Jakarta’s Kota Tua, or Old Town district, is a riot of colors, as more than 10,000 kites fill the skies. Bright primary colors can be seen as far as the eye can see. Blue kites aligned toward the Kota train station, while red ones fly over the sidewalk. Last but not least, a sea of yellow kites hovers over Fatahillah Square, the center of the festivities.
Titled “Clouds of Thoughts,” it’s all too easy to assume that the fiber film installation piece is party bunting to celebrate Jakarta’s 487th anniversary. But its creators — Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) architect Diana Ang, SHAU Architecture and Urbanism founder Daliana Suryawinata, and Indonesian contemporary art denizen and Dia.lo.gue Artspace gallery co-founder Windi Salomo — intended the work to have more meaning.
The three of them conceived the Creative Public Spaces Program to establish temporary and permanent urban public places in the Old Town, and they believe public spaces are places where people can coexist and express themselves. A collection of these voices are collected in the “Cloud of Thoughts,” a canopy composed of messages of hope from Jakarta’s citizens.
The initiative, which was supported by the government, the Indonesian Diaspora Network and the Dutch Embassy, as well as corporate sponsors like BNI, AirAsia Indonesia and Walls Ice Cream, is the most far-reaching of its kind yet made.
“I hope the Old Town will become the jewel of Jakarta,” reads a message on one of the kites from Jakarta Acting Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
“I hope that Jakarta’s Old Town will take its rightful place with its counterparts around the globe,” reads another from Jakarta Heritage Trust member Robert Tambunan.
Other messages strike an equally poignant chord.
Street sweeper Nia Kusniawati and Antique Bike Community member Suparno say they hope the capital will be able to overcome its seemingly insurmountable urban problems.
“I hope that the quality of public transportation will be upgraded,” Nia writes, while the latter says, “I’d like to see Jakarta free of floods, pollution and traffic jams, making it more conducive for bicycling.”
Diana says the kites, which will fly until the end of the month, representing the best of Jakarta and its people. “Kites symbolize hope, youth and dynamism. One can see the last point with a flying kite, since it doesn’t stay still,” she says of the work, the centerpiece for the Kota Tua Creative Festival, a project for Jakarta’s anniversary on June 22.
Reinventing the Old Town
“The quaintness and character of the Old Town can be a draw in itself and the reason behind its revitalization,” says Diana, a graduate of Rice University.
“The squares, plazas and other public spaces that are unique to the Old Town will gain appeal, as they provide an alternative to the malls which dominate Jakarta.”
Diana, Daliana and Windi started off by turning one edifice, the Tjipta Niaga building, into an art gallery featuring the works of 26 contemporary Indonesian artists. However, Diana says there is only so much they can do for the crumbling buildings of the Old Town.
“It’s not always feasible to restore the old building to its original purpose. For one, they sometimes have to be reinvented as art galleries, music halls or cultural centers because their real purpose is long past” she says. “And the materials to make them are also not always available. And even if they are, they’re sometimes prohibitively expensive.”
The Tjipta Niaga building is just one that benefited from another initiative hatched by the trio of artists, along with the Erasmus Huis Dutch cultural institute, Rumah Asuh and the Jakarta Old Town Reborn (JOTR) initiative.
The JOTR engaged seven Indonesian and Dutch architectural companies, including Andra Matin Architects, KCAP, and Niek Roozen Landscape Architects, to collaborate with the government and the building owners to renovate the Tjipta Niaga, Kerta Niaga and Samudera buildings, as well as the Kota train station. But another structure that is set to receive the group’s attention is the Kota Bawah building.
“The Kota Bawah building is unique as it has a tree growing out in the middle of it,” says JOTR curator and architect Yori Antar. “We want to highlight its unique characteristics, as the tree and vines growing in the courtyard remind one of temples like Angkor Wat.
“We hope to reinvent the building into a hotel, cafe and cultural center. We hope to do the same to the rest of the Old Town, and turn it from a decrepit symbol of Jakarta’s urban decay into the capital’s leading center of the arts,” Yori says.
Getting the world to take notice
Yori also notes that Kota Station and the Old Town waterfront are acknowledged by UNESCO as leading examples of 1920s and ’30’s Art Deco architecture.
Now, a group of companies under the Jakarta Old Town Revitalization Corporation along with the Education Ministry and the Jakarta administration is set to take UNESCO’s attention a step further.
“We intend to submit a bid for the Old Town to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site by March 2016, after we start our research in two to five months’ time,” says Lim Che Wei, a spokesman for the corporation, which includes Ciputra, Agung Sedayu Group and Plaza Indonesia, as well as state companies like the Pos Indonesia and Pelindo, the Indonesia Ports Corporation.
“If possible, we might even do so by March 2015 if we get our research and paperwork in order by then,” Lim says. “At 342 hectares it’s the largest of all Dutch colonial cities. But it has yet to be named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while its counterparts like Galle in Sri Lanka and Paramaribo in Suriname were listed as such in 1988 and 2002.”
Lim says the Old Town fulfills UNESCO criteria, namely its significance in human history, interchange of value, traditional human settlements, and architectural value.
“The Old Town’s legacy encompasses major periods in Indonesian history, starting with the Pajajaran Kingdom, the Portuguese and Dutch East India Company eras, as well as the Dutch colonial period and the Japanese occupation before Indonesia’s independence,” he says. “Among the elements we sought to highlight, aside from its better-known Dutch influences, are evidence of Bugis, Chinese and Arab settlements, to highlight the Old Town’s multiethnic character.”
Education Ministry official Wiendu Nuryanti is just as upbeat.
“Indonesia’s bid to name the Old Town as a World Heritage site reflects the government’s seriousness and will to preserve the Old Town,” she says.
To date, the Jakarta Administration has allocated over Rp 150 billion ($12.6 million) for the Old Town’s preservation. Lim’s consortium intends to renovate 85 historic buildings in five years, creating more than 11,000 jobs in the process.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on July 6, 2014