Saturday, January 14, 2012, 00:00

Legacy lost

By Rossie Indira

Legacy lost

Legacy lost

Come late Friday afternoon and the highway leading out of Jakarta is jam-packed with weekenders who cant wait to get out of the humid, crowded, traffic-choked capital. Most of them are heading to Bandung, the capital city of West Java province.

Located 768 meters above sea level, Bandung has a mild and pleasant climate, making it a very popular weekend escape for Jakartans. In the old days, it was also a weekend refuge for Dutch plantation owners and their families.

But the best way to go to Bandung is actually by train. Several trains connect the two cities daily.

The 3-hour train ride meanders along mountain slopes and offers stunning views of West Javas highlands complemented by deep ravines, verdant rice fields and vast tea plantations. It is a pleasant way to leave the hustle and bustle of Jakarta behind.

Bandung is the third largest city of Indonesia after Jakarta and Surabaya and was formerly nicknamed Parijs van Java (Paris of Java) by the Dutch for its resemblance to Paris during colonial times.

It is most famous for hosting the 1955 Asian-African Conference, also known as the Bandung Conference or Non-Aligned Movement Conference.

The Indonesian parliament was located in Bandung from 1955 to 1966 but was moved back to Jakarta in 1966.

The city is also celebrated for its tropical Art Deco buildings. In the 1920s when the Dutch decided to gradually move their colonial capital to Bandung, it was the heyday of Art Deco. Dutch architects were commissioned to design many buildings in the sprawling city and left a legacy of colonial architecture incorporating tropical Art Deco.

That is the reason why even today Bandung boasts of some of the best examples of tropical Art Deco architecture in the world.

Gedung Merdeka, the building that served as the venue for the 1955 conference, was built in 1895. It was then known as Sociteit Concordia and used as a dance hall, a venue for entertainment and social gathering of the rich of Bandung.

In 1926, it was rebuilt by C.P. Wolff Schoemacher, Albert F. Aalbers and Van Galen Last.

The participants of the 1955 conference stayed in several hotels in Bandung. Two that were close to the conference venue the Preanger and Savoy Homann hotels were both built in the Art Deco style of that time and still retain the original facades

Today, Bandung suffers from many of the same problems as other Indonesian cities. Traffic is congested, old buildings have been torn down, and once idyllic residences have turned into business premises.

In 1987 a group of concerned people started the Bandung Society for Heritage Conservation, better known as the Bandung Heritage Society.

Since its establishment in 1987, the Society has been campaigning for heritage conservation and preservation, says Aji Bimarsana, its chairman.

We hold monthly discussions on the preservation of our culture and invite experts as speakers. There are also many exhibitions. We hold workshops and academic studies on areas that need to be conserved, particularly Braga Street. We want to help the local government conserve heritage buildings in the city.

During the Dutch colonial era, Braga Street was lined with patisseries, cafes, shops and boutiques featuring the latest Parisian styles and fashions.

Like Havana in Cuba, Miami in Florida in the United States, or Napier in New Zealand, Bandung has a number of tropical Art Deco buildings with modern expressionist design, static solidity of planes and surfaces, and simple patterns with lines and cylinders.

The architects also tried to incorporate native elements.

One such building is the Institut Teknologi Bandung (Bandung Institute of Technology). Designed by Henri Maclaine-Pont, it has a local West Sumatran roof over its West and East halls. Another example is the Gedung Sate Building (now the office of West Javas provincial government and House of Representatives). Designed by J. Gerber it combines Italian Renaissance style of arch structures and pagoda-like forms.

Schoemaker was one of the celebrated architects who added strong native elements in his designs. Villa Isola, which now houses the offices of a university in North Bandung, was one of his projects. The residence of a millionaire in the early 1930s, the villa with its curvaceous shapes and a terraced garden is arguably one of the most beautiful Art Deco buildings in Indonesia.

Of course it is not easy to preserve all these buildings.

There were a lot of obstacles to conserve heritage buildings in Bandung, explains Harastoeti D. Hartono, writer of 100 Bangunan Cagar Budaya di Bandung (100 Heritage Buildings in Bandung).

The majority of people do not understand the need to preserve and conserve heritage buildings. Most of the generations that experienced the hardships of colonialism still have an aversion to the legacy left behind by the colonists. For the current generation, many only see the locations of these buildings as strategic for their businesses and dont care about anything else. Our efforts to conserve these buildings were (initially) not supported by the local or central governments.

But after years of trying to teach the general public and civil servants about the need to conserve their heritage, the Bandung city government has now implemented local bylaws for conserving heritage areas and buildings.

This is very important for Bandung. Before, we could not sue owners or developers for destroying areas or buildings that we considered to have heritage values. Now we can, although in reality it is still very difficult to do that, says Hartono.

The government has started to care more and so has the general public. We have to be thankful for this. There are now occasions when developers ask for our advice before undertaking renovation of heritage buildings.

Not all are optimistic though.

I feel that the government acts only when it has personal and short-term concerns, says Bimarsana. When it has a (vested) interest, it supports any activity related to the cultural heritage conservation of Bandung. But if not, it will not pay any attention.

Through the years, many heritage buildings have made way for shopping malls and offices. Many fell victim to demolition, neglect, and inconsiderate renovation.

There is also a lot of character vandalism of the citys heritage areas. Many original buildings were demolished or changed to something else with little attention to their origins. Consequently, the garden-city character is now gone and it is becoming a modern housing suburb that can be found in any city in Indonesia.

The priority of the local government to uphold the bylaws is still very low, says Arry Akhmad Arman, a professor at Bandung Institute of Technology. Moreover, they tend to become violators themselves.

For Bandung to retain its character and legacy as the tropical Art Deco city of Asia, it is important that the government, along with the general public, is strict about implementing laws and regulations to conserve its cultural heritage.

It is the only way to save these beautiful structures with high concrete walls and decorated windows within which different cultures from a bygone era were assimilated.