Published: Jul 29, 2007


Julie Shackford-Bradley

In this book, Abidin Kusno examines trends in architectural design and urban planning in Jakarta over the 20th century that resulted in the 1998 riots. Kusno's objectives are to show how 'imagined community' takes concrete form and substance in the 'real' spaces of the city' in order to understand the ways in which postcolonial cities alter the space and form of the built environment for themselves, in the process, forming a dialog with their colonial past. As a representation of that dialog, Jakarta exposes its blind spots. Kusno argues that Jakarta's architects and urban planners have struggled with legacies of the colonial mind-set, particularly the 'tradition vs. modernity' construct used deceptively by both the Sukarno and New Order governments in their quest for power. The results have been disastrous for Jakarta's underclass.

Kusno contends that, while Sukarno promoted Jakarta's post-independence design in terms of 'modernist' nationalism, the downtown area was discreetly modelled on elements of aristocratic Javanese power and grandeur. Display models of the city's master plan simply ignored the kampung (lower class areas), as did Sukarno's urban policies.

Suharto's equation of nationalism and the 'traditional' was just as inconsistent. The New Order saw the emergence of an upper class with transnational dreams of 'First World' style housing developments and culture. Motivated by a fear of falling in status, this upper class elevated itself, literally, through the creation of fly-overs (elevated highways) that build up confidence leaving behind the 'lower' classes who are routed through the crowded street at ground level. Through transmigration, the becak (pedicab) removal program, and Petrus, (mysterious shootings), the urban street was further transformed into a site of disturbance and criminality. Now nationalism was linked with development and the mass media announced the birth of a new ideal middle class subject of the nation. Meanwhile, the underclass was degraded into a mass of 'undesirables'; excluded from the new nationalism, they had no overarching affiliation and nothing to lose in 1998.

These issues are familiar, but benefit from Kusno's analysis of their spatial aspects. The book also presents a discussion of tropical architecture, from both the colonial period (featuring the buildings of Thomas Karsten and Henri Post) and the present (Sumet Jumsei's 'water-based' cultures, and Ken Yeang's bioclimactic skyscrapers) that blend local/traditional and modernist elements. Through such examples, Kusno projects a hopeful vision for the future in which more Indonesian architects and urban designers can practice this type of fusion, once freed from the colonial mindset that still constrains them.

Abidin Kusno, Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, Urban Space, and Political Cultures in Indonesia, London and New York: Routledge, 2000

Julie Shackford-Bradley (julie_shackford-bradley@csumb.edu)

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002