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Ridwan Kamil, Indonesia’s best-known architect, is preparing to move from the most modern house in Bandung to its most historic. Against the odds, Kamil was elected in June as mayor of this thriving city of 2.5m people, Indonesia’s third biggest. When he takes office in September, he will leave his cutting-edge, self-designed home for the mayor’s official residence.
While his wife is not too happy about the switch, lobbying to turn the house into a photography gallery rather than rent it to anyone else, Kamil has other things on his mind. “I will adjust. It’s no problem,” he says. “I have bigger issues to deal with.”
A new entrant to the boisterous political scene of the world’s third-biggest democracy, Kamil, 41, has designed offices, mosques and new townships in Indonesia, China and the Middle East.
Now, he must turn his attention to revamping the city where he was born after winning office with an impressive 45 per cent of the vote, in spite of his lack of political experience in a field of eight candidates.
Bandung was known during the Dutch colonial era as the Paris of Java because of its array of upmarket restaurants, cafés and hotels, its bohemian ambience and cool climate, which provided a respite from the tropical heat. These days, the only connection to that moniker is an unspectacular shopping mall named, rather quixotically, “Paris van Java”.
Indonesia’s economic boom of the past decade has transformed Bandung – a three-hour drive from the capital, Jakarta – into a prosperous hub for business, manufacturing and the creative industries. But, as in many emerging cities, rapid urbanisation has brought serious problems such as rising social inequality, interminable traffic jams, environmental degradation and corruption.
Kamil never thought about entering politics until eight months before the election, when he was asked to stand as mayor by several community groups and former students at the Bandung Institute of Technology, where he is a lecturer in addition to running his private practice.
“The city is in ruins,” he says. “While 17 years of my life have been dedicated to fixing other people’s cities, I feel very uncomfortable seeing my home town like this.”
In a young democracy, where voter turnouts have been falling as people have become increasingly frustrated with corrupt and ineffective government, Kamil is one of a handful of emerging young leaders who have re-energised Indonesian politics.
Wearing a short-sleeve, blue batik shirt and jeans, Kamil, who trained at the University of California, Berkeley, looks young and smart – the perfect figurehead for a city that has long been a centre for fashion designers, musicians and other creatives.
Kamil says he is inspired by the example of Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor, who turned to politics after making his fortune. “My monthly expenses are covered by my share in my company so I don’t have to think about [money],” says Kamil. “I just want to use my knowledge to fix this city.”
While Bandung undoubtedly has its problems, they are not immediately obvious from the soothing confines of Kamil’s home. Built between 2005 and 2007 at a cost of $200,000, the house was designed as a haven from the city, and was modelled on the resort homes commonly found on the Indonesian island of Bali.
It soon becomes clear, however, that this boxy building is not just another identikit villa with an infinity pool. Sixty per cent of the façade is made from empty glass bottles of Red Bull, the energy drink, stacked to form square panels.
The brown glass gives the house a warm glow, while the gaps between the bottles allow a gentle breeze to pass through, negating the need for air conditioning. It also makes a point about the need for more recycling in a nation of 250m where many people carelessly toss their rubbish into the streets or rivers.
Sitting in a red Arne Jacobsen Egg chair, one of his prized possessions, he explains that it took six months for a team of scavengers to find the 30,000 bottles he needed. “Most new houses in Indonesia only take eight months to a year to build but mine took so long because of the bottles.”
As he talks, a worker is busy cleaning the bottles, a complicated annual task carried out during Ramadan, the Islamic fasting month, when people in the world’s most populous Muslim nation typically spring clean their homes.
Every element of the house, which is on a quiet lane in the hilly suburb where Kamil grew up, has been designed to maximise space. This meticulous approach is a quality that will be essential to his success as mayor of such a crowded, fast-growing city.
The front door gives way to an open-plan living area with an Islamic prayer room to one side and a small swimming pool on the other. On a terrace above the living area, this keen promoter of urban farming has a small vegetable patch and plans to implement a regulation requiring every new building in Bandung to incorporate a garden.
The stairs, which double as seating for an amphitheatre-style mini-cinema, lead to a large kitchen/dining room, which Kamil says is the “most-used space” in the house.
The room, decorated in contrasting shades of light and dark, looks as though it has hardly been lived in, like much of the building. With everything so perfectly designed, it feels more like a high-end display house than a family home. Even his nine-year-old daughter’s toys are neatly lined up in a long alcove outside her bedroom.
As Kamil leads the way, there are signs of normal family disorder in one bedroom, where his 14-year-old son is dozing, midway through the afternoon. “It’s the school holidays and he’s tired because he’s been fasting,” Kamil says.
As an ambitious architect, university lecturer and community organiser – having established business-sponsored playgrounds and a London and Paris-style bicycle-hire scheme in Bandung – Kamil has never had much occasion for afternoon naps himself.
Time will be in even shorter supply once he takes up his new job. In his five-year term, he wants to double the city’s infrastructure budget, expand the bike scheme from 75 to 15,000 two-wheelers, revamp the ailing bus system, build a monorail line (the first proper form of mass transport in the city) and establish 100 new parks and playgrounds.
That is a daunting wish list in a country where the civil service and political class is notoriously inefficient, bogged down by red tape and riddled with corruption. The outgoing mayor of Bandung was recently detained by Indonesia’s powerful Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in connection with a case involving the misappropriation of funds meant to help the city’s poorest residents.
Kamil says he will take a firm stance against graft and dismiss officials who fail to do their jobs properly. He aims to follow in the footsteps of Indonesia’s most successful city leaders: Tri Rismaharini, the mayor of Surabaya, and Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta and a possible presidential candidate. Like them, Kamil wants to instil a new culture in public service that is open, responsive and focused on results. “I will follow their inspiration and stay more on the road, fixing things and finding issues, instead of doing meetings inside city hall and just listening to reports from my staff,” he says.
During the election campaign, Kamil launched a trial mobile phone app that allows residents to report problems such as potholes and dumped rubbish. In a technology-crazy city – the sixth most active urban area for Twitter in the world – Kamil hopes to roll out further innovations to keep the local government honest, increase efficiency and connect with the people.
Although he has a confident approach, talking in clear, focused, fluent English, as the interview concludes, Kamil admits for the first time that he is anxious about the task ahead. “Frankly, I’m a bit nervous, as this is something new for me,” he says. “But I have to pool my positive energy in my mind so that optimism is my driving force.”
Ben Bland is the FT’s Indonesia correspondent
Alongside his Egg chair, Kamil’s favourite possession is a lamp he designed. It is made from empty bottles of You C1000, an Indonesian vitamin drink, and sits on a tripod base.
The lamp, which he says resembles a “walking brain”, is one of 12 made by young people whom Kamil trained as part of his community activities.
The others were sold at a charity auction, with the highest bid at Rp20m ($1,850).
“I love using recycled materials,” he says.
“Bottles are great because, when you clean them, they look like they are brand new again.”