Life

Semarang's old city: A
fading reminder of former
glories

Unique design: The Marba building is a quite unique design but has only sparing usage. (JP/Simon Marcus Gower)
Unique design: The Marba building is a quite unique design but has only sparing usage. (JP/Simon Marcus Gower)

Semarang, one of the oldest cities in the country, was the place of residence for a Dutch provincial governor in colonial times. As the provincial capital of Central Java, with a very active port, it grew into a major city busy with trade and administrative importance.

The city's commercial and administrative significance required a level of infrastructure that could support its role. This led to the development of what is now the "old city" of Semarang and its impressive buildings. Although many of these buildings are left now neglected and wasting away, they still remind us of the former glories of this city.

One of Semarang's most outstanding buildings and, fortunately, one of its best kept, is Gereja Blenduk. Built in 1753, this imposing building still stands shimmering brilliantly white in the hot sun. Despite being the oldest church in Central Java, it is still actively used as a Protestant Church - it is probably this continuing use that has allowed the building to survive in condition so much better than that of some of its neighbors.

The church is rather plain on the outside, but its solid design and construction have no doubt helped it survive the years. It principal outward feature is its dome - hence the name (gereja meaning church and blenduk meaning dome). Inside, plainness and simplicity remain the order of the day, meaning that, although very imposing, the church is not really captivating to the eye.

Overgrown: Fine buildings, located down narrow streets, are being left to rot. (JP/Simon Marcus Gower)

Overgrown: Fine buildings, located down narrow streets, are being left to rot. (JP/Simon Marcus Gower)

Rather more visually interesting is the office building opposite the church, which has also been fortunate to have survived in relatively good condition. With its 1920s art-deco geometric designs and balconies, this building, now the offices of Jiwasraya Assurance, offers more to the viewer to admire.

This office building is still in active use but it has lost some of its charm to modern alterations - such a modern front entrance doorway of plate glass and aluminum that is functional but not attractive or in keeping with the original design of the building. But despite such limitations in current appearance and use, the Jiwasraya Building and the church really are doing well, considering what else may be seen in this area.

Just down the road from these two buildings is the Marba Building which, with its red bricks contrasting with stone mullions and a corner entrance that is topped by four (still intact) stone vases, is full of character. It is, however, a building sparingly used and is evidently not awarded the respect it deserves.

Street vendors clutter its sidewalk and its paintwork and woodwork obviously need maintenance. Windows are shuttered up and once attractive and useful street canopies have been shoddily replaced and are left sagging. Although the Marba Building looks bad, its partial use is at least saving it to a certain extent; elsewhere, neglect is leaving fine buildings in ruins.

What is known as the PT Perkebunan Building looks over a fairly filthy canal. This example of solid Dutch building stands empty and quite terribly neglected. The street in front of it is busy with minibuses and hawkers but it stands forlorn, its large tower so neglected that small trees grow from it.

Large and commanding though it is, daylight breaks into its rooms through broken and collapsed roofs. Its steps have become home to a peculiar gathering of traditional masseurs who offer their services in the cooling shadow of this great building, their customers lying half-naked along the sidewalk - neither an auspicious or respectful sight to adorn its great but pollution-stained walls.

Standing tall: Mighty and bold buildings are quite wretchedly ignored (JP/Simon Marcus Gower)

Standing tall: Mighty and bold buildings are quite wretchedly ignored (JP/Simon Marcus Gower)

These are just a few: All around this area are wretched examples of good and even great buildings just being allowed to rot and fall away. Even though many of the buildings here were originally of simple and modest use, they still consistently possessed (and possess to this day) interesting designs and high levels of quality and craftsmanship in their construction.

What would have been quite simple warehouses for storing the vast amounts of goods being traded through Semarang's busy port show inventiveness and flourishes of decorative design that can, and should, be appreciated. But tragically such excellent buildings are being left to be overrun by nature.

One of these buildings has a tree taking root all over it and those roots are literally squeezing and crushing the building's stone to such an extent that it is simply crumbling away. Elsewhere trees and shrubs grow from ledges or cornices on upper levels of buildings, stark evidence of how terribly the buildings are simply being left to the elements.

This truly sorry sight represents a terrible waste and lack of foresight and investment. The quality of the buildings here could allow the area to be a real center of attraction. It is not too difficult to imagine stylish restaurants and trendy boutiques taking up residence in these fine buildings but this would require will and investment from city planners and developers.

It is impossible to walk through the narrow streets that are created by some fine buildings in Semarang's old city and not think "if only. if only". There are such appealing and even delightful architectural details to be seen here that their gradual loss to the elements really is a great loss. Vines and moss creep and crawl all over buildings and ferns grow remarkably well where they really should not be growing - in holes and damage to the brickwork of these buildings.

With just a modicum of imagination and effort, eye-catching shutters on windows could be repaired and painted again. Blackened white walls could be cleaned and repainted so that they shimmer and shine again in Semarang's brilliant sunlight. The damage here is considerable and time may be running out for some of these buildings, although it is not yet too late.

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