The Jalan Roa Malaka of Kota Tua Part IV: F. J. L. Ghijzels and Modernism in Indonesian architecture

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The headquarters of the KPM or Royal Mail Shipping Line is now the Directorate General for Sea Communications on Medan Merdeka Timur. Ghijzels designed it with secondary elevation to keep the building cool.Photo credit: Photo courtesy of R.W. Heringa.

IO – The Jalan Roa Malaka in the Kota Tua in what was formerly the intramuros area of Jakarta is a road with a very interesting history. Three main ethnic groups lived here from the 17th till the 20th century namely the Indo-Portuguese and the Chinese whose history on the Roa Malakka have been described in parts 1 and 2 of this series, and the Europeans one of whom was described in part 3 of the series. Part 4 is a continuation of the story of the Europeans on Jalan Roa Malaka in the 20th century. It is about a Dutchman who did not live on the Roa Malaka but who had an office there that was to have a very important influence on the buildings in Kota Tua; ushering in the new modern style known as Art Deco as well as helping to create the emerging Indies style known as Het Indische Bouwen.

In the twentieth century the Jalan Roa Malaka began to change from a residential area to a commercial one as slowly the buildings where people once lived became offices of banks, trading houses, shipping lines and insurance companies. One of these was the office of the renowned Netherlands Indies architect and urban planner Ir Frans Johan Louwrens Ghijzels. He had his architectural firm, the AIA Bureau (Algemeen Ingenieurs en Architectenbureau or General Engineers and Architects Bureau) here. At first in 1916 the offices of the AIA were on the corner of the Utrechtsestraat (what is now Jalan Kopi) and Jalan Roa Malakka. It is not known however, on which corner it was located. We also do not know what number it was situated at on the Utrechtsestraat and no photograph of the AIA office has so far emerged.

The AIA was the largest architectural firm in the Netherlands East Indies at the time. In 1918, F.J.L. Ghijzels’ office was moved around the corner to the Jalan Roea Malakka number 29. According to Cor Passchier a Dutch architect who has worked both in the Netherlands and Indonesia for several years and is the author of Building in Indonesia 1600-1960, later the AIA building was demolished and sadly nothing remains of it today.

Ghijzels work is interesting because on the one hand his office buildings and a church were built in an Art Deco style but he also built many schools, houses, hospitals and even a swimming pool relating to everyday life in a pure and beautiful form with the use of materials attuned to the climate and culture of Indonesia. A journalist writing in the Dutch East Indies newspaper De Indische Courant on December 16, 1925 described Ghijzels work as reflecting the creed: Eenvoud is de kortste weg naar schoonheid or “Simplicity is the shortest path to beauty”. This became the title of a book about F.J.L. Ghijzels that was the project of his grandson Ir R.Watse Heringa who inherited not only Ghijzels architectural archive in the form of his photographs and architectural plans but also a collection of hundreds of pages of letters from Ghijzels to his wife where he discusses the buildings at the time he was designing and constructing them, the problems, the people involved and what he was attempting to do.

It was the first major book written about one of the leading modern twentieth century architects of the Netherlands Indies. It has been followed by several other books about the other chief architects of that period such as Maclaine Pont, Thomas Karstens and Charles Wolff Schoemaker providing valuable new information and insights into the buildings and architectural styles of the period before the Second World War. A major book is at present being prepared by Obbe Norbruis about leading architects of the Netherlands Indies.

Frans Johan Louwrens Ghijzels, the founder of the AIA. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of R.W. Heringa.

In describing his grandfather, F.J.L. Ghijzels, Watse Heringa comments nostalgically, “My grandfather was a very sweet man. He passed away when I was six years old but I often had bronchitis when I was little and my grandfather used to sit beside me as I sat in bed drawing pictures. He was my role model and my best friend and then one day he was suddenly gone…

Later in life everyone I spoke to who had known him told me what a sweet nature he had and how he was always helpful. I wanted to follow in his footsteps and become an architect which I eventually did.”

Watse Heringa did indeed become an architect and has also created some fine office buildings in the Netherlands as his grandfather did in Indonesia, the most well-known being De Naam in Assen. However, Heringa’s grandfather only designed and built buildings in Indonesia or the Netherlands Indies as it was known then; never in Holland. Ghijzels returned to the Netherlands in 1929 but the economy was in a bad way by then and later came the Second World War all of which made it difficult for him to find work. So, his grandfather’s legacy lies in Indonesia. Ghijzels was actually born in Tulung Agung in Java and was brought up in the Indies. Eventually, his parents moved to Delft where Ghijzels later was to study architecture. After graduating, he returned to Indonesia in 1910 where he first worked for the Municipal Works Department and then for the Public Works Office known as the BOW (Burgelijke Openbare Werken), of the central government. This is where he obtained his first work experience.

The BOW was first established in 1854 and consisted of civil engineers trained at the Polytechnic College of Delft and military engineers and it was they who designed and built the public works infrastructure and government buildings as well as housing for the colony. There were no architects in Indonesia until the arrival of Ghijzels and other graduates of what by then had become the Delft Technical College in the 20th century. By 1914 Gijzels had left the BOW and was practicing as an architect and contractor. He worked shortly together with the well-known Charles Wolff Schoemaker at Schoemaker’s architectural bureau. Cor Passchier remarked, “We may judge him as a child of his time. There was a great shortage of trained architects in the early twentieth century and also there was a great need for buildings, including for the cities that became independent municipalities after 1905. Office buildings for the governmental agencies, the emerging commercial firms, banks and trading houses, etc …

The H Jozef Church on Jl Matraman Raya no 129 was designed by Ghijzels. He writes that complained because he always received the commissions to build Catholic churches and Ghizels was not even Catholic. Photo courtesy: R.W. Heringa.

The architect-engineers of the Civil Public Works ‘BOW’ (the predecessor of the current ministry of public works) left the public service in large numbers, to establish themselves as private architects. It was more financially attractive and a greater creative challenge. Sometimes they established combinations of architects, of which the AIA was one of the most successful companies.”

In 1916 Ghijsels together with F. Stoltz and Hein von Essen created the AIA bureau which was to be responsible for a large number of important buildings that still dominant the landscape of several Indonesian cities especially on Java and thereby becoming one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Indonesia. As the buildings he designed and constructed were frequently located outside of Batavia, Gijzels was often away from home and wrote in various letters to his wife about them which to those interested in his architecture are a small treasure trove of additional information

F. J. L. Ghijzels was part of the architectural movement from 1900 onwards in Indonesia known as Het Indische Bouwen which tried to create a synthesis between modern western-oriented structures and techniques with indigenous traditional forms. Although Ghijzels was amongst those who followed a more western oriented style this was however, more for his formal and commercial buildings whereas for schools and hospitals he had a more Indies style. He was amongst the brightest of his generation being a member of the first class of architects to graduate from the Technical College in Delft. Amongst his classmates were several that were to have not only a large influence on Indonesian architecture in the decades just before the Second World War but also after Indonesian independence. Amongst them were Henri Maclaine Pont and Thomas Karstens.

Ghijzels designed the new Hotel des Indes on what is now Jalan Gajah Mada. It was Batavia’s answer to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel. Photo credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons .org/licenses /by-sa/3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gijzels’ firm the AIA, built many well-known buildings not only in Batavia but also in Bandung, Surabaya, Semarang, Pontianak/Samarinda as well as in several places in Sumatra. His most well-known buildings include the Hotel des Indes, the Kota Railway station, the KPM headquarters on Jalan Medan Merdeka Timur, the Cikini swimming pool in Menteng, the KPM hospital (now called the Rumah Sakit Pelni) and many more. In 1918 he helped to design several roads and buildings in Menteng including the Freemason’s Lodge which is now Bappenas or the Ministry for State Planning and the H. Jozef church in Matraman.

As of 1920 the Netherlands Indies government began preparing plans to move the civil administration to Bandung. About 60 architects were involved in designing the buildings and F.J.L. Ghijzels was one of them. He also designed many of the plans for Bandung as the new capital being planned for the Netherlands Indies.  

Nadia Rinaldi, an architect specializing in heritage buildings working at the Pusat Dokumentasi Arsitektur or Centre for Architectural Documentation in Jakarta says  that her favourite Ghijzels building is the Kota railway station, “Because of all his buildings it’s the one that reflects most the new style of modernism.”

Batavia Kota railway station. Photo credit: Anonymous / unknown, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/ 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Heringa commented that it is certainly his most well-known building and it ushered in a new style for train stations in the Indies where trains usually simply drove right through the stations. However, as Kota station was the head station it was designed in such a way so that the trains would leave moving out in fact backwards.  He also disclosed that his grandfather never said which of his buildings was his favourite. For Heringa it is the KPM (the government Royal Mail Shipping Lines which connected the islands of the Archipelago and is now PELNI or Pelayaran Nusantara) headquarters building because of the way Ghijzels organized the building and how he adapted it to the hot and humid climate which he did by providing it with a second elevation or façade. This was in the form of outer corridors that faced directly to the outside rather than the office room itself directly facing the outside. The same was done with the KPM hospital which is also still standing today.  The KPM headquarters building is now the Directorate General of Sea Communications on Medan Merdeka Timur; a beautiful Art Deco building with its stained glass windows still intact and what were once the names of the KPM ships.

He also likes very much his grandfather’s design for the Hotel des Indes which was the Raffles Hotel of the Netherlands Indies but sadly was already torn down in the early 1970s. “My brother still had a chance to stay there in 1955. It was a beautiful building but I am glad that I had the chance to visit the KPM headquarters several times. Another building of his that I am very fond of is the headquarters of the Soedarpo family’s shipping line on Jalan Kali Bear Barat.”

So, what will eventually happen to the great architectural archives of his grandfather’s work in Indonesia? “For the time being it remains with me as I love it and am still working with it but it will most likely go to Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam.” (A cultural centre which focuses on architecture, design, and digital culture.)  

Ghijzels also designed furniture as can be seen from the chairs on his verandah at his house in Menteng. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of R.W. Heringa.

Heringa says that his grandparents and their two daughters loved Indonesia and were always talking about it. His grandmother and her daughters retuned to the Netherlands first, nearly a year earlier for their schooling but his grandfather stayed behind finishing major architectural and building projects which of course, triggered another spate of letters to his wife describing more of his work. He knows that when they came back his mother and her sister and parents missed Indonesia very much and at first were not so happy in Holland. It is nice to know that this family who once had one of the most important architectural bureaus on the Jalan Roa Malaka have maintained a connection to Indonesia. Heringa’s son married a Balinese lady and so Frans Johan Louwrens Ghijzels great-great-grandsons are now half Indonesian.

So, as we have seen many of the inhabitants of the Jalan Roa Malaka during the 17th and 18th centuries were a mixed lot. There were certainly Europeans, Indo-Portuguese and Chinese living there together. Despite the fact that in the 18th century many Europeans began to move out of the city walls in part due to the unhealthiness of the town and the canals which became increasingly shallow, nevertheless many Europeans still continued to live on the Jalan Roa Malaka which they still considered an attractive place to live and of course, in the late 19th and early 20th century what was once a residential area began slowly to change into a commercial area as offices began to be established there. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read:

Part I: https://observerid.com/the-jalan-roa-malaka-of-kota-tua-part-i-a-name-related-to-the-portuguese/

Part II: https://observerid.com/the-jalan-roa-malaka-of-kota-tua-part-ii-its-chinese-inhabitants-and-the-chinese-massacre-of-1740/

Part III: https://observerid.com/the-jalan-roa-malaka-of-kota-tua-part-iii-the-europeans/