The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Treating history with grace Duncan Graham

Grace Pamungkas got fed up working for the government.

As an architect with social justice ideals she became frustrated when called on to research public housing and restoration projects, and prepare budgets.

“When the money was allocated we got only 30 to 50 per cent to do the job,” she said. “The rest went elsewhere – who knows?

“I realised I wasn’t suited to working for government departments. I wanted to make a difference, and it was clear that many public servants were not servants of the public. They were just concerned with money. It was time to move.”

This wasn’t her only bad experience with the bureaucracy. The next lesson was about cultural imperialism and it didn’t come from a textbook.

After graduating in architecture from the University of Indonesia she went to Flores with UI staff. Her job was to assist planning the rehousing of people who’d lost their homes in the 1992 tsunami that followed a 7.8 magnitude offshore earthquake.

The army was responsible for providing temporary housing, which inevitably became permanent. But many homes were left unoccupied.

“The planners were from Java and looked at the project as though the homeless were farmers,” Ms Pamungkas said. “But these were fishers, people of the sea and the houses provided were not suitable. The locals weren’t consulted, or if they were their views weren’t heard.”

Back in Jakarta she took to walking to university and work and rapidly discovered a world invisible from the tinted windows of limousines. City poor are not so obvious as those in the villages. They live in kampong burrows, packed tight, squashed into airless and unsanitary low roofed, flimsy-walled rooms, or squat in old industrial buildings abandoned by their owners.

The gap between the wong kecil, the ordinary folk, and the rich was far wider than the multilane freeways that separated their homes.

“I was concerned about public housing for the poor,” she said. “I came across the gemstone workers who live alongside the railway tracks in Jakarta and learned about their lives in a very historical area. It was just a coincidence.

“The rich can pay to build what they want where they want. But the poor have to wait for government housing and this isn’t a good standard.”

But not all the rich are indifferent to history. With noted historian and Jesuit priest Adolf Heuken, who she met at a seminar, Ms Pamungkas was commissioned by Jakarta businesswoman Susilawati to research Galangan Kapal Batavia.

This was the 300-year old Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC – the United East India Company) shipyard on the banks of the river Kali Besar. Like many Dutch era buildings it had been used as a warehouse. Despite a study construction its ill-maintained timbers had rotted and brickwork fretted.

The building has now been renovated to become the VOC – the Very Old Café. Father Adolf and Ms Pamungkas had their work published as a book, complete with quaint and ancient drawings of a busy waterway full of swans alongside wide paddocks with prancing horses – areas now densely packed with houses and markets.

The pair then went on to another book, this time on buildings in the swish suburb of Menteng.

As the child of a Dutch Reformed Church pastor helping build schools for the needy Ms Pamungkas, 39, had the benefit of living in many parts of the archipelago - and the disadvantage of having nowhere to call home.

Though born in Bandung she spent only three years in the West Java city before moving to Riau. Then it was off to Sulawesi, Sumatra again and back to Java. Although good at art and design she chose to study architecture because it offered practical opportunities, though she found her natural talents in research.

Which is what Ms Pamungkas is doing at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. While improving her English she’s investigating floating eco-houses, an idea pioneered in the Netherlands to cope with flooding.

Next year she hopes to take up a scholarship so that she can study the preservation and conservation of old buildings. To fund her studies she and her graphic artist husband Enrico Halim sold their house in Jakarta.

Her thesis, which is still under review, will look at the way the Dutch imposed their building styles and town planning on Jakarta. When the walled city proved unsuitable the colonialists had to reset their attitudes to suit the tropics, borrowing from local wisdom.

She will compare the situation in her homeland with the way the British took their architecture to rugged earthquake-prone Wellington, which is reputed to be the world’s windiest city.

The newcomers had to rapidly modify their attitudes, learning from the Maori who built to survive a harsh climate, not hang on to hard-set ideas imported from another continent.

“When I get back to Indonesia, hopefully with a Western education, I plan to teach the importance of saving our past,” she said.

“The new generation doesn’t harbor hatreds against the Dutch and are more inclined to respect historical buildings.

“History education in Indonesian schools has just been a memorising of dates and places. Studying history has meant meeting an obligation to fill marks. Sadly it’s not part of our culture now to respect our ancestors, though I suspect it was different in the past.

“Look at the way we demolished the house where (first president) Soekarno read the proclamation on Indonesian independence. Elsewhere in the world that would be a nationally important part of our heritage.

“Jakarta is a coastal city but we don’t care for our rivers and the sea. They’re just used as trash bins, bad places for poor people to live. I want to see a return to our respect for water, as we had in the past, to resurrect the beliefs of our ancestors.

“Cultural tourism is a significant business elsewhere in the world. The Dutch made a big effort, importing, for example, tiles from Czechoslovakia to beautify their buildings.

“If we could preserve and renovate some of the old buildings in Kota we could sell our city to the world, maybe rivalling Singapore in attracting visitors. What happened in the past is valuable for our future.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 June 2010)