Photo by Hotel Indonesia Kempinski Doc. & Bagus Tri Laksono
In 1961, the whole of Jakarta was exploding with large-scale construction projects such as the National Monument and Senayan Stadium. Also underway was the one building that most clearly defines the birth of Jakarta as modern metropolis: Hotel Indonesia.
Devised by then-president Sukarno to showcase Indonesian hospitality to the world, Hotel Indonesia, currently a Kempinski property, had construction costs that topped US$12.5 million, or about Rp 2 billion at the time. It was designed by US architect Abel Sorenson in collaboration with Sukarno, who had a degree in structural engineering.
Its history is a series of firsts: First five-star hotel in the nation, first five-star hotel in Southeast Asia. It had the nation’s first lift as well as its first sky-dining concept in its now-defunct 16th-floor Nirwana Supper Club, whose windows still offer views that stretch to West Java. It was also home to the first large-scale swimming pool, a favourite of generations of Jakarta’s well- to-do.
Culturally, Hotel Indonesia became a hip hangout in the 1970s. The film director Teguh Karya curated rollicking performances from emerging young artists such as Titiek Puspa in the Bali Room, which, although currently a function room, retains its opulence.
Culinarily, the hotel’s Java Cafe was the nation’s first coffee-shop style restaurant, famed for its bubur ayam rice porridge, which it sold for Rp 1,000 a bowl—about 65 times the Rp 15 paid on the street. “The Who’s Who of Indonesia dined here on bubur ayam,” Hotel Indonesia Kempinski Director of Public Relations Rebecca Leppard said. “People would go clubbing and then to Hotel Indonesia for bubur ayam–and they would say that with pride.”
As a heritage building recognised by the Jakarta administration, Hotel Indonesia Kempinski cannot be demolished or altered. Even the colour of the paint cannot be changed, ensuring that the spiritual centre of modern Jakarta remains intact.
The centrepiece of Hotel Indonesia Kempinski’s design splendour is the Pelataran Ramayana, standing between the hotel and the Grand Indonesia shopping centre. The 135-square-metre dome is a historic site: It was where founding president Sukarno opened Hotel Indonesia on Aug. 5. 1962 and was a favourite site for hosting visiting dignitaries, diplomats and monarchs during state dinners in the 1960s and 1970s.
The pelataran (meaning backyard or square) has twice been renovated. In 2004, after the hotel came under Kempinski, it was transformed into a pavilion and bar; while in 2015, the dome’s floor underwent minor renovation and its exterior got a thorough makeover. The results are magnificent: Pelataran Ramayana currently fronts an expansive granite amphitheatre. There’s also unique, narrow wooden-plank walkway that descends and then rises between two standing pools, giving guests the appearance of walking on water from a distance. Hidden amid the surrounding wild-yet-well-landscaped tall grass–a touch evoking Indonesia’s natural beauty–are statues dating to the hotel’s opening. In the 1960s, some of the statues, which depict beautiful women, used to line the Hotel Indonesia’s famed swimming pool, currently the site of the Menara BCA.
Heritage aficionados note that the Pelataran Ramayana has two must-see items. First, there’s the original mural on the dome’s exterior facing Jl. Sudirman. Titled Women of Unity in Diversity, the mural was a commission given by the founding president to the artist Seorono. It vibrantly depicts 14 women from throughout the nation soaring amid the mountains and rainforest. Second, a mosaic titled Traditional Dance by Gregorius Sidharta, another Sukarno favourite, lines the inside the dome. The vibrant and detailed depiction in tile of the colourful costumes of the dancers is stunning.
It is as if Sukarno was evoking the national motto of Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity in Diversity, in the mosaic. Typical of Sukarno, however, the beauty of women of many different ethnicities was used to make that illustration.
Rebecca adds that the dome can accommodate 80 banquet style and up to 100 for cocktails, among other arrangements, for activities ranging from fashion shows to corporate events to weddings and more. “We wanted the Pelataran Ramayana to be beautifully functional,” Rebecca says. “It’s a historical venue, but we want guests to create their own historic moments here.”