The Kingdom of Brunei (Brunei Darussalam) is the smallest country in Southeast Asia by population but one of its wealthiest because of its natural resources of oil and gas. It is located on the northwest coast of the island of Borneo. Divided into two parts by the Malaysian state of Sarawak, it is bounded on the north by the South China Sea.
Brunei is an Islamic state with a Malay Muslim Monarchy. Its ethnically diverse population consists of Malay (approximately 67%), Chinese (approx. 15%), indigenous (approx. 6%), other (approx. 12%). The indigenous people of Brunei mainly inhabit the interior uplands, whereas the Malays live mainly in the riverine and coastal communities, and the Chinese in the urban areas.
The indigenous people of Brunei are often lumped together under the general label of Dayak. The most important feature of Dayak social organisation is the Longhouse. This is a structure raised by hardwood posts that can be hundreds of metres long, usually located along a terraced river bank.
Essentially, a traditional Longhouse is a large wooden structure raised on stilts and the home and communal dwelling to one indigenous community or extended family. There are variations between the longhouses from different indigenous groups throughout Borneo, but they generally follow similar lines in terms of siting, plan and section.
At one side is a long communal platform, from which the individual households can be accessed. The longhouses vary in size, from those slightly over 100 metres in length to large settlements over 500 metres in length. Longhouses have a door and apartment for every family living in the longhouse. For example, a longhouse of 200 doors is equivalent to a settlement of 200 families.
A gabled roof over the gallery and apartments runs along the whole of the building. In some communities, such as the Iban, a wide, unroofed balcony runs beside the covered gallery. The ground level is traditionally left as storage and shelter for animals.
The construction materials traditionally used were those available locally: Ironwood shingles for the roof, softwood from the ankabay tree for walls and floors, and bamboo for the elevated veranda. The thermal performance of the materials used in longhouses suit the hot, humid and high rainfall climate of Borneo, with the use of air-permeable and low thermal-mass cladding materials such as thatch, split bamboo, timber shingles and timber cladding. The air-permeable materials promote natural cross ventilation, important for cooling in the hot and humid weather. Rising hot air would also be able to escape through the roof materials, drawing in cooler air from the sides and below.
Some have compared the longhouses to an English-style street of semi-detached houses with clear inside (private) and outside (public/shared) spaces, with the inside of the dwellings described as the private nuclear family sphere, and the gallery as the communal gathering space. The anthropologist Christine Helliwell, in her article ‘Good Walls Make Bad Neighbours: The Dayak Longhouse as a Community of Voices’, argues that the relationship is much more complex than that. She focuses not on the relationship between the individual dwellings and the public gallery, but on what happens inside and in between the numerous dwellings. She argues that it is the relationships that flow from one apartment to the other, that ties the inhabitants together as a community:
“Each individual household owns the nails, planks, strips of bamboo, lengths of rattan, units of thatch and so on, which together comprises its longhouse apartment. …. However, there is no necessary link between ownership of the materials that together go to make up an apartment, and exclusive rights or control over the finished structure and over the space which it circumscribes.”
The wall separating the apartments …. “is normally made of flimsy pieces of bark and other materials propped up against each other in such a way as to leave gaps of varying sizes, through which dogs and cats can climb, people can hand things back and forth, and at which neighbours can stand while they chat together. … this wall is always owned by one of the two households …. But in practical terms it is shared by both ….. fostering an uninterrupted sociability from one end of the longhouse to the other. The very permeability of the partitions – their makeshift and rickety character – allows an almost uninpeded flow of both sound and light between all the apartments that together constitute a longhouse.”
Here she describes her experience of living in a longhouse:
“During my first two months in the longhouse, sharing the apartment of a Dayak household, I could not understand why my hostess was constantly engaged in talk with no one. … To a westerner, used to the idea that one’s home stops at its walls … her behaviour seemed eccentric, to say the least. It was only much later, on my second field trip that I came to realise that the womans apparent monologues always had an audience, and that they were a way of affirming and recreating the ties across apartments that made her a part of the longhouse as a whole rather than a member of an isolated household … Not only sound, but light as well flows from one apartment to another … At night in the longhouse one is aware of the presence of companions by the glow of their lights and their hearths. If a light is not showing in any apartment, its absence is an immediate source of concern…” (Christine Helliwell)
Hence, the spaces delimited by the walls of an apartment are far from what we in the west understand as ‘private’ space.
Nowadays, most longhouses are equipped with modern facilities such as electricity and water supply, telephone lines and the internet. Younger generations are mostly found in urban areas and visit their hometowns during the holidays. Increasingly, residence in their own free standing houses is an important goal for most newly weds.
Anthropological studies of the Iban Longhouses: The Egalitarian Architecture of the Iban Longhouse, Iban Cultural Heritage and Good Walls Make Bad Neighbours: The Dayak Longhouse as a Community of Voices.
For photos of modern longhouse click here.