Photo by Bagus Tri Laksono & Bhirawa Architects Doc.
A lack of public attention paid to architectural heritage has led to many abandoned buildings. Through conservation, these buildings can be revitalised and used accordingly with the needs of today. Besides restoring tangible pieces of heritage, conservation can recall ambiance as an intangible treasure. One recently conserved building in Jakarta’s Old Town now has a new life as a meeting spot and office.
Jakarta has been a port city since its inception as Batavia almost 500 years ago. The city’s port was a magnet for trade, hence the Dutch built an urban centre near Sunda Kelapa. At that time, Batavia was smaller, occupying only the north of what would become contemporary Jakarta. The new centre was home to many companies supporting the port, such as shipping firms, banks and warehouses. Insurance was among the businesses. (Surprisingly, many contemporary financial instruments, like insurance and accounting, blossomed in the East Indies as the Dutch sought to manage the immense wealth they were extracting from the colony.)
Thus, the Hague-based OLVEH, or Mutual Life Assurance and Personal Assistance Society, opened a bureau near the financial centre that locals dubbed as Pinangsia.
The three-storey building was designed by C.P Schoemaker en Associatie-Architecten & Ingenieurs, a firm that was celebrated for its public and commercial space designs. The plan called for a petite building, topped by two symmetrical domes to evoke a monumental look. The name of the company was written on the front facade wall while its Chinese name was mounted in between the domes. The building, which now belongs to Jiwasraya, was fully covered in white for both its facade and interior, although it was somewhat worse for wear by the time the Jakarta Old Town Revitalisation Corporation (JOTRC) came into the picture.
“It was far from the initial design,” says architect Boy Bhirawa, who did the conservation for JOTRC. Workers entered the building using a makeshift door likely devised by the street vendors who were using the ground level as a warung. The architect said he grew wary when discovering the ground floor’s low ceiling, since it would have been where the company welcomed its guests. “It triggered us to dig. We found that the actual ground was kept 80 centimetres below the current street level. We concluded that this heritage also bore witness to the city’s infrastructure development.”
There is some question as to the identity of the building’s original project architect. Schoemaker was led by two brothers: Wolff and his younger brother Richard. Netherlands-based architectural heritage consultant Pauline van Roosmalen said she found documents saying that it was designed by Richard, while Boy Bhirawa says that he thinks that it was designed by Wolff, based on similarities to his other designs.
Conservation started in 2015 and took about a year to complete. Boy Bhirawa and his team at Bhirawa Architects have revealed the beauty of the building’s Art Deco architecture. They have restored white plaster to the facade and exposed bricks on the interior walls, which means that the conservation is incomplete, as it has not fully returned the building to the way it was. However, the OLVEH building survived without lime plaster for decades after it was abandoned, which has allowed it to breathe. Thanks to these exposed brick walls, the interior has become a hip background for selfies posted by younger people.
The OLVEH building reopened in March, with a gallery on the ground floor, office space on the second floor and a multifunction hall on the third floor. The office space is occupied by Sarasvati Art Communication and Publication, a private company that promotes the development of Indonesian art and culture. They have made it a home by maintaining a carefully curated selection of artwork in the hallway, stairs, rest rooms and their office rooms. “For us, to occupy this building lets us live its heritage. That is already art for us. The location means we have walk-in guests who are enjoying it as a part of Jakarta’s Old Town as a whole,” says Syenny Setiawan, founder of Sarasvati Art Communication and Publication.
The gallery offers new programs every three months on the ground level, so the renovated white lime plaster adds to the presentation of the art, allowing the beauty of the pieces to emerge.
The third storey is also used as a public space for talk shows, seminars and workshops. A balcony faces south offering views of the Pinangsia neighbourhood.
During the conservation, the team dug to the actual ground level, where they found beautiful ceramic tiles repurposed for the terrace. The beauty of entrance reveals the architecture and interior design. The beauty of the floor appears also in the interior, especially with the grey marble staircases.
The OLVEH building is an excellent exemplar of how heritage can evoke memories. The success of this building’s conservation has been a trigger for more revitalisation in Old Town Jakarta.
Jl. Jembatan Batu No. 50, Jakarta
C.P Schoemaker en Associatie-Architecten & Ingenieurs
CP Wolff Schoemaker and Richard LA Schoemaker
Architectural Conservation Consultant