National Symbols – From Abroad?

Ulf Meyer
21. de desembre 2022
CONEFO building (now DPR/MPR, The People’s Representatives Council) in Jakarta (1964–1984). Architects: Soejoedi Wirjoatmodjo & Team. (Photo: William Sutanto)

When the famous Indonesian architect Soejoedi Wirjoatmodjo became chief architect for all national building projects in Jakarta in 1964, the newly independent nation had to find an architectural expression that would provide its identity and also fit into the international context of the Cold War era. is. Only five years before becoming the Indonesia’s key architect, Wirjoatmodjo — considered the first native architect of the postcolonial period in Indonesia — had graduated from Berlin’s Technical University. Quite a few young Indonesians studied architecture at European universities and brought back their thinking to Indonesia. Insights into this topic reveal interesting facts about the postcolonial architecture debates that are relevant to many other countries as well.

The symposium "Dipl.-Ing. Arsitek: Between past and future – new forms of design, construction and material cultures" took place online in early December.

As a nationalist, Wirjoatmodjo’s vision was to “unveil modern Indonesia,” as he put it, through “modernity as a vehicle of liberation.” This was no small claim. His strong sense for geometry can be seen in the famous CONEFO Building in Jakarta, intended as “an image of independence from the Communist Bloc and the West” simultaneously — and thus an architectural statement of what the architect called “National pride.” Since the Conference of the New Emerging Forces (CONEFO) never met, the Chinese-sponsored building was turned into the National Parliament. Its green dome on Jalan Gatot Subroto has been likened to a tortoise shell.

Wirjoatmodjo went on to design other key government buildings in Jakarta and abroad, including the ASEAN Secretariat Building in Jakarta (1975) and the Indonesia Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. He was not alone. At least two other key architects of Indonesia’s founding years, Han Awal and Bianpoen, also studied architecture in Germany and returned to their home country with the academic title of “Dipl.-Ing. Arsitek,” a phrase that contains the Indonesian word for architect with the German academic title of Diplom-Ingenieur (Diploma Engineer).

Han Awal in front of a model of his unrealized design for the expansion of Bank Indonesia, ca. 1980s. (Source: Han Awal & Partners)

German-Indonesian relations were positive during the 1950s and early 1960s, in the midst of the West German “economic miracle.” Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch in 1949 resulted in new academic ties between the two countries. Indonesian students studying architecture in Berlin, Hannover or Aachen were at that time “characterized by a belief in the promises of modernity: technological progress, growth, prosperity, and a better life for all in a world of endless resources,” as the announcement for the symposium described it. Today, 50 years after the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and the articulation that the planet’s resources are finite, technological progress does not necessarily lead to a better life for all.

Diploma project for a ‘Broadcasting Building’ by Mustafa Pamuntjak at TU Berlin in 1960. (Source: Technische Universität Berlin, Architekturmuseum, Inv. Nr. 68918)

Although Soejoedi Wirjoatmodjo was not one of its subjects, the symposium, "Dipl.-Ing. Arsitek: Between past and future – new forms of design, construction and material cultures," looked into lessons learned — literally and metaphorically — by that early generation of architecture students. Moderated by Johannes Widodo from the National University of Singapore, the speakers shed light on the topic from different angles: One of the most interesting perspectives came from Mohammad Nanda Widyarta (Universitas Indonesia and University of New South Wales, Australia), who has studied in detail how the transfer of materials and technology took place from Germany to Indonesia: from concrete and steel structures and the industrial infrastructure and skills they require down to the wiring of the National Monument that Siemens corporation delivered to Jakarta. 

In his lecture, “New concepts for the Indonesian metropolis?,” Alwi R. Sjaaf of Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta explained how the massive highways, following from the 1960s car-based urban planning, now serve as massive barriers in Jakarta. This urban pattern is hard to change, but the current capital will have to adapt to a new era anyhow, since, when the government leaves Jakarta for a new capital, Nusantara, its buildings will no longer be needed. The author also studied architecture in Berlin, where Philipp Misselwitz directs Bauhaus Earth; he talked about the Bauhaus Earth project, the “eco-turn in construction,” and looked at what sustainability could mean in Southeast Asia, where timber traditionally is associated with rural or vernacular architecture.

Nadia Purwestri looked at what the past holds in preparing for the future in the work of Pusat Dokumentasi Arsitektur (PDA), which is concerned with the documentation and research of Indonesian architecture. PDA not only preserves buildings, it also sparks reflection on the value of architectural history. Imma Anindyta and Dani Hermawan and their office Formologix discussed digital tectonics and fabrication as challenges for Indonesian architecture. Like Sjaaf and the architects on the program from a half-century ago, they too studied architecture in Germany. With that, the influence between education in one continent and practice in another became an insightful thread for understanding both postcolonial and contemporary architecture.

The exhibition Dipl.-Ing. Arsitek: German-trained Indonesian architects from the 1960s is on view at the Jakarta Arts Centre until January 12, 2023. A catalogue of the same name, edited by Moritz Henning and Eduard Kögel, will be published by DOM Publishers in the spring.

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