The Fascinating Architectural History of Jakarta

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Jakarta: polluted, scorching, and home to crushing poverty, a 24-hour chaotic mess of people, cars, and cement.  Just walking outside leaves you tired, dizzy, and soaked in sweat. Yet, at the same time, it is endlessly fascinating, a melting pot of Indonesia’s 300 separate ethnicities and more than 700 languages.  Full of some of the friendliest people on earth (seriously, they can’t stop smiling), and probably the best food in Southeast Asia, given a choice, I would choose here over that den of sexually charged Australian college students called Bali any day.

But maybe, most overlooked is Jakarta’s unique colonial history.  While Westerners may be familiar with British or Spanish overseas expansion, the story of Dutch exploitation has gone relatively untold.  The Kota Tua area of what was once called Batavia is full of the remnants of the country’s colonial past. From canals that seem to come straight out of Amsterdam to massive warehouses and wharves that once belong to the Dutch East India Company (VOC), Jakarta is a testament to a trade empire that stretched around the globe.

One of the many canals that crisscross Jakarta. Notice the deco de Rivier Hotel to the right.

The Dutch regime was often brutal.  Even as late as 1946, Dutch soldiers were involved in the summary execution of tens of thousands of Indonesians as they attempted to hold on to their colony.  But the Dutch also contributed to the development of the archipelago in many ways.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of architecture with Batavia a showcase of Dutch, Chinese, and indigenous designs.  Even today, many of Batavia’s historic buildings can still be found in Jakarta.

The Stadhuis is an example of pure Dutch architecture in Jakarta.

The architectural history of Jakarta is one of evolution, a slow adoption by the Dutch of local design for practical purposes.  Originally, the Dutch merely imported their architecture from Europe, epitomized in the early 18th century Stadhuis (city hall), today the Jakarta History Museum.  Essentially, a smaller and less ornate version of the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, the Dutch soon realized that this particular style of construction was ill-equipped to deal with the hot and humid climate of Indonesia.

By contrast, the Javanese designed their buildings with the weather in mind. Their structures were typically one story and emphasized open space to maximize airflow.  An overhanging roof was essential to limit the effects of heavy rains. Javanese society was also extremely hierarchical, and the roof became a symbol of status, with the Joglo style reserved for the aristocracy.

A traditional Javanese structure with Joglo roof.

Eventually, the Dutch began to incorporate these elements into their own architecture. An early example of the transition from a pure Dutch style to a fusion with local design is the National Archives Building, which was the former 18th-century private residence of Governor-General Reinier de Klerk.  In many respects a typical Dutch construction, the building includes an overhanging roof to accommodate the structure to the local weather.

The National Archives is predominately a Dutch building but begins to incorporate some Javanese elements.

As more Javanese concepts made their way into Dutch construction, the Indies Style was born. Characterized by single-story structures with protected verandas, large windows, and possibly as a symbol of the colonists’ subjugation of the local population, Joglo roofs, the Indies Style was commonly used in the Dutch elites’ plantation homes (landhuis).

Unfortunately, few of these landhuizen still exist.  Most were torn down to make way for modern constructions.  One example that still survives (although in deplorable conditions) is the Landhuis Cililitan.  Cililitan goes farther than the National Archives, with tall windows for better ventilation and a much more developed roof that incorporates elements of the Joglo style.  In typical Dutch fashion, the building remains two stories.

The Javanese roof can still be seen on Landhuis Cililitan.

The full realization of the Indies style though can be seen in the Landhuis Djipang, which encompasses the complete fusion of Dutch and Javanese styles.  The one-story house has a fully protected verandah supported by European style columns and a well pronounced Joglo roof.  Unfortunately, this structure is no longer standing.

Landhuis Djipang was demolished in 1996.

With the advent of the 19th century, French architecture became popular across Europe, and many of its elements made their way to Indonesia. Later buildings were constructed in the Indies Empire Style, an adoption of French architectural features to the tropical climate.  One of the best examples of this style is a former 19th-century mansion, now the Textile Museum in Jakarta.  The building is a combination of a neoclassical facade with the typically large spaces and overhanging roof of the Javanese.

Many Javanese concepts can be found in the Empire Indies Style.

It is also worth mentioning that the city contains several examples of Art Deco.  Although an international architectural design, there are few of these types of buildings in Asia.  The Metropole XXI building is probably the most interesting construction in this style. Completed in 1932, it is the oldest movie theater in the city and is still in use today.

The Metropole is just one of several Art Deco buildings in Jakarta.

Tourist frequently ignore Jakarta, and this is unfortunate. It is often said that there is nothing to see in this city of 10 million.  And while it is true that Jakarta is not full of postcard-perfect vistas, if you scratch a little beneath the surface you just might be surprised at what you find.

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One thought on “The Fascinating Architectural History of Jakarta”

  1. Another great post. You certainly dig into things that nobody else even thinks about. Keep it up there great!

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