Berlage in Indonesia; The Famous Dutch Architect’s Forgotten Buildings in Jakarta and Surabaya
Did you know that Indonesia has two office buildings by Holland’s most celebrated architect Berlage? And that he travelled to Indonesia? In the cold winter of 1923, Hendrik Petrus Berlage - Hein for friends - bought himself a new white tropical suit. He was preparing for a long journey, to the Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia. He packed his sketchbook and travelled to Genoa by train, and from there, he boarded the steamer ‘Grotius’ to embark on a three-week passage to Batavia, the Dutch colonial capital. For the father of modern architecture, it was the journey of a lifetime, a dream come true.
Berlage was asked to give some lectures and advice on the restoration of the Prambanan temple complex, providing a unique opportunity to crisscross the country and immerse himself into its oriental culture that had fascinated him for so many years. He kept a travel journal, a meticulous record of his journey, filled with stunning sketches, lyrical poems about Indonesian nature and culture, critical remarks on colonial architecture, and deep thoughts about the East and the West; a legacy that goes beyond architecture and urbanism. The book got published in 1931, yet among the 147 pages not one word about the two office buildings he designed himself a few decades earlier. One wonders, what would he have thought when he saw his own creations? It's 2023, one hundred years later, and it's time to relive his journey and have a look in Jakarta and Surabaya.
Master of modern architecture
At the age of 67, Berlage was the undisputed Master of Modern Dutch architecture, at the height of his career. He shot to fame with the Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam Stock Exchange building in his characteristic modern architectural style. In 1910 this building was a game changer in the Dutch capital and it still is one of the most iconic buildings in the city centre. Now used as an exhibition and event space, it is where the Dutch King Willem Alexander married the Argentinian Máxima Zorreguieta in 2002. Berlage was also the chief architect of Amsterdam’s early 20th-century urban expansion plan Amsterdam-Zuid, which even today is one of the city’s most sought-after neighbourhoods.
Journey to a far-away colony
It was at the height of his career that Hendrik Petrus Berlage travelled to Indonesia, a journey that would take him three weeks. In Jakarta - or Batavia as it was still called in those days - he walked around in the historic town of Kota Tua. Jakarta took Berlage by surprise, so far away from home, and yet so familiar: “The streets, the houses, the ornaments, I feel like I could be walking anywhere in Amsterdam." He wasn’t impressed by the colonial lifestyle: "When you compare the gracefulness and sophistication of Javanese dance to the way the Europeans dance the foxtrot in the ballrooms of their societies…. a person can endure just about anything, but not such arrogant ugliness.”
Berlage in Jakarta
In Jakarta, in a cobblestoned side street, just off the central square - now Taman Fatahillah - surrounded by large warehouses and bank buildings, was the local head office of an insurance company called Nederlanden van 1845. Berlage built several office buildings for the same company in the Netherlands and they had asked him to also create their Batavia headquarters. The recession was looming in Europe, and so like many ambitious architects of his days, he embraced this opportunity wholeheartedly. He designed it - from his drawing table in cold and faraway Amsterdam - in the year 1913, when Jakarta Kota Tua was the thriving commercial hub and wealthy capital of the Dutch colonial empire. The compact building unmistakably carries Berlage’s style signature in the then-popular deco style featuring two small towers and an overhang to shield the building from the heat. Today, nicely renovated, this Berlage is used as an office building for Assuransi Jasindo, the successor of the Nederlanden.
Berlage in Surabaya
Berlage's journey also took him to Java’s East coast - a train journey of three days - to locate his other architectural legacy. The now deserted Gedung Apedri - also known as Gedung Algemeene or Gedung Singa (the house with the lions) - is a uniquely stunning example of rationalist architecture. Built for the Algemeene Maatschappij van Levensverzekering en Lijfrente, another prestigious colonial insurance company, it was one of the city’s most prominent office buildings strategically located along the Willemskade. The Algemeene building was the first ever modern 20th-century architecture building in Surabaya. When it was finished, it was the only modern architectural building in town.
How to recognise Berlage’s signature style? The brick arches formed by stone blocks are a typical Berlage element as well as the ornamental pillars. Like Berlage's Jakarta building, also the design for this office building was sent by post from Amsterdam. It was built in 1901-1903 when Berlage was busy with the groundbreaking stock exchange project in Amsterdam. Some of his close colleague artisans from those days also contributed to Gedung Singa. Mendes da Costa designed the two asirian lion statues and the eye-catching tile tableau on the façade is by colleague architect Jan Toorop. It portrays two mothers with children, one European and one Indonesian. The grains and hourglasses suggest a reference to the book of Genesis 41 (about the seven prosperous and seven meagre years) symbolising the importance of having insurance!
Berlage's Indonesian legacy
Berlage’s travel diary, Mijn Indische Reis is quite critical and very philosophical. Beyond his ingenious designs was deep visionary thinking about East and West, cultural identity and society. What deeply impressed him was the harmonious coexistence of culture and community and the spiritual appreciation for nature. He spent days roaming the ancient temple complexes of Java and Bali. The Dutch government had asked his advice of what to do with these structures that had started to decay: to renovate or keep as is. His conclusion: put measures in place to preserve the monuments, but avoid reconstruction at all costs. He was clearly ahead of his time.
On the other hand - as can be expected from an architectural innovator - he is quite critical of the works of his fellow Dutch colonial architects. He disliked neoclassical buildings and had nothing positive to say about the random use of Javanese-inspired ornaments, the pages dropping with criticism. He describes the works of celebrated architects as cold, distant and tenuous in dead European (Greek, Gothic Renaissance) styles.
He did rather like the ideas of young Indonesian architects and was unequivocal in his admiration of the work of Thomas Karsten, Wolff Schoemaker and Pieter Moojen, the pioneers of het Indische Bouwen. These architects and city planners were moving away from Dutch design, merging Western and local architectural styles, with construction elements to suit the tropical climate and local culture and using indigenous building materials and furniture. He advocates for the development of a true Indo-European architecture based on the indigenous archetypal structure of the 'pendopo' pavilion.
Maybe that is why Berlage does not mention his own designs in his travel journal. After all, what his two buildings exemplify is European building design with little reference to the local context. One wonders what he would have come up with if he was commissioned to design a new office building after his journey?
During his trip, Berlage delivered a lecture at the Batavia Kunstkring where he made some observations about the future development of the city. A clever move as promptly the city council asked him to do just that. To draw up extension plans for Weltevreden (now Menteng), the new part of Batavia as well as a redesign of the old colonial city centre (now Kota Tua). But Berlage's modern ideas and extreme measures did not go down very well in the press and also the fees he requested were too steep, even for the colony’s coffers. In his book Planning the Megacity: Jakarta in the Twentieth Century, Christopher Silver says: “While devoid of the aesthetic splendour of Berlage’s plan, the more unified conception exceeded expectations and perhaps available resources of the Batavia leadership”. One can only wonder, what would Jakarta have looked like today if Berlage would have had his way?
A future for the past?
Ignored and neglected for many years, in 2021 ‘De Algemeene’ in Surabaya - was up for auction, the first round had no successful bids. Meanwhile, local heritage NGO Begandring Soerabaia has been doing some excellent work to liaise with local government, Members of Parliament and other parties to explore options to buy/leaseback and repurpose the building with the objective the new owners to realize and understand the architectural heritage importance, keep it accessible for the public and include community use such as education, research, culture or tourism.
Read more about the newly translated Berlage's travel journal Mijn Indische Reis at www.BerlagediNusantara.com.
Find Berlage’s two buildings in Indonesia:
- Jakarta - The office building of De Nederlanden van 1845 (predecessor of ING/Nationale Nederlanden) (1913) Jl. Pintu Besar Utara No.4, Jakarta 6°08'10.3"S 106°48'48.6"E
- Surabaya - The office building of the Algemeene Maatschappij van Levensverzekering en Lijfrente (predecessor of AEGON Levensverzekering N.V.) (1900) also known as Gedung Singa, ‘the house with the lions’, Jl. Jembatan Merah No.15, Surabaya. 7°14'13.6"S 112°44'15.9"E
Kota Tua walking trail
Discover more hidden heritage gems in Jakarta with the iDiscover Kota Tua Walking Map, designed by the lovely Astrid Prasetianti and available from Konsorsium Kota Tua or as a free download here ->
Konsorsium Kota Tua Jakarta Konsorsium Kota Tua Jakarta
An NGO investing in buildings of the past to create a better future for Jakarta Old Town. Konsorsium yang berfokus dalam revitalisasi dan pemanfaatan bangunan-bangunan cagar budaya serta pemberdayaan komunitas di Kota Tua Jakarta.@kotatuajakarta.id
Astrid Prasetianti Astrid Prasetianti
Astrid Prasetianti’s imaginative, colourful illustrations and photographic work are like little pieces of art that are guaranteed to brighten your day. Astrid Prasetianti memberi sentuhan imajinasi penuh warna di setiap illustrasi dan fotografi yang dibuatnya, seakan karya-karyanya menjanjikan untuk membuat hari kita bersinar cerah.@astridpr
Asuransi Jasindo Asuransi Jasindo
Asuransi Jasindo, Indonesia’s second largest insurance company has its roots in the Dutch colonial days dating back as far as 1845. The company’s long heritage is still treasured today, epitomised in the iconic art deco Gedung Jasindo on Fatahillah Square. Asuransi Jasindo adalah perusahaan asuransi terbesar kedua di Indonesia yang menawarkan berbagai produk mulai dari perlindungan rumah hingga asuransi perjalanan. Perusahaan ini berdiri pada masa penjajahan Belanda yaitu sejak tahun 1845. Warisan budaya panjangnya masih berharga hingga kini, seperti properti Jasindo yang berada di kota tua berupa Gedung Jasindo bergaya art deco yang khas.www.jasindo.co.id