The architecture of fluid identities

The architecture of fluid identities
Published: Sep 25, 2014

Amanda Achmadi and Agung Sentausa

Prayer hall in Jakarta mall - Agung Sentausa

After decades of having planning and development controlled by the private sector, it is not surprising that Jakarta’s most prominent urban feature is the shopping mall. Compensating for the city’s lack of civic spaces and maintained public amenities, the manicured spaces of the shopping mall have emerged as ‘the urban living room’ for the city’s diverse population: students, professionals, and families from different social, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Beyond shopping, practices such as dating, working, business meetings, social clubs, after-school play, exhibitions, and now religious activities flourish in the well-maintained space of the mall. Shopping malls no longer compete with each other only in terms of the collection of shops, brands and restaurants, but also in terms of the social facilities on offer. These include children’s playgrounds, prayer halls, and multi-purpose rentable spaces. Unsurprisingly, the areas surrounding the malls have also developed quite rapidly. This has in recent times been driven by small-scale entrepreneurships responding to the opportunities created by the centrality of the malls in everyday life.

The emergence of pseudo-religious spaces and the growing use of religious symbolism within these monuments to 21st century consumerism is a fascinating dimension of Jakarta’s shopping malls. Prayer halls for Muslims (mushola) and rentable multi-purposed rooms for religious gatherings held by members of Indonesia’s Christian community are becoming standard features of shopping malls, particularly those built in the last ten years. The interior design and architecture of such facilities have also shifted significantly from the ad hoc arrangements of the past. They are no longer hidden outdoors or in the underground parking spaces, but have rather become more integrated into the design of the main shopping areas. Often they are strategically situated on the ground floor for easy access and proximity to supermarkets and food courts. Some of the larger shopping malls, such as Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, Lotte Shopping Avenue and Pondok Indah Mall 1 and 2, feature mushola facilities on each floor.

Mushola facilities in shopping malls mostly use luxurious, corporate-style architectural finishes consistent with those used generally in the mall. They offer higher levels of comfort and hygiene than many of the more traditional prayer halls found elsewhere in Jakarta’s densely populated urban neighborhoods. They are typically equipped with the essential counter to deposit shoes and bags, mukena and sarong (praying attire for women and men respectively) rental, and a spacious ablutions area as well as toilet facilities. Prayer times are regularly announced inside the malls.

2 achmadiPrayer hall foyers are kept clean and orderly with counters to deposit belongings - Agung Sentausa

Some of the shopping malls also hold regular Qur’an recital sessions. The availability of a digital Qur’an and internet access combined with the widespread use of mobile phone means that the mushola is also used as a religious study space. People spend time reading the digital Qur’an and accessing religion-related social media using their smartphones and tablets in the mushola and elsewhere in the shopping malls. The mushola is not only used by the mall’s visitors, but also by office workers from the surrounding area, since not all office buildings in Jakarta are equipped with prayer facilities. Office workers also regularly visit the malls at the end of their working day to spend time while waiting for Jakarta’s chronic peak hour traffic congestion to subside. As an alternative to spending time in cafes, restaurants and the cinema, the mushola offers these frequent visitors a free and comfortable ‘waiting room’ inside the mall.

Celebrations of religious holidays of different faiths are also commonly expressed in Jakarta’s shopping malls. Although certainly driven by commercial interests and often featuring caricatured images of each of the religious seasons (for example ketupat - diamond shaped rice cake wrapped in weaved palm leaves for Ramadan and Idul Fitri, Easter eggs, and Christmas trees) such celebrations are embraced by the malls’ visitors. These temporary design elements define the atmosphere of major religious holidays in the city.

Ngabuburit (social activities undertaken while waiting for the end of the fasting period at dusk during the Ramadan month) in the shopping mall is also becoming common practice in Jakarta. Muslims often go the malls’ cinemas to watch movies, despite their apparent contradiction with the spirit of the sacred month, to pass the time until they can break the fast. While in the past businesses were commonly encouraged to respect those who fast by using a temporary curtain to screen dining areas during Ramadan, this is no longer common in malls. Food courts and restaurants are full at the end of the day as families, students and office workers prepare to break their fasts. Traffic congestion around the shopping malls increases particularly during religious holidays, underscoring the centrality of these spaces to everyday religiosity.

3 achmadiVisual merchandising in preparation for Idul Fitri celebrations - Agung Sentausa

How the urban space of the shopping mall is here occupied, used, and shared peacefully by the diverse elements of the urban populations, contrasts with the current tension surrounding the construction of formal representations of religious identity in the form of religious buildings such as mosques and churches. The use of strong visual representation of religious symbols in some of the new mosques and churches in Jakarta, whether in the forms of building façade, layout or elements of physical separation such as high fencing, often intimidate even the followers of the religions themselves. Wide adoption of the perceived authentic and orthodox Middle Eastern mosque architecture in Indonesia, and the discriminatory procedure of requiring some minority groups to obtain permission to build churches and other sacred buildings contrasts with the coexistence of multi religious spaces inside shopping malls. The growing occurrence of Christian religious gatherings in the shopping malls is itself a phenomenon that directly results from the difficulty of obtaining permission to build new churches in the country. With no profound separation between the sacred and the profane, and so far without a significant sentiment to claim ownership of the mall by certain religious groups, shopping malls emerge as the face of religious tolerance, albeit a commercialised one.

Shopping malls, while often criticised for their effect on the city’s social environment due to their excessive celebration of consumptive lifestyles, can be seen as a blessing in disguise for Jakarta’s population. The commercial shell of Jakarta’s malls offers its urban population a sanctuary from the politicisation of religion and rising religious intolerance within the country’s political and public discourses. It offers a space where Indonesians can feel safe interacting with one another regardless of their religion. Here religious difference is respected while religious boundary is softened by the universal culture of consumerism. And in contrast to the reorientation of Islamic identity in the country towards Middle East traditions, as expressed through the pervasive adoption of Middle Eastern mosque architectural style at the cost of the more nuanced Indonesian vernacular mosque architecture, the contemporary architectural language used in these shopping mall musholas reflects an evolving urban reality which the majority of Indonesian Muslims enjoy. In its profanity, the shopping mall opens up a space of tolerance, a more fluid realm of religious encounter among Indonesia’s growing urban society. Here, the informal and peaceful everyday interactions between the different religious groups that form Indonesia continue to prevail in the face of the rising religious intolerance that has been worryingly and dangerously tolerated under the indecisive leadership of outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. With the recently concluded presidential election so profoundly marked with the rise of political consciousness and the participations of the country’s urban middle classes, this fluid emergence of an urban and tolerant identity might even spread beyond the glitzy walls of the shopping malls.

Amanda Achmadi is a lecturer in architectural design (Asian architecture and urbanism) at the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne. She holds a Doctorate degree in architecture and Asian studies from the University of Melbourne and a Bachelor degree in architecture from Parahyangan Catholic University.

Agung Sentausa graduated with a Bachelor degree in architecture from Parahyangan Catholic University. Based in Jakarta, he has worked in the audio-visual industry in the last 15 years as a film director, with a special interest in the socio-cultural lower-middle class landscape of Indonesian youth. He made his first feature film Garasi in 2005 followed by Badai di Ujung Negeri (2011) and contributed to Belkibolang (2011).

Inside Indonesia 118: Oct-Dec 2014