By Setiadi Sopandi and Avianti Amand
Modern architecture that emerged in Indonesia in the early 20th century was both a surprise and a necessity. The introduction of modern architecture by Dutch architects came as an elitist and exemplary cultural shock to the racially divided colonial society. Their soaring brick and reinforced concrete structures, in contrast with the local vernacular timber, bamboo, and thatch-roof dwellings, offered a new form of expression and upward mobility in the new context of the ruled society.
During the first 15 years of independence, Dutch and Indonesian architects continued to build modern structures: a new urban area, houses and company housing facilities, banks and corporate offices, research institutions, as well as many essential infrastructures. But only after the high tide of nationalism and the shift to an authoritarian regime did Indonesia start to incorporate modern architecture as a vehicle of mass communication – to show both the world and its own citizens that Indonesia was on par with other modern nation-states. Throughout the capital Jakarta, a sprawling, low-lying city, the government built colossal institutional buildings, a grand sport complex, along with highways and modern hotels to support international events, skyscrapers, a modern department store, and numerous monuments.
After a short five-year period, the outpour of architectural commissions ended abruptly and marked the start of a new military-backed authoritarian regime. The following three decades saw the introduction of a free market economy to the country. Investment brought prosperity and opportunities for more buildings and cities until other crises brought yet other disruptions. Modern architecture has continued to grow throughout the changing political and economic climate in Indonesia, along with their specific contexts. It continued as a tradition in the profession despite the popularity of post-modernism and regionalism, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
Modern architecture from different historical layers in Jakarta are not so easily understood without proper information and insight. We can always assess modern architecture in terms of its universal ideals: straightforward and logical forms, novel geometries, fine surfaces, rational responses to climates, rigid and orderly spaces, and uninterrupted movement of people and vehicles. However, this perspective alone is not adequate to explain the nuanced context in which the structures were created over the decades.
Modern architecture is designed to arouse and encourage people to transcend notions of ethnicity, locality, “backwardness”, social and cultural barriers, and traditions, instead reaching towards a new civilization. The 20th century architectural epoch conceivably aimed to stimulate architectural spaces with egalitarian, transnational, and progressive behaviour. Especially in the Indonesian context, the new architectural spaces were often accompanied by narratives expressing anti-colonial sentiment and soaring national Unitarianism.
But narratives eventually fade; novelty has an expiry date. As time passed and modern life evolved, magnificent architectural spaces were devalued and denied their initial intents and contexts. This is not necessarily a negative phenomenon; today these spaces may be actively reinterpreted or rehabilitated and injected with new values relevant to the current era.
Occupying Modernism is a reflection on how Indonesians have rendered the spaces of modern architecture. It is a package of events consisting of an exhibition, a talk, and a tour.
The exhibition is the heart of the event, which is preceded by a period of research involving four artists observing, analysing, contemplating, and recording their impressions of eight examples of modern architecture (and their surrounding spaces). Each artist will explore at least four sites: two public spaces and two domestic environments. The artists are asked to visit, observe, comprehend, and establish a certain perspective or develop an idea that will potentially enrich our understanding of these modern spaces. Through the creative and imaginative impressions by the artists, the exhibition will address how Indonesians have occupied – celebrated, used, loved, cared for, disturbed, damaged, left behind, hated, ignored, and rediscovered – our modern spaces.
Given the artists’ unique backgrounds and specific standpoints, we expect to encounter rich visual as well as historical (social, cultural, and political) impressions, which may help us view seemingly common structures in a new light, presented in artistic documentation. The impressions will be expressed through texts (short essays, poems, notes), sketches, photographs (including those which are taken by instant photo cameras, cell phone snapshots, etc.), video clips, found objects, and archival objects. These objects will be exhibited along with the eight architectural projects – each introduced with a short text and representative photographs.