Doni Iskandar: “Good design is one that understands the local and cultural context”

This May 2021, enCity is delighted to welcome back Doni Iskandar, who is returning to our international team as Principal of Architecture + Urban Design and Project Coordinator. With more than 15 years of experience as an architect and designer, Doni brings in his creative talent and design expertise in leading and coordinating various enCity projects in Vietnam and Indonesia.

Graduated Bachelor of Engineering from the Institute of Technology Bandung (ITB) and Master of Architecture from Bauhaus-Dessau International Architecture (DIA) in Germany, Doni began his architectural career in 2003 as a Junior Architect in Indonesia. From there, he worked at various architecture firms around the world, such as WS Atkins in Bahrain, DP Architects Singapore, and HMD Architecture Design in Shanghai. Some of his key projects include a 30-hectare housing development in Amwaj Island, Bahrain, a schematic master plan and residential architecture in Huai’an, China, and a 100-hectare township development in Xixian, China.

Regarding his design motto, Doni shares that: Design follows context. “I believe good design is one that understands the locality, specifically the environmental, physical, social, economic and cultural context. Any built environment should respect its surroundings and create a harmonious balance between a progressive idea and local wisdom. To me, architecture is not only about buildings, but it should enhance the existing condition, bring new energy to the environment, and create a ‘place’ (physically, emotionally, and spiritually). And a good place can be without a building. Architecture is a tool to define ideas and visions.”

The highest priority in Doni’s design process is people – how to design an environment that fosters a sense of belonging and becomes part of their story. For him, it is about bringing out the soul and energy of the space to give a wonderful experience to the people. Taking his work for the Xixian Township Development as an example, he envisioned the project as a revival of ancient Chinese towns adapted to the modern context. The 100-hectare site features waterfront commercial streets reminiscent of old canal villages, and housing units with scenic views towards a large artificial lake.

Xixian site plan

With a similar approach, Doni applies this philosophy in the renovation of Yuyuan Mall in Shenyang. “The urban design concept of this mall was based on the idea of the historical Chinese commercial street. The building itself is actually a big shopping mall, but we camouflaged its bulky appearance with the design of local street façades to give it variation and a unique form. The mall is located within the historical axis of Shenyang, and there are ancient ruins at the centre of the site; therefore, we wanted to preserve the historical ambience by utilising traditional architecture and urban design. In order to strengthen its value and distinction, we gave more articulation and character to the over-all design with the concept of ‘yin and yang’. This is reflected in the façade of the mall, which consists of interactions between southern Chinese vernacular design and contemporary architecture.”

Doni’s rendering for Yuyuan Shenyang…

… and the completed project in real life

Aside from his passion for history, Doni is also enthusiastic about the religious and cultural layers of contemporary architecture. Xining is a small city in southwest China and is considered as the country’s Islamic centre, with 80% of the population being Muslims. The Xining Islamic Town was a revitalization project for a historical district within the city, where an important mosque is preserved as a heritage building. The government wanted to regenerate the area surrounding it and establish a cultural tourism hub to introduce Islamic culture to China. The existing settlement area will be enhanced and its residents will be given the opportunity to run the tourism business of the district.

Xining Islamic Town as rendered by Doni Iskandar

The idea behind the masterplan was to bring back the memories of old Islamic towns into today’s setting, said Doni. “The unique aspect of Islamic culture in China, or in Asia overall, is the acculturation of Islamic or Arabic culture with the local culture. In Islam itself, there is no such thing as ‘Islamic architecture’; it only guides certain principles in terms of the ‘prayer space’ or conditions that follow religious rules. But in terms of form or architecture itself, it can be anything. The Islamic architecture that most people understand and know is Middle-Eastern or Arabic architecture. Therefore, our concept for the masterplan was the harmonious blend between Middle-Eastern or Arabic architecture and the modern local architecture of Xining.”

The layout of the district was derived from the planning of ancient Arabic towns, which were famous for the “souk/sooq” or market street. Doni adapted Islamic rules into the masterplan with his own modern interpretation. For instance, the orientation of the public square and residential block follows the direction of Kabaa/Kabah, and every space within the city can be utilised for prayer. In terms of architecture, he designed the souk or retail street as a seamless hybrid of contemporary Arabic style and modern geometric design. Similarly, the apartment towers carry out hints of Middle Eastern elements with podiums that complement the façade of the designed streetscape, creating an integrated human-scale experience for pedestrians. Lastly, the mixed-use landmark building located at the main intersection is inspired by a verse in the Qur’an that talks about the “An-Nahl” or the bee, manifested in the reiteration of the honeycomb as façade and form. As a whole, the design of the Xining Islamic town creates a vibrant city offering a variety of spatial experiences, and resonating the spirit of Islamic tradition and the granularity of Chinese culture.

With his strong passion for context and culture, enCity is happy to have Doni Iskandar joining our team. His creative design approach will surely enrich our projects and allow us to create better environments that truly evoke the spirit of the place and provide meaningful experiences to people.