A Dayak longhouse isn’t just the focal point of a village: it is the village. These imposing structures, sometimes over 200 meters long, can contain dozens of separate family apartments, as well as public spaces for cooking, blacksmithing, ceremonies, and social life. The ongoing transformation of West Kalimantan from a remote jungle fastness to a sprawling agricultural hinterland is placing new pressures on longhouse communities, which respond to those pressures in different ways.
Longhouses tend to be occupied by many families of from a single ethnic group-the term “Dayak” encompasses the Iban, Kayan, Desa, Taman, Kantuk, and many others. It is also possible for both men and women to marry into a longhouse of another ethnic group. Traditionally, the longhouse was the largest political unit to which Dayak people could belong. While larger alliances might exist between groups of longhouses, or speakers of the same language, each person’s primary allegiance was always to the longhouse.
While longhouses vary from region to region, and between different ethnic groups, most follow a similar structure. Public life is centered on a long, straight corridor. A row of doors on one side of the corridor lead to individual family apartments; doors down the other side lead to ladders down to the ground, or to an outdoor porch, a workspace for drying rice, mending nets, drying laundry, and a variety of other activities.
As longhouse families grow wealthier, they have a choice: to construct a single-family house, or to add rooms or features to their apartment within the longhouse. Many longhouse apartments extend backwards off the back of the superstructure, creating long, uneven chains of rooms. Other longhouses are surrounded by a few single-family homes.
One Iban Dayak longhouse, deep in the Kapuas River basin, was built in the mid-1970s. It took the community five years to assemble the necessary materials-especially the massive ironwood columns and beams, hundreds of them, as long as 12 meters each-and several more years to complete construction, using only hand-powered tools. The community assiduously observed certain traditional practices and materials, while changing others. The polished hardwood floors, for example, are a recent innovation.
This longhouse, a few hours’ drive outside Putussibau, is still surrounded by forests and fields, but even there many materials have become scarce, and innovation in building materials and styles is ongoing. The longhouse recently added another apartment, and an extra 8 meters to its length. The new area was built with ironwood-but only for posts, not for beams, and shorter than the posts elsewhere in the longhouse-and the rest with cement, softwood lumber, and ceramic tiles.
Another longhouse nearby has completely abandoned traditional materials. The two-story cement structure sits directly on the ground, instead of on stilts. Each apartment has an electrical meter outside the door, and the broad inner hallway is lit with fluorescent bulbs and floored with white ceramic tiles. It is an interesting choice: to discard the traditions associated with traditional materials and building methods, without dismantling the longhouse community by building single-family houses. Another longhouse just outside Putussibau is kept primarily as a ceremonial center, but not as an active residential community.
Farther downstream, where most of the forest has been logged and replaced with oil palms and rubber trees, communities are hard-pressed to find the materials to build a traditional longhouse. This one, built in the mid-80s, has only a few ironwood posts, and those are short and slim. The trees are simply not available. Many elements of this house are lashed together with rattan cords, which has become scarce as well. In the meantime, materials have only become harder to find as the forest disappears. When this longhouse burns down-as most of them do, every couple of decades-there may be no way to build a new one.