Spires and Gyres

Contemporary architecture in Jakarta can be charted in the utopian terms of the Pancasila, the five founding principles of modern Indonesia.

Jakarta, viewed from the Salihara Arts Complex.
Jakarta, viewed from the Salihara Arts Complex. [Joe Day]

Geometry won’t save you in Jakarta.
— Jeff Kipnis 1

Kipnis had a point: in Jakarta, geometries inundate you. All manner of stacked boxes, saddled peaks, and elliptical extrusions crowd the skyline of Indonesia’s capital, while throughout the city below there spreads a constant fractal surface of informal settlement. Tower designs that look like leftovers from other hyper-expansive cities seem to wash up here, at the ebb-tide of a few civilizations, like gargantuan discarded water bottles.

In its glaring Global South disparities, Jakarta is akin to Rio or Johannesburg; yet those resemblances can hide more than they reveal. Like Houston, Jakarta is a boom-and-bust city; 2 like Mexico City, Jakarta is hectic and culturally dense; like … I don’t know — after two years here, Jakarta is no longer a simile to me. It remains, however, a constant complement to my hometown of Los Angeles, a personal trans-Pacific polarity. We moved to Jakarta in November 2014 when my wife began a diplomatic appointment posted to the Association of South East Asian Nations. For the first few months, I wished almost daily that ASEAN had been headquartered in Bangkok or Singapore or Hanoi. Then Jakarta, and its local Betawi cool, started to sink in. 3

This is not simply or strictly a gangster cool, though ever since Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, and again with the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, Jakarta has loomed in the Western cultural imaginary as a tropical noir, an urban heart of darkness. Joseph Conrad actually did write a 1915 novel set on Java, called Victory: An Island Tale, and, in tandem with the Dutch classic of political awakening, Max Havelaar, anonymously penned in 1860, it portrays Indonesia as the Asian colony in extremis. Much like the films, both novels are rife with complex cultural misunderstandings, moments of startling clarity, and undercurrents of unfathomable cruelty. Yet none of these works delves much into the spatial character of Batavia, old or new. In contemporary culture Jakarta registers now as a vague haven of criminal reinvention (see Blackhat, by Michael Mann), just as Los Angeles did for much of its history, bathed in the seductive shadows of ill repute. In both cities, though, one finds as much sunshine as noir — and in Jakarta far more day-to-day consideration than corruption.

Abetting their outlaw casting, Jakarta and Los Angeles are both cities of systems, rather than boundaries. Indeed, Jakarta is shaped by the same two dynamic forces as Los Angeles, and their corollary infrastructures: waterflow, though measured in deluge rather than drought; and traffic, though more constant and intense here than in L.A. Either an excess or scarcity of water requires intensive hydro-systemic management, so both cities are coursed by many canals running from their highlands down-basin to their harbors. Too big to bury but too meager to provide riverfront causeways or esplanades, the many concretized and cordoned “creeks” of both cities form a kind of urban subconscious in plain view, reminders of how nature was bought off early, but not forever, by the Dutch East India Company or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

And if Los Angeles set the pattern for the auto-centric city, Jakarta feels like its finale. Both cities have struggled mightily over the last quarter century to realize skeletal light rail lines that, when finally completed, will be outdated, under-sized, and geographically inefficient. (As L.A.’s belated MTA proves, however, and Jakarta’s even slower MRT promises, any finished legs will at least ease the snarled congestion around mass-transit construction.) It is hard to overstate just how existentially draining traffic can be for Jakartans, many of whom commute over four hours daily. 4 Both cities are mercantile to a fault, port cities in which the points of maritime entry are distant from the commercial center, insuring less oversight from their civic leaders. Both suffer aging airports that were briefly state-of-the-art — before that state achieved viably global dimensions — and both are now saddled with redundant, mediocre additions that fall far short of today’s rarified Pacific Rim standards. Perhaps most damningly, Jakarta and Los Angeles often trail only the megacities of China and India for pollution and poor air quality.

Jakarta is perhaps the truest realization of a post-colonial cosmopolis.

And yet, Jakarta is a great place, perhaps the truest realization of a post-colonial cosmopolis. Many capitals of former colonies — Hanoi, for example, or New Delhi — stage a rivalry between quaint, if coercive, architectures of occupation at their centers (so-called “traditional” architectures, pleasing to tourists even when we know better), and hectic, desperation-driven development at their peripheries. It is a contest that almost always results in a manic-depressive urbanism, a zone of guilty nostalgia ringed by developing world dross. In contrast, Jakarta, for better and worse, can be understood not as a dialogue with its former foreign overlords but rather as a fiercely insistent projection of Indonesian independence.

For the first six decades after the founding of the republic, in 1949, Jakarta abandoned its Dutch center, Old Batavia, and moved south, wholesale. Rem Koolhaas lived here when he was a child, in the early 1950s, and in those postwar years the city must have seemed like a tropical Rotterdam in one critical respect — it was rebuilding from scratch. To a significant degree that invention continues today, and while many Asian cities have a virtual-made-real aura due to a turbo-charged millennial expansion, Jakarta’s futures lap up around one another decade by decade, the monuments and boondoggles of three generations competing for our attention.

Jakarta can be seen as a fiercely insistent projection of Indonesian independence.

Echoing Reyner Banham’s depiction of Los Angeles in the 1970s, I would describe Jakarta as a city defined by arteries and enclaves. It is an urban network of unlikely convexities and concavities, of monuments and mosques, towers and malls — spires and gyres. And where Banham found four ecologies driving the architectures of Los Angeles, Jakarta might boast an analogous framework related to the nation’s aspirational founding principles, the Pancasilas. These are the five fundamental themes upon which Indonesia would take shape after 1945, announced by its first president, Pak Sukarno. 5 Here are the Pancasilas in English (they are expressed even more succinctly in the contemporary language of state, Bahasa Indonesia):

1. A divinity that is an ultimate unity.
2. A just and civilized humanity.
3. The national unity of Indonesia.
4. Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives.
5. Social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.

It is perhaps a stretch to interpret the Pancasilas as discrete motives for design — much like looking to the Declaration of Independence to explain Thomas Jefferson’s later subdivision of the American West into a grid of six-mile-square townships. 6 Yet they are concisely utopian, and will help parse an otherwise polyglot landscape. A variety of architectural co-evolutions in modern Indonesia can be charted in terms of the Pancasilas, with rough correlation in both chronology (early to recent) and scale (national infrastructural to neighborhood infill) as they list from first to fifth principal. The first principle helps frame the “Independence Modern” ambitions of Indonesia’s first president; the optimism of the second fits the ambitions of some recent enlightened mayoralties in the smaller cities hoping to challenge Jakarta’s primacy; the third animated Indonesia’s long-reigning second president, Suharto; the fourth preoccupies the pioneering Arsitek Muda Indonesia, or “AMI” generation; and the fifth suits the current crop of “post-’98” emergent designers. Together, these architectures of the Pancasilas combine in a coherent, self-propelling design culture, and perhaps also form a template for seeing work in the Global South as more than the generalized residue of “native” traditions and Northern exploitation — though these and other dubious motives are also in play.

Many younger architects in Jakarta now lament the dearth of “theory” in local discourse (as do those in Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Tokyo), and the Four Ecologies/Five Pancasilas parallel is drawn in part to foster new discussions in Jakarta just as Banham did in Los Angeles. 7 Two recent theorizations of the Indonesian built environment, keyed to different strands of western thought, bear mention as well. The most formidable voice on urban development in 20th-century Jakarta is that of Abidin Kusno, a post-colonial historian in the tradition of Edward Said, and currently a professor of Asian urbanism and culture at the University of British Columbia. Kusno’s Behind the Postcolonial and The Appearances of Memory are both provocative meditations on how the rise of Jakarta concretizes Indonesia’s “century in motion.” In particular Kusno’s evocation of the kampung, or traditional neighborhood, as a vital socio-spatial locus, has helped me understand the city.

In a profoundly different and unexpected register, philosopher Graham Harman employs the Dutch East India Company, or VOC, to illustrate his theoretical model for what he terms “object-oriented ontology,” or OOO, in Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory. It’s hard to imagine an intellectual framework further from Kusno’s on-the-ground reportage than Harman’s nimble treatise. Harman sets out to prove the singular objecthood of the VOC and, in doing so, provides several means by which any phenomenon might be existentially qualified. One need not visit Indonesia to chase Harman’s logic, but the curiosities of Jakarta’s recent development lend OOO some retroactive credence.

Even before it was a city, Jakarta was a commodity, a consolidated expression of the Dutch East India Company.

These two antithetical theorists would agree on one thing: Jakarta’s centrality in any discussion of global capitalism. Kusno because the effects of multinational investment so palpably shape the city; Harman because, as he has argued, Jakarta was a commodity even before it was a city. Founded as Batavia in 1618 by the Dutch East India Company, Jakarta can be seen as the most consolidated expression of what was, after all, the world’s first joint stock company, traded on the world’s first stock exchange. 9 The connections between philosophy and form drawn here — between the founding Pancasilas and their built manifestations — are blunter and more simplified than the parallels drawn by Kusno and Harman, but perhaps easier to grasp, extend, and challenge as well. My framework is more a prelude than response to their compelling scholarship, and a provisional point of departure for those new to Jakarta, or considering how to reshape it.

Monas (National Monument), Jakarta.
Monas (National Monument), Merdeka Square, Jakarta. [Gunawan Kartapranata, Wikimedia Commons]

“A divinity that is an ultimate unity”

The first Pancasila, “a divinity that is an ultimate unity” — translated sometimes, more problematically, as “belief in the one and only God” — is frequently in the news; Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world with over 85 percent of its citizens espousing a Sunni variant of that faith. 10 Most Indonesians accept and some insist on Allah as that “one and only God.” Yet the founding president did not specify the Muslim deity in his principals; Sukarno was careful to craft his first Pancasila so that any number of more-or-less-monotheisms, presumably of shared divine paternity, might coexist with Islam throughout the archipelago (Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism are state sanctioned; indigenous and often polytheistic animist traditions are excluded). It was in fact consensus that was Sukarno’s priority; consensus of belief and of national identity, as Indonesia encompasses more than 17,000 islands, many of which were reluctant recruits to the fledgling nation. One God, if not one faith; one country; one collective project.

On a more secular level, many Indonesian architects and urbanists have long believed that Sukarno himself played god, and that for quite a while he played the role well. An engineer by training, Sukarno championed what one might call “modernism with Indonesian characteristics” in the development of Jakarta and other fast-growing cities. In addition to masterminding the cardinal expansions of the capital — suburbs to the south, airport to the west, industry to the east — Sukarno erected landmarks that still orient life in the city — the original spires and gyres. He was the driving co-author of many signature infrastructural and civic monuments: the Eiffel-scaled torch of the National Monument, or Monas; the TWA-esque Parliament Building; the Grand Mosque; and, not to be overlooked, the country’s first elevated cloverleaf interchange, Jembatan Semanggi, at the intersection of two Wilshire-scale boulevards.

Parliament, Jakarta.
Parliament, Jakarta. [Wikimedia Commons]

Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta.
Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta. [Uwe Aranas, Wikimedia Commons]

As Kusno has argued, “Sukarno’s interests in revolution forbade him from anchoring architectural expression in any foundation from the past,” 11 and his Independence Modern projects were nodal both urbanistically and historically. They established Jakarta as a primary destination not only within Indonesia but also for Southeast Asia and the developing world, while at the same time remapping the city as a constellation of many major points rather than as a fixed center. No doubt the price of remapping is often high — and Sukarno was willing to pay it, and to have his people do so too. When tens of thousands were displaced to make way for his grand and costly urban projects in advance of the 1962 Asia Games, Sukarno consoled himself with the claim — at once fantastical and real — that the poor needed heroic architecture. As he put it, “monuments are an absolute necessity to develop the people’s spirit, as necessary as pants for somebody naked.” 12 And no matter that he worked with excellent architects, Sukarno himself was the controlling force; it’s no exaggeration to call him the Oscar Niemeyer of Indonesia. A single sensibility informs the major projects of his time: an Independence Modern more engineered than designed, grand and geometrically ambitious, but often, like the leader himself, regrettably heavy-handed. 13

“A just and civilized humanity”

The second Pancasila is perhaps the loftiest and most optimistic of all, and its ideal of a “just and civilized humanity” is beyond the scope of mere architecture, even in this figurative extrapolation. In their opulence and squalor, Indonesian cityscapes rarely display anything close to just and civilized spatial allotments, perhaps least of all Jakarta. Rival municipalities have, however, pioneered new urban strategies, and a modest humanism has taken hold with impressive resilience, lately even influencing the capital.

In Indonesia, the mitigation of pollution, traffic, and refuse can form a complete political platform.

Notably some of these smaller cities are led by mayors who pursued architecture as a first career. 14 Tri Rismaharini, the popular mayor of Surabaya, the nation’s second largest city, has pioneered competitive street clean-ups and park reclamation, restoring or converting 22 hectares of city land to park space. 15 A planner before she became mayor, Ibu Risma, as she is called, is rarely photographed without galoshes and a trash bag in hand. In Bandung, a university “town” (actually a city of 2.4 million, close behind Surabaya’s 2.76 million) two hours by car from Jakarta, Ridwan Kamil tried to give Zaha Hadid her last major civic commission before her untimely death and courted controversy with a recently installed Open Hand monument, without a nod to Corbusier’s. 16 These leaders and other architect-mayors share a defining concern for orderliness, which might seem mundane or coercive elsewhere but is politically savvy in Indonesia, where the mitigation of pollution, traffic, and refuse can form a complete political platform. 17

Green School, Bali.
Green School, Bali. [Vitch, via Flickr]

Some Balinese would likely claim that their prosperous and tourism-driven “Island of the Gods” is an entire second Pancasila zone, enjoying the fair rewards of its just and civilized humanity. (This would be stated sotto voce; Bali is remarkable in the archipelago for its Hindu majority.) But for all  its natural beauty and stupendous surf, Bali is an object lesson in catastrophically poor or absent urban design. Seminyak and the other southern coastal towns are mired in traffic day and night, and Ubud, the historic capital of the island to the north, is clogged with tour buses. But Bali has its havens of calm and order, and while much of the island is blighted by pollution, it is also home to Indonesia’s first school of eco-sustainability. Founded by John and Cynthia Hardy (an Australian and American couple inspired by the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth), the Green School and nearby Green Village, run by their daughter Elora Hardy, are housed in raised, many-prowed bamboo pavilions designed by IBUKU, another family enterprise. The school and village share lofty goals and international cachet — Michael Franti, the former frontman of the righteous rap ensemble Spearhead, offers his endorsement on their home page. 18 To call them emblematic of Bali’s eco-utopian exceptionalism is not to dispute their worthy example at many scales of environmental engagement.

For all its natural beauty and stupendous surf, Bali is an object lesson in catastrophically poor urban design.

Conspiracy theories contend that the central government has written off Bali, save for its tax receipts, in hopes that Western tourism will stay concentrated there, leaving the rest of the Nusantara, or archipelago, relatively untrammeled and more devoutly Muslim. A more likely rationale for the elevation of art over infrastructure on much of Bali — and also in Jogjakarta, home to the vast Buddhist temple complex of Borobodur and a thriving contemporary art scene — is rooted in the history of the Sultanates. Like thousand-year-old development zones, various Sultanates persist throughout the archipelago, dating back to a time when Hindu and Buddhism mixed easily with animist traditions, well before the Dutch occupation and the later adoption of Islam. By turns outward-looking and reactionary, these principalities reflect long-held cultural memories of folkways, religious syncretism, and histories of resistance. Perennial centers of textile and ceramics production, as well as historical hubs of the fine, applied, and living arts, Bali and Jogja’ were historically extroverted and welcoming. More remote or interior Sultanates — such as those including the cities of Aceh, on Sumatra, and Solo, in Central Java — tend to foster a more introverted and doctrinaire politics and culture. Often these problematic “state-lets” have proud traditions of resisting foreign conquest and resource exploitation. 19

“The national unity of Indonesia”

If the second Pancasila underwrites an egalitarian grass-roots undercurrent of modest, civic-minded proposals, then the broad-stroke third Pancasila, with its call for “national unity,” explains what happened after Sukarno — which was Pak Suharto. A far less revered figure among contemporary artists and architects, the second president of Indonesia was nevertheless the single most transformative figure in the nation’s built environment, completing (and claiming credit for) many of Sukarno’s ambitious designs while sponsoring his own though a long, foreign investment-fueled regency. For most educated Indonesians, the differences between Sukarno and Suharto — who are both often reduced to generic post-colonial strongmen in the Western imagination — could not be more profound. For most of the architects I met, the former offered something approaching praxis, an early, imperfect bridge between revolutionary political and aesthetic avant gardes; the latter added only a boorish appetite for kitsch and a repressive disdain for subtlety.

Sukarno offered a bridge between revolutionary political and aesthetic avant gardes; Suharto only a boorish appetite for kitsch.

The third Pancasila is deceptively simple; for Suharto, “the unity of Indonesia” meant finding common denominators. The task of forging a single national identity for Indonesia was historically unprecedented. The fourth largest nation in the world by population, Indonesia lacks the demographic homogeneity of China; the common land mass of India; or anything like the doctrine of manifest destiny so central to the ethos of the United States. Sukarno, who claimed to be the unlikely son of a Javanese Muslim father and Balinese Hindu mother, began that process of unification; Suharto continued it with force. The historian Theodore Friend describes him thus: “Suharto often demonstrated that he had not only a soldier’s answer to power questions and a patriarch’s answer to social questions but a peasant’s view of questions of economic scale.” 20

All three aspects of Suharto’s character are evident in his projects for the country and the capital. Suharto’s long reign, from 1965 to 1998, correlates closely with the full arc of Postmodernism in the West, and many of the projects associated with his New Order might be read charitably in terms of a renewed historicism and regionalism. In those years, many colonial buildings were belatedly converted to museums of national founding, and the otherworldly Taman Mini Indonesia opened, an unrivaled theme park spearheaded by his wife, Ibu Tien Suharto.

Taman Mini, main entrance.
Taman Mini, main entrance. [Gunawan Kartapranata]

Taman Mini, Sumatra style long house.
Taman Mini, Sumatra style long house. [C.K. Koay]

Taman MIni, a museum devoted to objects associated with Suharto.
Taman Mini, museum devoted to objects associated with Suharto. [Gunawan Kartapranata]

Taman Mini, which opened in 1975, presents the entire archipelago in utopian microcosm, with the distinctive residential architectures of the many islands recreated at full (or even greater) scale in a vast array of uninhabited houses. Had they been better crafted — say, as carefully as the intricate 1:100 scale models of those same houses at the National Museum, which really are breathtaking — Taman Mini would be a preservationist’s dream; instead it is an Orientalist’s bad joke, with flat asbestos dropped ceilings hiding all the make-do roof framing and blocking air flow, and Disney-ish signage and entry booths. Still, the patriarch in Suharto grasped how these projects would fortify his authority; the soldier deployed the bread-and-circus logic of mass entertainment; and the peasant saw the village projected into the metropolis, even at the price of caricature. Along with the houses at Taman Mini are a host of “museums” dedicated to the national religions, trades, and extraction industries, as well as the southern hemisphere’s first IMAX cinema, affectionately dubbed the “Golden Snail.” 21

Suharto’s long reign also set the pattern for the mega-scale towers and malls of this essay’s title. Many of those spires and gyres began with what might be understood as an innovative innocence (and often with American architects); which rarely lasted. Though not the first high-rise in Jakarta, Paul Rudolph’s Intiland Tower (from 1988, and formerly Wisma Dharmala Tower) rose in the first wave and was a breakthrough design in many respects, arguably the first “green” ’scraper in the world — and a remarkable collaboration between Rudolph and local architect Johannes Gunawan, who may well have driven its many passive cooling innovations.

Every floor level of the Intiland is banded by planters, much of the interior is shaded by the deep cantilevers of off-set balconies, and an open-air atrium passes on an oblique downdraft that ventilates a small dining court. Just north on Jalan (Boulevard) Sudirman stand two less heralded but noteworthy towers: the Sequis Centre (built in 1979, by UK Architects), affectionately called the “cheese-grater” for its perforated “glass-crete” shade walls, and the 30-floor Da Vinci Tower, a vertical grab bag of postmodern-cum-postcolonial ornament. The Da Vinci sports a four-story Gothic rose window over a three-story Greco-Roman portico, supported in its turn by thirty Corinthian columns. Michelangelo, rather than Leonardo, inspires a phalanx of marble statuary perched in-between.

Intiland Tower (formerly Wisma Dharmala), designed by Paul Rudolph in 1988.
Intiland Tower (formerly Wisma Dharmala), designed by Paul Rudolph in 1988. [Trevor Patt]

The larger, more recent spires of Jakarta are a less distinguished lot, but the SkyBar or “Fountain Pen” building (by Harry Zeidler, from 1996) would satisfy Charles Jencks’s new taste for the “iconic” as much as the Da Vinci might challenge his earlier appetite for pastiche. I.M. Pei has some constructed and a few slated projects, one of them a doubled-up version of his 1990 World Bank in Hong Kong. The 2005 Manhattan Hotel, by the Australian-led firm of Duta Cermat Mandiri, reminds many of Arquitectonica’s “Miami Vice Moderne” period, just as DCM’s crystalline pack-and-stack UOB Building of 2010 has echoes of many less bespoke shipping-container pile schemes. At this scale of building, major Western or at least pan-Asiatic corporate behemoths are almost always preferred over local architects — one wonders if a partner even had to visit to seal the deal.

Jakarta’s vast malls eclipse Middle Eastern medinas in the creation of vast ‘worlds within.’

These towers may have pulled Jakarta into the running as a global city in the ’80s and ’90s; but its real world leaders are the vast gyre-like malls, which eclipse both East Asian retail precedents and Middle Eastern medinas in the creation of vast “worlds within.” Jakartans proudly point out the Sukarno-era Sarinah, which opened in 1962, as the first shopping center with escalators in the capital, but it is really more department store than mall. Since then, the city has witnessed all variety of indoor shopping experience, often at scales that dwarf the imaginings of Piranesi and Boullée.

An American teacher, Richard Miller, has visited and documented many of the roughly 200 malls, from the most trade-specific to the most and least costly. 22 He cites the spiral-ramped Blok M Plaza, opened in 1992 and just south of Sarinah, as featuring perhaps the first full-height atrium, which in any case has been de rigueur ever since. Spatially, Blok M splits the difference between Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim and the spiral parking helix that inspired it: stores have roll-up entries along a constant sloped surface that has proven even more challenging for the retailers than the museum’s ramp has for artists and curators. Yet another stride south, Pondok Indah Mall (the first stage opened in 1991; PIM5 is under construction) is arranged in a horizontal infinity loop wrapping to either side of lower Jalan Sudirman. It has become the most local of the mega-malls, with an induced-surf waterpark and many restaurants boasting a wide array of regional cuisines and offering  20-foot-deep booths sized for extended families.

Blok M Mall, Jakarta.
Blok M Plaza, Jakarta. [Jonathan McIntosh]

Pacific Place, Jakarta.
Pacific Place Mall, Jakarta. [Jasmine T]

Grand Indonesia.
Grand Indonesia. [Joe Day]

Plaza Indonesia Jakarta.
Plaza Indonesia, Jakarta. [Joe Day]

The high game of sublime retail interiors extends Suharto’s legacy beyond his reign, and is geared toward expats and mega-wealthy Indonesians, who at (just, but still) two percent of the population comprise a formidable three million consumer-patrons, most with a home base in Jakarta. 23 The malls catering to this rarified market are truly otherworldly, and in fact resemble specific science-fiction films. Plaza Indonesia (1990–2004) takes its cues from The Matrix, with a grid of white, endless corridors that one must negotiate by memorizing terminal shopping establishments. Directly opposite on the “Hansel & Gretel” Circle is Grand Indonesia (RTKL, 1995–present), an even more sprawling environment of 6.9 million square feet, with two major wings and many dark spurs that resemble the futurist noir of the original Bladerunner. Most recently, there is Pacific Place (2007), the Avatar of malls, its atria a pair of enormous drums spanned by escalators so reflective and profuse that the entire space pulses with its own strange electro-vitality. In scalar terms, Pacific Place is to its nearby progenitor Blok M Plaza as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is to Wright’s original, roughly ten times as large.

“Democracy guided by inner wisdom…”

The fourth Pancasila is the one that’s a mouthful, and also the only one explicitly related to governance; it could also serve as a call-to-arms for the AMI generation, so-called for the Arsitek Muda Indonesia, an association of young designers in the late 1980s and ‘90s. 24 Here it is, again: “Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives.” One can almost hear the endless, legislative back-and-forth that such a directive would inspire, and imagine how utterly ineffectual such a process would prove in the face of Suharto and his generals. 25 But their autocratic rule died amidst the economic upheavals of the ’90s, and the generations schooled in the ’70s and ’80s finally saw some political daylight.

The artists of the AMI can be compared to their European counterparts who came of age in the cramped Eastern Bloc of the Cold War only to find their prospects widen radically, almost blindingly, in the post-1989 era. During the Suharto years, the AMI architects supported themselves working for large firms or for the state, and in reaction they developed private, guarded languages which they shared only with one another and which now typify their work. Some maintain a Kafkaesque worldview still, convinced that chaos and repression tend to cycle in Indonesia. A much respected figure of this generation, Irianto Purnomo Hadi, has realized just a few provocative structures after decades of paranoid-critical paper practice and competition entries, while another, Yori Antar, has devoted much of his career to undoing the misrepresentations and over-simplifications of the Suharto years vis-à-vis indigenous traditions. On the remote island of Sumba, for instance, Antar resurrected tribal building methods, not only echoing the forms of earlier dwellings but seeking to renew the material logic and social connection that gave them meaning.

AM House, Andra Matin Studio.
AM House, Andra Matin Studio. [Andra Matin Studio]

AM House, Andra Matin Studio.
AM House, Andra Matin Studio. [Andra Matin Studio]

Others subscribe to a more poetic optimism, most prominently Andra Matin, head of his eponymous firm, and Adi Purnomo, the principal of Mamo Studio (both his practice and his nickname). The early homes designed by Matin and Mamo call to mind the famous rivalry between Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra in L.A. in 1920s and ’30s; in this case the friendly competition has produced a remarkable group of dwellings cast in board-formed concrete and clad in reclaimed teak, and asserting two very different interpretations of architectural promenade. In Matin’s houses, an articulated path links discrete, dispersed volumes, each as carefully calibrated to their occupation as the linkages unifying them; in Mamo’s homes, a procession of spaces varies along a single continuity, so that his entries bleed into escalating public zones, ramping up theatrically to an enfilade of private rooms and roof garden. Both architects imagine contemporary dwelling as a circuit of spaces, Mamo perhaps more on the model of Le Corbusier, and Matin closer to Aalto — both are architects with a keen sense of modernity’s twists and turns. More fundamentally, though, they pose two very Indonesian paradigms: from Matin, a logic of archipelago and its crossings in microcosm; from Mamo, the primal passage from a liminal coast to unknowable interior.

The AMI generation has conjured a new architecture from draconian constraints.

Not unlike their Danish contemporaries in the cinema movement Dogme 95, the AMI generation has conjured a new architecture from draconian constraints. Just as Lars von Trier and his compatriots chose to make films within a series of “real” limitations — only natural light, no sound effects, etc. —  so the AMI architects espouse a shared ethic of accepting circumstance and capitalizing on material economy. My longest exchange with Matin — a man of many images (and a legendary Instagram feed), but not many words, even in Bahasa Indonesia — was over concrete detailing at the Schindler House on Kings Road, a project he knew by heart (without ever visiting the U.S.) from its tilt-up construction to canvas roofing connections. He famously spent years collecting teak planks from collapsing docks until he had enough for the formwork and then cladding of his own home; rather than clear-cut a field of palm trees growing on the site for a recent home, Matin incorporated the palm trunks as a found column grid (a palm-impsest?) rising unencumbered, collared by ingenious water-seals, up through the residence. Comparable to the best work of Dogme 95, the net results of this rigor is not an anemic architecture but instead a radical immediacy at odds with both the air-conditioned norms of greater Jakarta, and most contemporary global practice.

“Social justice for all the people of Indonesia”

Perhaps the fifth Pancasila will be realized by the next generation. For all its starry-eyed optimism, this last Pancasila — “social justice for all the people of Indonesia” — was crafted to ward off mid-century Soviet Communism and also to acknowledge the vast inequities that persist across the Nusantara. For many younger Jakartans, however, the emphasis now would fall principally on the first word, social, as in social media. “Slaves to lithium” is how architect Danny Wicaksono describes his cohort, 26 and the younger generation of architects in Jakarta is notable for its connectivity — in all senses, as they tend to be bi- or trilingual and world-traveled — and its relative openness vis-à-vis their wary mentors in the AMI group. It is these thirty-somethings that play the most ambassadorial roles with visiting design dignitaries: Wicaksono claims much of his architectural education came in ferrying Rem Koolhaas around the city on the latter’s return to Jakarta, and I first encountered Henry Gunawan Tjhi as he hosted an octogenarian Fumihiko Maki in a tête-à-tête sponsored by the magazine Indonesia Design.

Anjung Salihara, Studio Dasar.
Anjung Salihara, Studio Dasar. [Davy Linggar]

Anjung Salihara, Studio Dasar.
Anjung Salihara, Studio Dasar. [Paskalis Khrisno Ayodyantoro]

Wicaksono and Tjhi are representative of the rising generation in another respect; their worldviews are marked by what I would term a “Cosmo/Local” polarity. Raised in chaotic but relatively open times, and abetted by digital telecommunications, the CosmoLocs toggle between two complexities that frame the creative lives of many young designers: an intense awareness of the global state-of-the-art via the internet and travel, and an equally intense loyalty to the peculiarities and potentials of their homeland. They are “a confused generation,” to quote Wicaksono again, but I’d venture less so in Jakarta than elsewhere. The city breeds an urbane generosity, a slightly surrealist cosmopolitanism. If the AMI generation brings to mind von Trier and his contrarian peers, the post-’98 CosmoLocs seem more like characters invented by Werner Herzog. As a child, before he audaciously invited Koolhaas back to Jakarta for a college lecture, Wicaksono taught himself English by watching Sesame Street; the week I left Jakarta, Tjhi was stranded in Azerbaijan, where he’d ventured on a solitary pilgrimage to see Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Cultural Center in Baku, traveling via Teheran with no luggage and no firm return flight. None of these misfortunes deterred Henry from a quick 500-word missive celebrating his destination, with barely a mention of the sacrifices his alterna-haaj had exacted along the way. 27

Microlibrary Bima, SHAU.
Microlibrary Bima, SHAU. [Sanrok Studio]

Microlibrary Bima, SHAU.
Microlibrary Bima, SHAU. [Sanrok Studio]

SUB Office, Bintaro, Jakarta, SUB.
SUB Office, Bintaro, Jakarta, SUB. [Sevfal Mogalana]

Not much fazes the CosmoLocs, save perhaps a fear of lingering in the 20th century. The work of the post-’98 generation is still coming into focus, but already has some telltale motifs, notably curvature. Tjhi’s practice, HGT Architects, has built several retail projects in Bandung, all featuring elements crafted locally by steel fabricators and rattan weavers. An oval banquette runs the full perimeter of one restaurant project, forming the longest continuous wicker seat in the world (!). Wicaksono’s practice, Studio Dasar, is so far the only younger generation firm to contribute a building to the prestigious Salihara arts complex: an anjung, or fellows’ housing, organized around a core of rehearsal spaces. The building has major curves at either end: a floating spiral stair to its inboard side and a bulbous wing of double-height shared living spaces on the other. The façade columns are elliptical, all interior posts cylindrical, the stairs radiused, and the undersides of beams filleted. On a campus of AMI-authored orthogonal volumes, including several by Wicaksono’s mentor Andra Matin, the Anjung Salihara lands as alien as Corbusier’s Carpenter Center did amidst the Georgian rectitude of Harvard.

Not much fazes the post-’98 generation, save perhaps a fear of lingering in the 20th century.

Wicaksono and Tjhi are remarkable for their wit and writing, Wicaksono for the Dutch journal Mark and Tjhi for the Jakarta Post and Design Indonesia; but they are hardly alone in their design talent. Dani Hermawan of Formologix Lab (“Dani One-N,” to Wicaksono’s two), Muhammad Sagitha and Wiyoga Nurdiansyah of SUB, the collaborative SHAU, and Willis Kusuma, a recent return from Richard Meier’s Los Angeles office — all lead nimble, diversified practices that include teaching, design, fabrication, and often construction as well. As in the United States but more so, the locally schooled run more prolific practices, while those with prestigious (often foreign) graduate degrees tend to teach. But the volume of work and the peculiar capital pride of Jakartans level both playing fields. SUB’s recently completed model home and studio in Bintaro is a lodestar for the post-’98 generation, a concrete frame based closely on the Maison Domino, partially enclosed with calibrated brick courses and a lower stair that expands to a full-width amphitheater at grade. 28 (One senses that after generations of being force-fed Frank Lloyd Wright — both because of New Order Americanism and early Dutch affinities for his work — both the AMI and post-’98 architects gravitate to Le Corbusier as a reflexive palette cleanser.)

How do the architectures of Pancasila co-mingle today, and what are their possible futures? 29 The first Pancasila monuments of Sukarno — perhaps the most emblematic of Indonesian self-determination, but also the most anachronistic — are now iconic or imperiled (or both). These structures defined a new nation, but have settled into an uneasy, heavy-set middle age. (The recent extension of Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, a mile-long extrusion with no variation in its banal and grossly over-scaled section, is a sad rebuttal to the imagination of its namesake.) Urbanistically, the bottom-up tactics of the second Pancasila have in many respects mitigated the mono-modernism of Sukarno and the “Indonesia First” kitsch of the Suharto decades, and enabled the advances of the AMI and CosmoLoc generations. Always a prolific strain, the “national unity” architectures of the third Pancasila abound still, in more and more baroque contortions of surface and civic influence. (See, for instance, the impressive compound curvatures of the Bakrie Tower, by HOK, which may have been Southeast Asia’s first parametric exercise, and better than most since.)

But it is the architectures of the fourth and and fifth Pancasilas, of the founding AMI architects and their post-’98 interlocutors, that are closest to my heart, and that deserve a far broader audience. A visit to Andra Matin’s home and studio two weeks into our expat experience rescued me from a monsoon depression. Here is an entry from my diary that week: “an astounding new house, all concrete and reclaimed teak, with an utterly open-air living/dining room (surprising here with smog and bugs), and a terrarium for 30 cats …” But I failed to record the revelations of the following weeks. As I saw projects by Wicaksono, Mamo, Gunawan and others, I realized how close Jakarta felt to Santa Monica in the 1980s, or Basel in the 1990s, to moments when a creative scene took hold and a group of architects challenged one another to sharpen and redefine their collective game — to realize a new paradigm.

  1. Caution to the author, SCI-Arc, October 29, 2014
  2. Houston’s flooding after Hurricane Harvey is another similarity that masks differences, as Jakarta, founded and well polderized by the Dutch, floods frequently but drains within hours.
  3. Deriving from the Javanese word for “Batavia,” Betawi is the term for Jakarta’s historical Indonesian ethnic group, identified in the 19th century as a creole of Javanese, Chinese, Muslim, and Portuguese Christian diasporas.
  4. The commute is often longer due to monsoon flooding or vast weekly protest marches — many of the latter against the culture of corruption that, among its evils, includes the bureaucratic paralysis of the MRT.
  5. According to Wikipedia, “Pancasila consists of two Old Javanese words (originally from Sanskrit): pañca meaning five, and sīla meaning principles.” Accessed 08/01/2017.
  6. Which perhaps one should: The Land Ordinance of 1784, of which Jefferson was principal author, would have struck down slavery in the incorporated states by 1800 if its fifth and last article — “After the year 1800 there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of them” — hadn’t been removed by a single vote in Congress.
  7. In writing this essay, I am indebted to a central player in Indonesian architecture today, the author, editor, and publisher Imelda Akmal. The editions of Imaji, Akmal’s imprint, constitute the best and often only record of contemporary architecture in Jakarta accompanied by any English translation, and an indispensable first draft of history for the city’s current generations. (The only serious competition is the trade magazine Indonesia Design, largely focused on interiors.) Akmal’s journal ARCHINESIA and her recent Architectural Guide Indonesia are to Jakarta what John Entenza’s journal Arts & Architecture and the oft-updated Architectural Guidebooks by David Gebhard were to postwar Los Angeles. Equal parts Esther McCoy and Anna Wintour, Ibu Imelda leads and shapes as many conversations as she records; she is notable too for her tireless efforts to distinguish architectural developments in Jakarta from those nearby, especially the vying subtropical modernisms of Singapore (progress) and Bali (eco/lux).
  8. Graham Harman, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), 36-37.
  9. Harman, 58.
  10. The first Pancasila reads as follows in Bahasa Indonesia: “Kethanan Yang Maha Esa.” No deity is specified.
  11. Abidin Kusno, The Appearance of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia (Raleigh: Duke university Press, 2010), 128.
  12. Abidin Kusno, Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, Urban Space and Political Cultures in Indonesia (London: Routledge, 2000), 57-58.
  13. Jakarta architect Henry Gunawan Tjhi, founder of HGT Architects, suggests that this Sukarno/Niemeyer parallel is too broad. In his view, a more precise analog for Sukarno would be the Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek, the mastermind of Brasilia. “Kubitschek’s architects,” he writes, “were Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer. Sukarno’s architects were F. Silaban, who designed the Grand Mosque of Jakarta and Soejoedi Wirjoatmodjo, who designed TWA-esque parliament building.” Email to author, September 12, 2017. Protest noted; but Sukarno was designing the entire country, and had the engineer’s training to alter projects at will.
  14. In Indonesia, as in Italy, architects often find a second, more influential career in politics.
  15. See Indra Harsaputra, “Tri Rismaharini: Madame Mayor iron fist, tender heart,” Jakarta Post, February 15, 2014.
  16. See “Zaha Hadid to design Bandung theatre,” Malaymail Online, January 30, 2016.
  17. As inspiring as these local initiatives have proven to global progressives, local self-determination comes with its risks. From certain points of view, the struggle to impose sharia law in Aceh and even the purges of Rodrigo Duterte when he was mayor of Davao City in the Philippines can be rationalized in terms of improving urban “hygiene.” Thus did Aldous Huxley urge caution in the celebration of regimented order.
  18. Michael Franti, on the Green School website: “The most remarkable thing at Green School is the love that’s been invested by the families, the faculty & especially the kids. There’s so much energy & talent.”
  19. The fires that raged on Sumatra in 2015, casting haze throughout much of ASEAN, are argued both ways: as the result of international conglomerates destroying pristine jungle habitat; or of freeholding Sumatrans reaping the rightful profits from their rich soil.
  20. Theodore Friend, Indonesian Destinies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 234.
  21. The Golden Snail is a Javanese folkloric tale.
  22. See Richard Miller’s spreadsheet.
  23. See Kate Lamb, “Inside the bubble: the air-conditioned alternate reality of Jakarta’s megamalls,” The Guardian, November 24, 2016.
  24. Arsitek Muda Indonesia is almost exactly contemporaneous with the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design.
  25. Under the right circumstances, I imagine this Pancasila supporting a legislative inclusiveness along the lines advocated by Jurgen Habermas.
  26. Conversation with author, Jakarta, November 29, 2016. I owe Wicaksono many thanks throughout this essay, and another to Aaron Betsky, for his introduction to Danny, a copy of Max Halevaar, and a preview of Jakarta in general.
  27. Henry Tjhi did get back to Bandung, a few weeks late. An observant Catholic, Henry made stopovers in Teheran and Isfahan which will almost certainly preclude visits to his alma maters in Ohio and New York any time soon.
  28. For more on this generation and the Bintaro neighborhood, see Pingkan Palilingan, “A Session with Studio Dasar: SUB Architecture Studio,” Indonesia Design, June 16, 2016.
  29. It should be noted that this “Architectures of the Pancasilas” approach underserves more than few gifted Jakarta architects. Between the AMI and the post-’98 generations — that is, between those now circling 60 and those still under 40 — I would point to Anthony Liu and Ferry Ridwan, partners in the prolific Studio TonTon (designers of the widely published Kosenda Hotel), to Ahmad Djuhara (the outspoken president of the Indonesian Institute of Architects) and his partner Wendy Djuhara, and to Stanley Wangsadihardja and Susi Gunawan, both educators as well as designers. It is in this group that Jakarta’s specific rapport with Japanese contemporary architecture is most profound. Japan’s five-year occupation of Indonesia during World War II left a conflicted legacy, but for many architects the hardships of those years have been long forgiven or perhaps fruitfully sublimated. The Grey and White Schools of Tadao Ando and Toyo Ito have become dueling pan-Asiatic inspirations — default frames of reference throughout Southeast Asia.
Joe Day, “Spires and Gyres,” Places Journal, November 2017. Accessed 08 Feb 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/171128

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