The eclectic solo style and the fate of Solo’s palaces

Nina Tanjung’s heritage hotel Rumahku is located close to the Lawean district which was once the center of the batik industry in Solo. (photo: IO/House Of Solo)

IO – Solo style is a style of architecture that consists of Javanese architecture which has been heavily influenced by European late 19ith century, Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles as well as some Chinese and Arab elements. A similar style is found in many parts of Central and East Java. In Semarang this style evolved to produce a Semarangan style of Art Nouveau most notably in furniture.

Mrs Nina Tanjung, owner of the Rumahku
heritage hotel and author of House of Solo. (photo: IO/House Of Solo)

Nina Tanjung, the wife of former Golkar Party leader Akbar Tanjung is passionate about Solo Style and has written a book called House of Solo that explores this style. In her book Nina traces Solo Style in the houses of the Solo aristocracy as well as the homes of wealthy merchants who are frequently of Chinese or Arab descent.

Solo Style is the style of Nina Tanjung’s childhood in which she grew up. She remembers the calm elegance and harmony of such buildings where she learnt the culture and traditions of Java. Mrs Tanjung was born in Solo to Javanese parents although she does trace some German blood on her father’s side. Her great grandfather was a German contractor who built bridges and also worked for the great sugar companies near Madiun in East Java. Meanwhile, Nina Tanjung’s parents met in Solo when they were working for the Netherlands Indies telegraph and telephone company. “Already as a child I loved heritage buildings and history. When I was a child there used to be an advertisement for Refagan flu tablets and these advertisements always showed Paris, London and Rome – and I preferred Rome with its ancient buildings. My friends all wanted to grow up and go to Paris but not me – I wanted to visit Rome and its ancient splendors. Later, I continued postgraduate studies in the United States and there I learnt all about American history and heritage and it was then that I began to become really interested in Indonesian heritage and history.”

In her book House of Solo, Nina Tanjung explains the features of a Javanese house. There is the main house and this always has a verandah around it referred to the “gadri”. On the left side of the main house is the “gandhok kiwa” and on the right side the “gandhok tengen”. These are both side pavilions normally used as guest rooms, bedrooms, storage rooms etc.

Every true Javanese house will also have a central inner room which is the inner sanctum of the house known as the “dalem” or “inner” room under a “joglo” roof. The joglo roof is an iconic Javanese roof form. Here the central part of the roof which is also the highest part of the roof is supported by the four tallest beams while the rest of the roof is supported by shorter beams. The four tallest beams support the steepest part of the roof which comes together almost like a pyramid except that the roof converges unto two rather than one point. This “joglo” style of roof has influenced not only Dutch colonial architecture but also modern Indonesian architecture. At the Mangkunegaran Palace in Solo the “joglo” roof has been extended outwards several times.

The “dalem” is the most sacred part of the house and is usually left empty. In the olden days incense was burnt here in honor of Dewi Sri or Nyai Loro Kidul, the Queen of the South Sea.  Dewi Sri or Sri Laksmi was in the towns the goddess for prosperity and in the countryside the fertility or harvest goddess. At the national museum one can see such an inner sanctum with a traditional bed and the implements of Dewi Sri surrounding the bed.

The “dalem” will have an intricately carved red and gold screen or room divider referred to as the “krobongan” or “gebyok”. At times these dividers may also be decorated with colourful Art Nouveau or Art Deco glass which divides the room from the rest of the house. There is also often a wall of piled up bolsters in the “senthong” or most private area of the room which also act as a type of screen. The “dalem” separates the private area from the public area of the house. During a marriage ceremony the bride and groom will sit crossed legged on the floor in front of the “krobongan”.

At a certain point of this very private room the floor of the room dips slightly, usually only one step and during circumcision ceremonies as well as ceremonies for other rites of passage, dances are performed on the lower level or “pringgitan” while the family sits on the floor of the higher level to watch the performance. In refined Javanese “pringgitan” means “wayang” and indeed in the past wayang performances were often performed here too.

A Solo house with exquisite Art Nouveau features. (photo: IO/House Of Solo)

Although these houses preserve the spatial arrangements and ceremonial space of the traditional Javanese house, they display the architectural embellishments, decorative details and elegant furnishings of the late 19th century European styles as well as Art Deco and Art Nouveau features. Beside the Surakarta and Mangkunegaran palaces, Nina Tanjung also describes two well-preserved houses in the Lawean business district which was once the centre of the batik industry in Solo. In the past the two houses belonged to two wealthy merchant families.

The first house is an Art Deco Solo Style house built in 1938 and surrounded by a meters high white wall. Its beautiful wood paneling partnered with orange and yellow rising sun Art Deco stained glass creates a warm and quite unforgettable aesthetic space. Meanwhile, the second house was built in 1921 with a batik workshop as part of the buildings on its grounds. The Chinese merchant who owned it had three sons who also lived with their families in the complex. This house has beautiful blue, green and yellow Art Nouveau stained glass doors, windows and fan lights decorated with flowers and arabesques. Further European embellishments are its tiled floors that remind Indonesians of batik motifs and the green hand-painted decorative ornamentation of its walls and doors. The furniture is a combination of 19th century, Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces. It is a jewel of a house.

Finally, the Mayor of Solo’s exquisite house must receive a mention. It has been lovingly restored. The house was built by a Dutch merchant known as Kanjeng Tuan Dezentje and is situated in the locality of the Surakarta keraton. It was built primarily with social functions and parties in mind. Although it is a Dutch building it has the wide verandahs of the tropics and shows a mixture of Chinese, Arabic and European fluences in its decorative features especially in its patterned ceilings, wavy rafters and dome-shaped structure. It has a Javanese style paved inner court with dome shaped arches and delicate glass work.

Gusti Kanjeng Raden Ayu Retno Rosati is the sister of Kanjeng Gusti Pangeran Adipati Aryo Mangkunegara VIII, the current head of the former princely state of Mangkunegaran in Solo. Her father was the late Prince Mangkunegara VIII “Thomas Karstens collaborated closely with my forebearer Prince Mangkunegara VII and redesigned the “Pendopo Agung” or main hall of the Mangukunegaran palace. He also designed the bathroom and dressing room of the princesses,” disclosed Gusti Ros as she is popularly known.

Thomas Karstens was a well-known Netherlands Indies architect who designed many distinguished buildings which later became landmarks. The “Pendopo Agung” was originally built in 1810 and then redesigned by Kartsens in the early 20th century. It is the most eminent structure of the palace and the largest pendopo on Java. The princesses’ bathroom has a beautiful skylight of stained glass and its floor dips in order to accommodate the traditional way of bathing by pouring water from a cistern over one’s self with a dipper. By making the floor in different levels part of the bathroom always remains dry when the other part of the bathroom where the bathing takes place is wet.

In the dressing room the dressing tables have no legs as the princesses sat on the floor when putting on their make-up. Gusti Ros explained, “The room was decorated with tiny figures resembling dancers. Their poses are the movements used in the Mangkunegaran way of dancing and also their costumes.”

Nina Tanjung’s love of Solo’s history and culture finally led her to buy an old merchant’s house in the Lawean area herself. When she first saw the house she felt a shiver down her back. The 1938 house which once belonged to a batik merchant is a mixture of the Javanese architectural style and Art Deco and was scheduled to be torn down. “No one cared about that beautiful house once built with so much culture and aesthetic sense. It was only the land on which the house rested that people cared about.” said Ibu Nina said sadly, “I desperately wanted to preserve Solo’s cultural ambience and heritage but what would I do with such a house? Well, I finally bought the house because I want so much that people know Surakarta’s culture and history and the architecture of that house reflects that history and culture.”

The Rumahku hotel was once a batik merchant’s house. (photo: IO/House Of Solo)

Ibu Nina then turned the house into a beautiful boutique hotel called “Rumahku” or “My House” which is not only authentic architecturally but also serves authentic Solo cuisine. The most famous Solo dish is “nasi liwet” which is rice cooked in coconut milk and served with unripe papaya or chaote in a yellow turmeric coconut milk sauce with steamed chicken and a hard-boiled egg.

Ibu Nina is however deeply concerned about the state of the Sriwedari Cultural Gardens and Solo’s two palaces the Surakarta kraton and the Mangukunegaran kraton. “They are in a sad state and do not reflect the quality of restoration such noble buildings deserve,” remarked Ibu Nina in despair.

However, Ibu Nina sits on a cultural advisory team to the President and says that the government is mulling over whether the best solution might not be for the government to take over the ownership of the two palaces and cover all maintenance and restoration costs while allowing the Susuhunan and the Prince of Mangkunegara and their families to continue to live in them. They would however, have to allow sections of the buildings to be open to the public as they are indeed already now. What would be the legal construct for such an arrangement?

“Well, according to legal research that is still on-going at this stage, during the colonial period the two kratons belonged to the Netherlands Indies government and the local rulers and their families were only allowed to live there until the ruler died. Then the palaces reverted to the government. After the new ruler was chosen he and his family would again be allowed to live in the palace,” explained Ibu Nina.

It is an interesting idea which has some similarities with the National Trust system in England. The National Trust is a private sector institution however created by act of parliament. In the National Trust system the owners also transfer ownership of the property to the National Trust which then maintains and restores them however, the original families that owned them are allowed to continue to live there but must provide access to the public.

When asked about for her opinion regarding such a possibility for taking care of the heritage of the Mangukunegaran Palace, Gusti Ros was hesitant. “I cannot speak for the palace and that is a very sensitive issue… but it is indeed very difficult for us to raise all the funds needed to take properly care of our heritage… who knows… it may well be that at some point things head in that direction…”

Sasmiyarsi Katoppo’s grandfather was Pakubuwono X, the ruler of the Kingdom of Surakarta. Her father was Pangeran Hangabehi Moyo Amiluhur, the crown prince but the Netherlands Indies government did not approve of him because of his nationalist sentiments and pressured the Susuhunan to exile him to Paris. Later his half-brother took the throne and thirty-five days before independence his son became Susuhunan Pakubuwono XII. Ibu Mimis as she is popularly known was always close to her cousin, the late Susuhunan Pakubuwono XII. When asked her opinion on the possible government solution to the problem, Ibu Mimis responded enthusiastically, “Because of the last succession problems the restoration and maintenance of the Surakarta kraton has lacked funds and its management has been chaotic. The best solution might indeed be for the government to take over ownership of the Surakarta kraton as well as responsibility for restoration and maintenance costs as long as the Susuhunan and his family may continue to reside there and there is a clear mechanism to democratically elect the leader of the family or Susuhunan. And the women should be allowed a vote too and perhaps even a chance to become the ruler!,” she added spiritedly. “After all, it has happened in the past. Just look at Tri Bhuwana Tungga, a ruling queen of Majapahit and the mother of Hayam Wuruk and the daughter of Hayam Wuruk, Ratu Suhitawas also a ruling queen. Our constitution guarantees gender equality, so why not?” Could it be that some of the Sultan of Jogjakarta’s ideas are starting to affect Solo women too? (Tamalia Alisjahbana)