Indonesia's Cool "Yankee" Architecture


The new wave of boutique hotels in Jakarta and elsewhere has brought a fresh retro look to town. Indonesian artists, writers, and designers are slowly but steadily straying into a forgotten cultural frontier: Indonesia’s non-colonial heritage. Delights such as the remastered version of Usmar Ismail’s Tiga Dara reveal the architectural and design potential of this alternative tempo doeloe, or old times.

A Jengki revival is underway. However, this colourful mid-century modern style–like the 1950s era that spawned it–remains obscure. My work on the Retronesia project has been a journey through time to the darker edges of living memory, listening to grannies and grandads retell stories about their lives during a period of radicalisation in art and design. And the meaning of Jengki? Yankee, of course.

This story of style begins around 1950. Dutch engineers and architects were doing great business delivering a multitude of projects in Sukarno’s revolutionary nation-building climate. They fostered a trend in revivalist architecture.

For simplicity, let’s call it a late-empire style, exemplified by Kebayoran Baru’s grand townhouses in Jakarta. The tropical Art Deco and Indische-style mainstays of the 1920s and 1930s came back in vogue throughout the 1950s.

While most Dutch architects were busy fashioning Indonesia’s old-new-old look, architects such as Ger Boom, Gmelig Meyling, and Semarang’s Oei Tjong An were crafting a style revolution. They upstaged Sukarno’s international style choices by fusing fresh geometric forms and late 1940s Californian expressionism.

Appropriately called Gaya Jengki, or Yankee style, this trend captured America’s post-war spirit, with its new car culture, fast-food drive-ins and flamboyant motels–all sprouting up in Java.

The first fruits of this tropical modern experiment were featured in Tiga Dara. Beautifully restored last year, the film’s dazzling scenes from Kebayoran Baru in 1956 epitomise architectural innovation and modernist glamour. Art Deco and the Indies style were playfully reworked with oblique geometric treatments. Reaching its twilight, the Indische style would soon experience a second revolution.

The Dexit (or Dutch exit) of 1957-58 was a windfall, creating overnight millionaires, refreshing old world elites and funding new state institutions. The new political atmosphere unlocked dormant creative impulses. Architectural styles once the domain of the elite were now in fresh and proudly homegrown hands.

With less than a handful of professionals in Indonesia, nameless aannemer (contractors) became style ambassadors, monopolising design and building projects, from the ordinary to the prestige. little was held proscribed or sacred during their aesthetic merdeka (independence): These engineer-builders, assistants and sometimes owners added Jengki twists to villas, hotels, offices, factories, shophouses, cinemas, churches–and even graves.

Digging deep, Retronesia has uncovered forgotten family histories that reveal an era of fortunes and overnight ruin. Entrepreneurs who managed to survive founding president Sukarno’s stormy seas and the real-life Indonesian Apprentice climate kicked back and enjoyed their hard-earned, but short-lived zaman atom (Atomic age).

A fair number of these entrepreneurs were enamoured by this exuberant style born in the last days of Dutch presence and quickly found willing builders to play with.

At Shore in Malang

This immaculately maintained villa in Malang, East Java, was built in 1960 by a local contractor named Drajat for Oesman Soegianto, a decorated Chinese-Indonesian war veteran. Oesman set sail from Makassar for East Java in the 1930s. In the aftermath of the Japanese surrender of 1945, a revolutionary fervour swept Indonesia. With the slogan of bersiap (get ready), hasty plans were made to fight Dutch re-occupation: Indonesian Youth Brigades militias formed, arming a generation of spirited volunteers. Many in Malang’s Chinese-Indonesian community showed their patriotism. Siaw Giok Bie and Go Gien Tjwan formed a local militia, the Angkatan Muda Tionghoa (Chinese Youth Brigade), which played its part in the Battle of Surabaya in 1945. After establishing himself in Malang as a successful merchant, Oesman fought for almost a decade in campaigns against the Japanese and then the Dutch during the 1940s.

Sailing away from war and back to the promised land is what inspired Oesman Soegianto for his home. An elaborate maritime-themed iron grille with a fish and a sailing ship greets visitors to the home. A stanchion formed by the Greek letter lambda holds up the canopy that frames the grille on the porch. These symbolise Soegianto’s memorable sea voyage from Makassar many decades ago. The building’s outwardly Indische villa appearance was transformed by a myriad of more contemporary design features, such as oblique cutaway windows, faux portholes and free-form arrangements of Indische-period rock cladding. Similar design treatments found their ways into the living areas.

His family still lives there and demonstrates love with their upkeep of the home. Unlike what has happened to most of Malang’s retro treasures, a love for old-fashioned style is the simple explanation given by Oesman’s daughter for not altering the family home.

Starship in Solo

This futurist Hollywood styled villa was designed in 1961 by Central Java’s bad boy: Oei Tjong An, a high-end creative by day and ballroom dancer by night. Oei was at the height of his powers. Construction started the following year, but the business of the home’s owner, Soenarto, began to wobble, causing his dream project to be drawn out over the next two decades.

Sweeping lines, curves, and slants reveal an imagination that ran wild, leaving no space untouched. The spacecraft treatment of the exterior speaks an alien dialect that resounds throughout the interior; accenting windows and entrances, wrapping itself around wood and concrete screens and making cubicle-like spaces for this leading Solonese family.

Soenarto died in 1977, unable to enjoy the majesty of the finished work, yet the building is emblematic of Oei’s artistry. The final construction managed to remain true to the original design by Oei, who by then had vanished from public life.

The living quarters of the villa are currently unoccupied. The red gates do not open for any of Soenarto’s descendants: His children started new lives in Jakarta decades ago. This valuable property has a new rhythm of life dictated by the office hours of a small business, yet remains pristine and awaiting somebody to return home.

The Playful Professor

Architects were as rare as gold dust in the early 1960s in Indonesia and not many aspiring villa owners could afford their services. However, one gentleman named Soediro, who had and enviable position in Makassar as the head of harbours for Eastern Indonesia was faced with two choices: Transfer to Tanjung Priok Port with his young family or return home to Semarang and take up teaching at the new university. He decided to teach. A gifted professor, Soediro was full of creative impulses, painting and sculpting with a variety of materials. He felt he would fill the architectural void and have a go at designing the family’s first home.

Teaming up with a willing builder, the adventurous Soediro achieved results that remain striking and original. Soediro invented his own architectural vernacular (slang, really), which is unrecognizable when compared with then-popular pentagon facade villas or with Kebayoran Baru’s angular modernity. His style was something hare-brained yet elegantly delivered. Bold oblique angles carve out an asymmetric exterior accentuated by the pinched waistline of a Bialetti moka pot and an arched off-center entrance.

While familiar rockwork cladding comes in irregular relief to coat most of the facade. Soediro has a set of four ventilation holes placed eccentrically at waist level. This motif pops up throughout the interior spaces. During the 1960s, the house faced fields with views that reached the hills south of the city. This tranquil vista was gradually blotted out by the early 1990s. The creative professor died a decade later. His creation, however, endures as his family’s home.

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Tariq Khalil
An accomplished street photographer, Khalil has spent much of the last decade wandering the gangs of Jakarta and cities throughout the archipelago documenting homes and buildings dating to the first decade of the boisterous new nation of Indonesia.