Story By Henry Gunawan Tjhi
Born and raised in Bandung, my first architectural experience was simply observing and admiring the historic buildings on Jalan Asia Afrika (called De Groote Postweg prior to Indonesia’s independence). It was a catalogue of different eras of architectural evolution. Writing an essay on Bandung compels me to be mindful of its historical heritage, yet it encourages me to view its disposition with humility.
The Dutch East Indies Company ran several plantations around Bandung during the 17th and 18th centuries. Bandung was part of a logistical network which, by 1786, connected Batavia (now Jakarta), Bogor, Cianjur, Sumedang and Cirebon. A major road construction running from the West to the East coast of Java, called De Groote Postweg or the Great Postal Road, passed through Bandung in 1810. The first major railroad was completed seven decades later connecting Batavia and Bandung.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Bandung was a thriving city under The Dutch East Indies government, where commerce, culture, art and architecture flourished. The government had made plans to move the capital from Batavia to Bandung in the early 1920s, but it didn’t happen due to World War II and the growing nationalist movement which led to Indonesia’s independence.
A passage in C.J. van Dullemen’s book, Tropical Modernity: Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker, describes “when Bandung was made a local authority in 1906, it had 50,000 residents, of whom 2,000 were Europeans. By 1940 the city had grown to a population of 240,000, of whom 30,000 were Europeans, there by becoming the most European city on Java Island.” Bandung was a resort town mainly serving as a playground for plantation owners, officials and vacationers escaping from the heat of Batavia to enjoy the cooler climate. The city life spread over to Jalan Braga, a central promenade lined with cafes and shops selling fashionable European clothes and Bandung was christened “Parijs van Java”.
Two renowned architects of Dutch ancestries were synonymous with the buildings on Jalan Asia Afrika—C.P. Wolff Schoemaker and A.F. Aalbers. Schoemaker gained popularity for his redesigns of the Concordia Club in 1921 and the Majestic Cinema in 1922, on Jalan Braga. They were at the centre of cultural life in Bandung, hosting numerous art performances, social dances and dinners. The works of the Vienna Secessionist movement founder, Otto Wagner, may have inspired the design of the Concordia Club, St. Leopold’s Church in Vienna – sans the cupola – for the exterior and the curving luminous ceiling of the Austrian Post Office Savings Bank also in Vienna for the interior’s curved ceiling. In 1955, Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno, hosted delegations from 29 countries for the Asian African Conference in the Concordia Club building which was renamed Gedung Merdeka for the conference.
In 1929, Schoemaker accepted a commission to rebuild the Hotel Preanger located on this important stretch of the Postal Road. The budget, as noted by van Dullemen in his book, was the considerable sum of 325,550 guilders, Schoemaker skillfully combined international allure while expressing locally sourced inspiration through the choice of materials and the use of geometric designs for the project. The works of American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright from the 1920s: Hollyhock House and the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, left an artistic imprint on the design of the Grand Hotel Preanger. The historic building is in relatively good condition today and the current hotel management has expanded the building to the northern side with a new entry court facing Jalan Tamblong.
Albert Frederik Aalbers (about 15 years younger than Schoemaker) came to bustling Bandung in 1930 from Rotterdam. His most notable buildings are the Savoy Homann Hotel (1939) on Jalan Asia Afrika and the DENIS Bank (1935) on Jalan Braga. As an avid believer in the modernist idiom “Form follows function”, Aalbers executed his design for the DENIS Bank (now Bank BJB) using steel and concrete to achieve the building’s horizontal streamlined curves, also known as Streamline Moderne – a later form of art deco emerging in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Le Corbusier seemed to have influenced Aalbers in the design with the use of ribbon windows and pilotis making the building appear light.
The Savoy Homann Hotel commission came after the highy praised design of the DENIS Bank where the client requested a similar dynamic curving scheme for the hotel. The ocean liner aesthetic makes a bold statement as it suggests elongated movement which also occurs in Erich Mendelsohn’s Petersdorff department store in Breslau (now Wrocław), completed in 1928. The use of curving glass panels towards the one end of the building was a distictive feature for both Mendelsohn and Aalber’s buildings. A slim vertical tower gives contrast to the plasticity of the horizontal guest bedroom terraces with a deep overhang, aptly encapsulating the consumerist high society of the time. The Savoy Homann Hotel is still well maintained and continues to function as a hotel.
Further west on Jalan Asia Afrika, the now abadoned Swarha Hotel building still stands next to the Main Mosque of Bandung. There is not much information about the architect of the building on the site of former Toko Tokyo which was engulfed by fire during the Bandung Lautan Api incident in 1946. Online sources mention that Swarha was an acronym of its owner, Said Wiratmana Abdurrachman Hassan, the son of a wealthy merchant. The facade design resembles the aesthetic of Aalber’s Savoy Homann Hotel displaying its dynamic streamlined curving lines facing the main public square, Alun Alun. In 1955, the Swarha Hotel was a home to many journalists covering the Asian African Conference. Being located opposite Bandung’s Main Post Office was an obvious advantage for the journalists who needed to telegram their coverage to their respective news agencies.
Walking along Jalan Asia Afrika, one encounters a century long evolution of architectural lineage. Its optimistic contribution to the urban environment spurs the imagination. It is a collective memory of the city’s residents as much as a personal one for me. The visual acoustic of the modernist design language had entered my head from an early age. My parents were the last couple to have their wedding reception in Gedung Merdeka in the 1970s. I used to shop on the ground floor of the Swarha building and then continue walking the porticos in front of the shophouses along the last stretch of Jalan Asia Afrika, just shy of the Jalan Oto Iskandar Dinata. As a student of architecture studying the urban spaces in the city of Bologna, the long porticos provided shade from the sun in just the same way as those on Jalan Asia Afrika.
In the books of Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, Erich Mendelsohn, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and others, traces of their thoughts on architecture have somehow been manifested in Bandung. Now, I come to appreciate these facts even more.