Among the terms aligned with good urban design, like heritage preservation, planning and taste, there’s one that sits awkwardly: money.
When a developer’s sole intent is to build big, brash and cheap, and authorities don’t care, we’re left with kitsch – and that’s not a good look to start anyone’s day. For the streetscape belongs to all – not just those with rolls of Rupiah.
Fortunately, some regional governments recognise that reality. Malang is one, though like the curate’s egg it’s only good in parts.
Past administrations have swung between funds – lamps made of a bent water pipe – or a necessary expense like elegant road signs holding old names, to set the tone for tourists. Scrap metal statuary representing mythological figures is replacing the crumbling concrete clowns promoting family welfare values.
It’s easy to slander the Dutch for the way they managed “their” East Indies colony, but let’s recognise their creativity in architecture. Sadly, it started late. Hilltown Malang was once a retreat for Europeans keen to escape the humid coast. The quality of their surviving homes, schools, churches, hospitals and public buildings suggests an age of affluence.
Engineer Herman Thomas Karsten was a town planning consultant between 1930 and 35 and responsible for the layout of Jalan Ijen, Malang’s version of LA’s Sunset Boulevard, plus scores of public and private buildings.
The accommodating avenue is flanked by thick-walled, high ceiling houses to cope with the heat. The peaked roofs are a nod to the traditional joglo design. Karsten married an Indonesian and identified with Java. He saw himself as a social engineer conscious of the environment, trying to incorporate local values rather than transplanting Amsterdam’s gabled canal houses to the tropics.
His work doesn’t offend – it blends.
Karsten was lucky to be working when the Art Deco movement was underway. He was also emboldened to embrace the indigenous after Queen Wilhelmina belatedly declared her colonial subjects should be treated with the decency enjoyed by Netherlanders. This was a substantial shift from the drive to exploit and plunder. Known as the “ethical policy”, it was reflected in the second of Malang’s two alun-alun or town squares.
The grand plan almost came to ruins. In late July 1947, the KNIL – Royal Netherlands East Indies Army – launched Operation Product assault on the city during the four-year War of Liberation.
Partisans responded with their “Ocean of Fire” campaign, torching scores of buildings to stop the invaders from occupying key sites. Some, like the austere Cor Jesu Catholic High School on the road from Surabaya, were eventually repaired. Others were demolished.
One of the arsonists’ targets was the Malang City Hall (Balaikota) which lost part of its roof to the flames. It was built in 1929 with the motto Voor de burgers van Malang, or “for the residents of Malang”, a democratic statement for a monarchy. The building dominates the Tugu alun-alun though it’s not in any way confrontational.
As the first square in the heart of the city turned into a cluttered commercial hub, the need to give the government some dignity led to a new alun-alun though this time developed as a circle around a pool and gardens.
The effect is marred by the use of artificial flowers, a mockery of the spectacular variety of blooms that thrive naturally. They weren’t planted – if that’s what the tasteless do with plastics – on the generous centrespread dual carriageway. This leads from the railway station and makes a grand entry statement.
It’s wide and squat with the repaired layered central roof resembling ancient mosques before Saudi-style domes became popular. It doesn’t press itself on pedestrians in the way more recent and taller offices with plate glass and flat concrete, seemingly to intimidate: Beware – we’re the bosses dispensing permits; you’re just the grovelling supplicants.
Alongside is the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, or People’s Representative Council, maintaining the elegance and profile of its neighbour. It looks historic, yet it was completed seven years ago in the style of the adjacent Balaikota, proof that not all administrators are Neanderthals.
The up-market Tugu Hotel dominates a corner together with the Splendid Inn, which would deserve the title if given a makeover. That’s happened with the next building heading down to the twisting Brantas River which has cut its way through the volcanic topsoils deep down to bedrock.
Wisma Tumapel was built as a hotel in 1928, named Splendit, then used by the Japanese military between 1942 and 45. It was firebombed by the revolutionaries in 1947, repaired, named Graha as a guest house for visiting academics and then abandoned to the ghosts who are always seeking free accommodation.
Another example of owners with taste putting aesthetics ahead of avarice is the Shalimar Hotel, formerly a social centre where the colonialists feasted, danced, and celebrated a life that was soon to crash with the Japanese invasion.
After the war, it became the state radio station, then a hotel. In the last few years, it has been refurbished. Set in the suburbs, it’s unbothered by the clamour of the city.
Away from the civic centre and the ancient kampungs, Malang has sprawled like a toddler in a toy shop, bashing and building with no apparent plan. The new suburbs have mock English monikers – Royal, Gardens, Heights, Majestic… though few warrant the titles.
To see design deserving such names check the legacy of Karsten and his colleagues who tried – and largely succeeded – to trump cupidity with sensitivity.