From Paleis te Koningsplein to Istana Merdeka:
A Case Study of Indonesian Architectural Identity from the 1870s to the Present Day
With more than 1300 ethnic groups, each with a distinctive set of cultural practices, it is very challenging for Indonesia to define a collective identity for itself as a proud independent nation. As a cultural product, Indonesian architecture is very much involved in this tricky post-colonial undertaking. Adding to the difficulty are physical remnants from past colonial rule by the Netherlands, in what was then termed the Dutch East Indies. Indonesian presidential palaces are no exception to this equation. Given that the Indonesian president acts both as the leader of the state and the government, presidential palaces are very much seen as the built embodiment of national iconography, making them ideal places to examine what is meant by the term “Indonesian architecture”. As its subject matter, this dissertation focuses specifically on what is considered Indonesia’s primary presidential palace, Istana Merdeka (Merdeka Palace), which had originally been known as Paleis te Koningsplein (Koningsplein Palace). With the use of literature reviews, archival research and conjectural plan reconstruction, the exploration of Merdeka Palace’s physical and functional aspects since its establishment during the colonial era to the present day demonstrates the complexity of Indonesian national identity.
The imposition of the Neo-Palladian Dutch Empire Style architecture for the new palace of the Governor-General in what was then Batavia demonstrates the constant hierarchy between the European ‘occident’ to the non-European ‘orient’, wherein European culture was always regarded as superior. Despite only having small amounts of tropical elements in its architecture – such as the opened-up interior spaces – these barely existent elements were mostly concealed by the “true” European Neo-Classical façade. According to Said, studies of the relationship between imperial/colonial power and the dominated subject is not done just to understand that unequal relationship, but also to study the formation and meaning of the dominating nation’s cultural practice themselves. In this case of the original Koningsplein Palace, the strong use of European culture as the physical symbol of colonial power spoke for the national identity formation of the Dutch East Indies as being very much an extension of the Netherlands.
The state of Koningsplein Palace during the Japanese war-time occupation and in the transitional period demonstrates a similar notion of national identity. The addition of minor Japanese elements was undertaken to conceal the previous Dutch national identity in favour of this new conqueror. Once again, the presence or identity of the native population was left muted by its occupier. Imperialism, according to Said, although its battle was mainly about land, meant that all issues came to be reflected in the same cultural narrative, which in that instance came through the ‘Japanisation’ of Merdeka Palace’s interior rooms. Following that war-time era and despite already declaring their own independence, Indonesian identity was still left in the shadows by the returning Dutch authorities in Jakarta. Their continuing exercise of power in the period between 1945 to 1949 in sites such as Koningsplein Palace demonstrates what Spivak terms as epistemic violence, the colonial’s constitution of the colonial subject as ‘other’.
After President Soekarno’s triumph in 1949, Merdeka Palace as a piece of Dutch colonial legacy saw many “Indonesianisation” measures implemented by him and all the further six presidents. The early years of Indonesia’s independence imposed rather small, ad-hoc but nonetheless impactful changes on the overall identity of the palace. Simple yet direct changes in the functions of the palace’s interior spaces reflects Said’s proposition that culture acts as a crucial source of identity. The appropriation of Dutch colonial heritage for the main official residence and locus for the highest political power in the country shows the attempt to decolonize the previous colonial culture. However, Indonesia’s post-colonial settings, as discussed by Abidin Kusno, is more than just about domination and resistance, but also comprises ‘a complex relation of power, unresolved contradictions and the ambivalence of colonialism that exist both in colonial and postcolonial situation.’ Hence, in addition to the straightforward and ad-hoc co-optation of colonial legacy, Merdeka Palace in post-colonial Indonesia also acts as an agent of neo-colonialism by those in the ruling elite. The obvious domination of Javanese and Islamic cultures within the palace’s interiors and grounds emulates what Bhabha notes as unequal forces of cultural representation in the contest for political and social authority. Adding to that is the current image of Merdeka Palace as a distant and unreachable institution by the ordinary Indonesian public, whose struggle is ironically represented by the palace itself. This exercise of power in Merdeka Palace by the ruling authorities bear similarities with that of the past colonial power which imposed a certain European identity belonging to the dominating power to be the national identity of the country.
Considering Merdeka Palace’s utterly colonial outlook, the research for this dissertation set out with an expectation of being a study about a rather straightforward European-”orient” dynamic in architectural form. Instead, Merdeka Palace’s appeal to the colonial past emulates what Said refers to as ‘interpretation of the present’ to the extent that it involves uncertainty as to whether if the past is really over or if it continues. This study has revealed that Indonesian post-colonial identity formation contains complexities that lie beyond the marginalisation of the native population by Dutch or Japanese colonists. Despite being no longer within the hands of the previous occupying powers, the post-colonial power strategy of the current Indonesian government still reflects that of the colonial past where minority groups are subjected into cultural silence. Be it by the past colonial power or the present post-colonial nationalistic government, Merdeka Palace as the current architectural representation of the ultimate political power in post-colonial Indonesia is, like it was during colonial times, an agent of “latent Orientalism”.
 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, 2nd ed. (London: Vintage, 1994), 134.
 Said, Culture and Imperialism, 244.
 Said, Culture and Imperialism, xv.
 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft et al. (London: Routledge, 2006), 31.
 Said, Culture and Imperialism, xv.
 Abidin Kusno, The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia (Durham, NC : Duke University Press, 2010), 150.
 Abidin Kusno, Behind the Postcolonial (London: Routledge, 2000), 25.
 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 245.
 Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 8th ed. (London: Penguin, 2019), 206.