentation could really shake up how we think about design in the future.”

Researchers from the University of South Australia launched the Vernacular Knowledge Research Group in Jakarta in July in partnership with Universitas Indonesia, Universitas Syiah, Universitas Udayana, the Association of Oral Traditions and the Association of Siamese Achitects under Royal Patronage.

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