A historic legacy, former Forts in Indonesia today

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Gorontalo----Fort-Otahiya-(±1590) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Gorontalo—-Fort-Otahiya-(±1590) © Cor Passchier / PDA

The meaning of urban-architectural heritage

I was born and grew up near the sea side of the village Noordwijk in the Netherlands.  On one day, in 1951 and six 6 years old, I stood on the beach, watching a spectacular blow up of a big German ‘Atlantic wall’ bunker located at the south side of our boulevard; just a month later there was only a sand dune left. A significant evidence of German occupation in the Second World War was vanished completely and years later it felt to me as I was robbed of a specific reminder, only a picture and a history book remained.

Probably it was a governmental policy to skip the era of German occupation out of the people’s minds; a form of urban planning by destroying, creating a ‘correct’ environment without any tangible uncomfortable memorial. It sounds like an ultimate post-colonial issue, pointing a question like: is the architectural-urban historic legacy from the colonial past logically and automatically accept as heritage by the former colonised people as well?

With reference to the example of the destroyed German bunker, I tend to affirm such; although the perception may have a different emotional load. The preservation of the German bunker might have contribute to the collective memory of later generations as a memorial  landmark on the sea side, but apparently it did not fit the conservation policy of the government, which envisaged the image of a fashionable seaside resort.

Where does the term preservation stands for?

At least it should be based on a question like: ‘what are the challenges for the building or structure today’ and how we intent using it?  By ignoring such, there is hardly any prospect for a historic building to survive.

Preservation is a logical part of the urban planning process, a holistic approach dealing with the characteristics determining the identity of the city, considering the physical and economic possibilities and opportunities for survival; these in balance with growth and expansion plans of the city including the related infrastructure.  The latter is not meant as a pure technocratic statement, there is more. Probably the main reason for the presence of architectural heritage on the agenda is enclosed in the thesis that ‘historic- and modern buildings are both an exponent and product of the same dynamic society’. The mix of continuity and change give significance to human existence and conditions for hope in the future. Considering modernity as the opposite of historic is to me just a created forced contrast, tomorrow we will define today as yesterday.

Obviously, in the first decades of the young state Indonesia, the architectural- urban environment got not immediate affected by modernity; the young state at the start suffered under political and economic instability.  The capital, Jakarta, was undergoing a tremendous grow in population and the answers were found in an enormous increase and condensing of inhabitants captured within the limits of the colonial city Batavia.  Simultaneously combined with the power and the flush of independence which causes a creative whirlpool, where politicians, writers, painters….  could launch their statements in an overwhelming and optimistic mainstream.


Ambarawa---Fort-Willem-1-(±1835)-aktivitas-di-dalam-benteng-1 © Cor Passchier / PDA

Ambarawa—Fort-Willem-1-(±1835)-aktivitas-di-dalam-benteng-1 © Cor Passchier / PDA

Meanwhile, dealing with the reality, the government focused to transform the archipelago in one nation; common symbols were needed with a clear and straight message, strengthen the national awareness of the people. They create an Indonesian layer over the colonial town, street names were changed, sculptures from the colonial era removed and new symbolic sculptures arose often reflecting the struggle of freedom and independence.  For instance, in Jakarta the former ‘Koningsplein’ (Kings square) became ‘Medan Merdeka’ (Freedom square), making it clear, the times were a changing.

The architectural- urban legacy, after regime change, could not suddenly disappear or demolished, the latter seemed quite unrealistic.  Former colonial offices got overcrowded by more employees than ever and the new elite went to live in the homes of the former colonial elite, while some Jakarta people (until the present) called their selves ‘orang Betawi’.

Ambarawa---Fort-Willem-1-(±1835) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Ambarawa—Fort-Willem-1-(±1835) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Streets, squares, parks, buildings and all that together, create the environment and décor, which is known as ‘identity’.

Say ‘Bandung’ and one will react ‘Gedung Sate’-, ‘ITB’-, ‘Hotel Homann’, the first two built in 1921 and the last in 1939.  Mention ‘Jakarta’ and one will respond with ‘Monas’-, ‘Jalan Sudirman’- or ‘Kota’; the first two are after war references, but the last dated from the early days of the founding of the colonial town.  That’s the way people react proudly and in their own way.  It is my town; I live here identify myself with the décor, which stands for my neighbourhood – or town.  Even expressions of nostalgia became famous and already subject of heritage itself.  In my mind comes up the song ‘Bandung selatan di waktu malam’., the original  by Ismail Marzuki (1948), I do regard it as an ultimate expression of intangible heritage.

Forts in Indonesia

An article is necessarily limited in size, also in content; I will spend some attention to a particular legacy and heritage, the many forts built in Indonesia in the course of the centuries are a reflection of the turbulent history.

The project ‘identification and inventory of Forts’ (2007-10) in Indonesia is developed by the NGO’s PDA Indonesia and PAC the Netherlands; behind both NGO’s were the governments of Indonesia and the Netherlands.  This ambitious project covered the entire Indonesia archipelago.  In the field survey, we operated with two teams, supported and assisted by the local offices of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in cooperation with several local universities and heritage organizations, support by numerous volunteers.  Soon we experienced, the legacy of historical forts and fortifications in Indonesia was of an exceptional extent. Originally, the government hand over a list about 270 forts but soon we discovered and determined more than 440 and numbers additionally built objects, such as small bunkers, etc.

In the Indonesian archipelago, forts and remains are everywhere.  From the 15th to the 18th century, the Portuguese and the Spanish, followed by the Dutch and English and also the local rulers had their fortifications. Forts were built at strategic locations, usually at the sea, with some smaller forts in the hinterland protecting trade routes.  Except as defence against enemy attacks, forts also served as warehouses of herbs and spices.  Within the walls lived soldiers-, merchants- and artisans, often an inner garden and a small hospital, sometimes a church were built.  Forts were as foreign stations in the country and storage places of merchandise; spontaneous settlements  arose around such sites.  Coastal forts have often become the cradle for the establishment of later big cities.

The later forts, from the 19th century served more strictly military purposes, while in the 20th century, the fortress as a defence bastion lost its significance and strategic defences were more dispersed, while the older forts only served as military barracks.  Forts were built according to European functional military regulations and an architectural style is no question; except perhaps in the gatehouses, where sometimes an architectural accent is shown, baroque, classicism we may encounter.

Nowadays, there are many forts disappeared or merged in nature, certainly this applies to the former wooden blockhouses- and beach reinforcements.  However a number of forts survived often felt into decay, losing their original function since long.  About some we only know they exist ones and some ruins are preserved as a fixed in stone as a memorial of history.

In the history of the Indonesian built heritage like former forts occupy a special place.  They are tangible reminders of the past and still of significance in everyday life.  Sometimes the built environment is part of the identity in the everyday decor, sometimes to found far away from human settlement.  Ancient forts are used in various ways, sometimes they are slowly demolished and the old brick reused by the people.  Also a large number of forts are placed on the national- regional lists of monuments. A very few are still in use as military barracks, others having a new function like: museum, cultural centre, or as leisure and tourist objects.


Solo---Fort-Vastenburg-(±1780) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Solo—Fort-Vastenburg-(±1780) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Beside cultural historical-, romantic- arguments, attention should be paid to the economic- functional values.  There is no doubt that the survival of historic buildings and structures is strongly related to their actual functional importance or their potentials in this. Even when a building is regard as a valuable historic monument, it still needs a suitable function. Why should we preserve a building or structure and implement conservation, if we don’t know what to do with it after a restoration?  The thesis ‘Heritage conservation is Economic development’ seems to me not only a statement it is a ‘must’, because both are unbreakable related to each other.

At last some examples about the reuse of forts in Indonesia.

In Jakarta, the Castle or former main settlement of the VOC in East-south Asia is already vanished in the years 1808-09, under the reign of Governor General Herman Daendels the Castle and city wall of Batavia were dismantled, the bricks were reused in the build-up of the satellite town ‘Weltevreden’, nowadays ‘Jakarta Pusat’.  Occasionally, plans are launched to reconstruct the Benteng in a certain form.  Thinking about such, I suggest it could be done as a sort of urban landscaping in a greater approach concerning the rehabilitation of Jakarta Kota.

In Yogyakarta, the former Fort Vredeburg (about 1760) is restored, having new functions as museum, convention facility and offices and governmental guesthouse.  The appearance is strong in the urban environment.

Yokyakarta---Fort-Vredeburg-(±1760) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Yokyakarta—Fort-Vredeburg-(±1760) © Cor Passchier / PDA

In Gombong, central Java, the octagonal fort (about 1820) has undergone a technical maintenance; nowadays it is now used as a sort of amusement park.  In the immediate vicinity of the Fort, one can find are all kind of funfair attractions, even plastic dragons; above on the octagonal wall drives a small fair train on rails; they actually did not make any meaningful use of the building space and structure and I guess this kind of function will not prove being sustainable.

In Banten, west Java, the remains of the former Fort Surosowan (around 1680) undergone a consolidating restoration and is as part of the landscape an archaeological park.

In Makassar, Sulawesi, the big Fort Rotterdam (about 1670) is since centuries the identity carrier of the town on the seaside.  It is recently restored and has a main cultural function; one finds here the regional museum Galigo, the inner space is a fairground for the city dwellers and the branch office of the ministry of Education and Culture is established here.

In Ambon, the small tower fort Amsterdam (about 1633), is restored to its former glory, on beautiful location near by the sea; unfortunately one did not paid serious attention to establish a new meaningful function after the rehabilitation; so for some time it was still an empty witness of history.

Ambon---Fort-Amsterdam-(±1640) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Ambon—Fort-Amsterdam-(±1640) © Cor Passchier / PDA

Recommendations and conclusions

It is clear that the national and regional governments are willing to invest in the conservation and reuse of built heritage, such as forts.  However, not all stakeholders, architects and investors, have knowledge and information about the conservation and reuse of old forts. In November 2013, an international European conference (ArtFort) was held and also an Indonesian delegation participated.  The information exchange regarding to the reuse of this category built heritage was considered as very positive and it is an actual subject of thoughts to organize such an international workshop also in Indonesia.  Which I would highly recommend; beside the share of information, it may broaden the scope how to treat historic Forts as useful heritage, how to organize the approach and with references to economic benefits and integrating in urban planning.

Cor Passchier
Cor Passchier is a Dutch architect-researcher (1945), who is a honorary member of IAI (Indonesian Institute of Architects), also director of ”PAC architects and consultants”. He is actively improving cultural ties between Indonesia and the Netherlands, especially in the field of architecture. He was previously awarded with the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for the conservation of the National Archives Building in Jakarta, along with the architects Han Awal and Budi Lim. He was recently involved and responsible for the bilateral project ”identification and inventory of Forts in Indonesia”