Tariq Khalil’s Retronesia: Raising the Garuda of Modernism Through Jengki Architecture

“Retronesia” Tariq Khalil’s book about Indonesian Jengki architecture. (photo: IO/Tariq Khalil)
Jengki was a dramatic new style that appeared in Indonesia after the struggle for independence when as a nation we were trying to find an identity and a new style in architecture to reflect this. Tariq Khalil has come out with a new book on this Jengki style very appropriately called “Retronesia”.

IO – By the end of the 1930s the Neo-Classical Indies style and Tropi­cal Art Deco had probably reached the zenith of their development when the chaos of the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation arrived fol­lowed by the Indonesian revolution. After independence many Indone­sians wanted something new. It was a very unstable time, there had been so many changes in the world. The pow­er structure had changed. Most Asian countries had gained their indepen­dence and America had become the most powerful country in the world Its financial power set trends and styles through Hollywood. Many of the val­ues of the past were dispensed with and there was a new balance of power in the world. The white races no longer ruled. The freed peoples of the world wanted to be modern and different. It was into this era that a highly indi­vidualistic and creative architectural style called Jengki developed in Indo­nesia. Prof Dr Josef Priyotomo from ITS who wrote a short article about the period called this Jengki and iden­tified it as the “first pan-Indonesian architectural design form.”

Just as the irregular lines of Roco­co were a reaction against the staid, order, bombast and rules associated with Baroque, Jengki rejected the order, straight lines and rigid rules associated with the Neo-Classical as well as the Art Deco Indies styles. It was as though something wanted to break free from the burden of fear and stress of colonialism, of the War years, the Occupation and the Revolution and express a little of the chaos and artistic spirit that had been so long suppressed, for Jengki is a style that speaks of the artist, the individual. It can be light and playful and almost fun; experimenting with a palate of highly decorative materials: using circles, squares and lines to create ornamental facades. Some buildings resembled slabs of cheese with holes in their facades. It became heavier and more regimented in public build­ings. Jengki was a style that did not like straight lines or regular squares. It preferred loops and triangles and sloping lines and this made sense as it was a time for the artistic and cre­ativity. Indonesia even had a president with an artist’s temperament in Su­karno, although he apparently did not care for Jengki architecture. Perhaps, he was too much of a romantic for Jengki, because according to Khalil Jengki is definitely not romantic. It’s about freedom, artistic expression, upward mobility, wealth and being modern. He describes it as “full of oblique angles. They got rid of the hor­izontal and liked the amorphic – a sort of free of form like an amoeba.”

The door at the Apotek Sputnik in Semarang is a clear example of that. Another element of Jengki is a delight in decorative forms of metal grill work used for doors and windows. The metal grills were probably created because the dire economic situation during the War and the later period led to many burglaries. President Suharto’s first house in Jalan Palem had metal grill work showing women in sarong and kebaya and farmers. Wall murals were another decorative element that Jengki architects were fond of. Retronesia shows some of the fine in Wisma Jenderal Achmad Yani in Gerisik.

Jengki belongs to the family of style known as Mid Century Modern and it is in fact found all over the world except in Europe. It was in­spired by a style developed in South­ern California which spread especial­ly to decolonized-Asia which wanted something new – something modern, something not colonial. Khalil’s book shows examples of this style in Pen­ang, in Laos, Vietnam and Cambo­dia and each has developed a little differently.

In Indonesia Khalil says that Kebayoran Baru was where Jengki architecture was born and he de­scribes its history as being divided in two parts. Jengki architecture only had a limited period from about 1950 till 1960. The Revolution was over and Indonesia has gained its independence. It came at a time for nation building.

Khalil says that during the first part of the Jengki period many Dutch people were still living in Indonesia and the Dutch illusion was that they would remain in Indonesia forever as the vanguard of the technical class, of scholarship, industry and technolo­gy; that they would continue to domi­nate technology and capital. There were still many Dutch architectural bureaus in Indonesia and they had begun designing and building Kebay­oran Baru. We see names such as Al­bertus Wilhelm (Ab) Gmelig Meyling who designed what is now the KPU (the General Elections Commission) Building on Jalan Imam Bonjol, Ja­karta and in Bogor the Departemen Propaganda and Institut Pertanian Bogor (Bogor Agricultural Institute) and the architectural bureau Fer­mont-Cuypers which built the Peruri building (the Mint).

In the beginning the Dutch ar­chitects began building in a revival style of the old Indies architectural style which proved to be their bread and butter. This is what most people wanted. Khalil avers that what they did not realize was that they were building in the twilight of the colo­nial style and that Kebayoran Baru was in fact, as Khalil describes it, “ an elephants’ graveyard for the Indies style.”

The way they were building was representing the past. Khalil says that they did not realize that a new style was emerging representing the future. It began with occasionally someone wanting something different, some­thing modern. That something new and modern was influenced by the United States, the only true winner of the Second World War. It had new technologies, new materials and new housing left over from the War which it put to work after the War. Ameri­ca had become the leading nation in the world. This is also why this new style of architecture in Indonesia was called Jengki which is a corruption of the word “Yankee”.

Frances Affandy an American who has lived in Bandung for more than twenty years and is one of the founders and main driving forces of Bandung Heritage says that natural­ly, as a Yankee she found this style interesting. She says “It was Prof Prof Dr Josef Priyotomo from ITS who informed me that after Indone­sia “mempersilakan pulang” (asked politely to go home) the Dutch in the mid-50s, the school of architecture at ITB lost a good many of their Dutch professors. These were replaced by a group of Americans who were in­vited to come and teach at ITB. They brought the current design ethos with them which was being explored around the world–and so the Indo­nesian iteration of these here was called Yankee/Jengki. The so-called Kentucky Group were the agents to supply teaching staff from the US to ITB.”

It should be noted that Khalil does not agree with this theory. However, Affandy adds, “It seems that the de­sign form pre-dates its name–in fact many of the Americans were housed in buildings that we now call Jeng­ki–so the form may have been named for that!”

Slowly the town houses being built began to mutate towards Jengki. The Dutch architects were also building public buildings for a new nation and one of the most elegant is the Bank Mandiri building near the Cikini post office in Jakarta which was originally built as Bank Industri Negara. It has a beautiful soleil brise.

Until 1957 the colonial Indies and Jengki styles still existed side by side and then in 1957 the Indonesian government nationalized all Dutch holdings in Indonesia. During the “Nexit” as Khalil who is a Scotsman, refers to it with dry humour, all the technocrats and businessmen as well were asked to leave. The result was a plethora of opportunities opening up for savvy Indonesian businessmen. Khalil describes it as a time for get­ting rich fast but also as a time when one could loose a fortune overnight.

It was a time of high risk and the dis­tinction between success and failure became blurred like a revolving door. Many of those businessmen were in­trepid: mavericks and risk takers and the Jengki architecture symbolized this intrepidness. This new wealthy class wanted a new type of architec­ture, different from the old colonial or­der and they turned to Jengki. Tariq Khalil who certainly does not lack wit describes it as the “years of building dangerously”. A catchy title for the new atomic age.

He says, “Studying Jengki is like studying modern archaeology name­ly, the archaeology of a new nation. Jengki is all about the future and how glamorous and enticing that is for it holds decolonization and the shift of power to Indonesians, the space age, the atom….” A fine example of this is the Sputnik Apothecary in Semarang with its space age style doors, shelv­ing and seating.

By 1958 the Dutch architects had left and their architectural bu­reaus were nationalized. There were not enough Indonesian architects at first and the time of the contractors emerged. It was Indonesian contrac­tors building for new Indonesian money that turned to Jengki, a cou­rageous new style, high on individ­ualism. Jengki buildings appeared all over Indonesia and “Retronesia” tracks Jengki buildings in West, Central and East Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sumatra. One of the things that that Khalil noticed were that many of the wealthy flount­ed their wealth by building Jengki style buildings in the hill stations where they spent their leisure time such as in the Puncak, Lembang, Kaliurang, Batu, Kopeng and Selec­ta. Sadly many now stand unloved and neglected. The former Bumi Sangkurian and Concordia Club in Cimbuleuit, Bandung is an example of such a Jengki building with its air brick screen, rounded old planter’s bar and modernistic windows in the billiards room. It is still in use and functioning well.

Has Jengki been acknowledged nationally as a style worthy of being designated cagar budaya or “heri­tage” and have buildings in this style been preserved as heritage buildings? I asked this question to Bambang Eryudhawan, Head of the Tim Sidang Pemugaran or Jakarta Project Review Board for heritage buildings who re­sponded, “I like this style because al­though it was only around for a short period, it was a unique expression of freedom from the colonial styles and a search for a new style. As far as I know there is only one Jengki style building that has been declared a re­gional heritage building and that is the Wisma Jenderal Achmad Yani in Gresik. It was originally known as the Semen Indonesia Meeting Hall built by the cement company for the town of Gerisik. However, it was not chosen because of its Jengki style but because it was the first national cement company.

The problem is that there is nearly no literature available on Jengki ar­chitecture which makes it difficult to have buildings in this style declared national or regional heritage build­ings.”

In that respect Restronesia will be a good start at filling in the gap. Tariq Khalil’s talent with words and wit also makes it a delightful read.

At the moment Retronesia by Tariq Khalil is available on Amazon. com which will ship the book to In­donesia. Khalil is however, looking for a publisher or sponsor prepared to publish Retronesia for the book stores. (Tamalia Alsijahbana)