One of the most prominent characteristics of a typical town in Colonial Indonesia, was the presence of a town square – an ‘Alun-Alun’. Within Purnawan Basundo’s chapter, in Cars, Conduits and Modernisation, he discusses the town of Malang and the political circumstances which produced a secondary Alun-Alun in the second decade of the 20th century.
The significance of the Alun-Alun in town planning cannot be understated – it was a large open space, located in the centre of town and functioned as the nucelli of the network of streets surrounding it. The traditional spatial practice of the Alun-Alun were based on an imaginary line, which connected the Southern Ocean, the southern alun-alun, the palace itself, the north alun-alun, and Mount Merapi on a north-south axis. The proximity the space shared to the Regents Palace is significant because it connected the royal spiritual power of the ruler and reasserted such a power back into the space closest to it. At this time, royal ceremonies were held on the Alun-Alun; and it was also a meeting ground for a ruler and his subjects. However, as time went on, the public space was transposed to a secular sphere, functioning as an urban park which was linked to the colonial governments aim of developing the growth of the town as a whole.
The Dutch colonial government created the first Alun-Alun in 1882, but it diverged from the traditional spatial layout typical of colonial Indonesia. Seen in Figure 1, it is evident that the park plan and surrounding area reflects the economic requirements of the government. For example: priority has been given to the banks (14, Escompto Bank and 15, Javasche Bank).
Source: Officieele plattegrond der gemeente Malang 1936–1937 (pub- lished by G. Kolff, Malang). Courtesy of Ms L.B.M. van Liempt
Both banks are located on the northern side where they were highly visible and accessible to the public. This in addition to the building of the Protestant Church (20) on the same road as the mosque (4), and the dominance of the Societeit Concordia (12) which was the social hub of the colonial society; exemplifies how the colonial government demonstrated their own supremacy through town planning and spatial practices.
What is interesting in the case of Malang, is that the Alun-Alun can be described as a design of colonial failure. The indigenous population continued to occupy the space in the afternoon and the night, eating and selling food and generally congregating together in the area. In the view of the Europeans, the centre of government needed to be separated from this urban life and a sole European-dominated centre serving as the “locus of authority”.
Therefore, after municipality status was granted, a new square was authorised to be built by town planner, Thomas Karsten. The government offices were moved to the ‘JP Coen Plein’ square, also known as the Alun-Alun Bunder (bunder referring to the circular shape of the square). The spatial practices that Karsten engaged in his planning of the new Alun-Alun were highly related to the mountainous scenery surrounding the square, in this way, we can assert that he was pursuing a plan of creating a ‘garden city’.
Another interesting perspective which the author of this chapter discusses is how Karsten’s own political leanings affected the spatial practices which he employed when designing the Alun-Alun Bunder. Thomas Karsten was an architect with strong democratic-socialist tendencies and was opposed to the direction adopted by contemporary colonial policies. His conflicting nature – being a colonial architect without supporting colonial policies id evidenced through his adoption of traditional indigenous designs within his own town planning. The complex was based on a similar north-south axis which linked the Southern Ocean, the town Hall, the Alun-Alun Bunder itself with a water fountain at the centre, in an imaginary straight line to Mount Arjuna in the north.
Although the layout was undoubtedly influenced by Javanese philosophy, ultimately it was unable to fulfil the purpose of opposing colonial dominance through spatial practices. Nevertheless, this does introduce an interesting sub-debate about the influence that town planners had when developing cities and municipalities under the orders of the colonial governments. Could their own political views underlie their design? If we were to compare the town planning models that Karsten produced, would there be a difference to a town planner who was far more right leaning politically? Or was Karsten in fact, powerless to the dominance of the colonial government, and the only compromise he could find was the introduction of small references to indigenous spatial and design tradition.