Building on the Past
Willy Wilson, WEEKENDER | Wed, 07/11/2012 4:13 PM |
A peek into Jakarta’s colorful past provides an insight into the city’s promising future.
A soaring mango tree shadows a handsome house in East Jakarta. With its open veranda, lofty ceiling, cool tiles and large windows, the house has a distinctive colonial charm.
Fittingly, the homeowner is a chartered architect known for his dedication to restoring and conserving historical buildings. A graduate of Oxford Brookes University, Budi Lim has earned a reputation as an advocate of heritage buildings since he won the UNESCO 2001 Award of Excellence for restoring Jakarta’s National Archives Building.
Unassuming and bespectacled, Budi is decisive in his words and pragmatic in his view.
For the 59-year-old, preserving heritage buildings means maintaining a tangible tie with local history while retaining the architectural integrity of the buildings.
“It is my personal belief that both restoration and conservation work must be culturally sensitive and contextual,” Budi says. “The last thing you want is to romanticize the bygone era by replicating the architecture style, yet fail to revive the spirit of a building or an area.”
A self-proclaimed history enthusiast, Budi collects bits and pieces of long-gone Jakarta landmarks such as a vent hole from Lusan Hotel, the letters that once hung on the signboard of automobile company OLIMO’s showroom and the peak of Senen monument.
Before Jakarta became a sprawling and crowded metropolis with traffic and drainage problems, it was a prosperous cosmopolitan city with reasonably good urban planning and promising residential projects that reflected the sociocultural identity of that era.
The Menteng neighborhood, developed during the 1910s, was the city’s first attempt at creating an ideal and healthy housing area for the middle class. The original houses had a longitudinal organization of space, as well as overhanging eaves, large windows and open ventilation, all practical features for a tropical climate with a hint of modern Art Deco.
But according to Budi, Menteng’s original houses were more than just healthy houses with sensible architecture. Rather, he argues, they were “a representation of a new era that celebrated the rise of the middle class, anti-feudal ideology and an unstoppable modernist movement”.
This was a time when people across the world were seeking to break from the legacy and identity of European monarchies in all aspects of life, including architecture.
This political movement gave birth to Art Deco, an art and architecture movement that favors understated lines, simple columns and cube-like structures – a far cry from the ornate Baroque and highbrow Victorian that preceded it.
Whereas Budi speaks enthusiastically about Menteng, he is more circumspect when asked to comment on Jakarta’s Kota area, the traditional downtown.
“I often compare buildings with humans because they both have a clear anatomical form,” he says, taking off his glasses.
“As a port city and trading center, Batavia [Jakarta Kota] had the most sophisticated anatomy in Asia. It had a watchtower, a court of law, churches, warehouses, banks, Chinatown, city halls, train stations – you name it.”
Founded in 1619 by the Dutch East India Company, Batavia was both a commercial and administrative center. Spanning 50,000 square meters, Batavia city center was a thriving metropolis.
Batavia began losing its strategic function and charm following the Japanese occupation in 1942. In the next few decades, Merdeka Square became the administrative center, as Sudirman and Thamrin formed the new business district. Tanjung Priok took charge of international trading, while Mangga Dua and Tanah Abang controlled local and regional business.
Batavia’s gleaming past was buried deep following World War II and Indonesia’s independence struggle of the 1940s. By the time of the economic stagnation during the politically turbulent 1950s and 1960s, Batavia was already a long-forgotten city.
In the 1970s, modern Jakarta began erecting skyscrapers made of glass, iron and brick, in a statement that the city had broken away from its colonial past. Architecture is often seen as a manifestation of a society’s values, and during the era, Jakarta’s architecture was a celebration of modernity, symbolizing an independent and egalitarian society.
This was a rather natural shift for a newly liberated society in search of cultural identity within a contemporary context. But must this search come at the expense of the cultural legacy of the past?
Admittedly, the city administration and some corporations – mainly major banks – have recently made efforts to save Batavian buildings, although the degree to which these heritage buildings were indeed restored and conserved is debatable.
Overall, there has been no significant effort to revive the area. Some buildings have been converted into museums, whereas others have been subjected to hideous renovations that destroyed their aesthetic value. The rest, dilapidated or derelict, have been left to the elements.
This point rouses a fervent response from Budi.
“How can we call ourselves a civilized and progressive society if we don’t respect our background?” he asks. “Isn’t appreciation of local history and its artifacts a sign of a mature society?”
As with many other capitals, the newly built malls and skyscrapers are potent symbols of economic progress. But adaptive use of heritage buildings carries a sentimental value that speaks volumes about the identity of the citizens.
Budi points out that the symbolic structures that once existed in Jakarta Kota gave birth to the city’s urban culture. Neighboring colonial ports like Singapore and Penang seem to more sophisticated where heritage building conservation is concerned.
The local authority in these two cities encourages citizens to make full use of heritage buildings, while ensuring the original elements are retained and repaired.
In the case of Jakarta Kota, Budi says, proper restoration means adapting it to today’s lifestyle. Whereas once cities such as Jakarta were all about maritime trade and industry, today they are characterized by the Internet and global connectivity.
“Reviving heritage buildings is not only about restoring and conserving the physical form, but also the related activities that contribute to the urban quality,” Budi says. “I personally believe in order to save Jakarta Kota, we must turn the area into a creative industry hub.”
With a consuming obsession for everything superlative – the tallest, the biggest and the largest – Jakarta is a city on steroids. But if Jakarta is to be a full-fledged global city, then we must pay extra attention to preserving our cultural legacy.