Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.
Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.
Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.
Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.
Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.
In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!
We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!
Last weekend in Kochi, a memorable slice of time
To me, travel is therapeutic at many levels. Whether I travel for work or leisure, or even to meet family obligations, I revel in the sensory overload that travel brings. Earlier this month, I was in Kochi to serve as external jury member for 3rd year architectural students at a relatively new private college. While that was an interesting experience in itself, the highlight of the trip was spending time with one of my closest friends and her family.
College buddies, especially if you’ve shared hostel rooms, clothes, intimate secrets and much more, have an understanding of each other that is rare and precious. Both of us found we had saved conversations up in our heads for years and years for the time we would meet and have a chance to have a leisurely conversation. So that was super fun. Just as much fun was interacting with her kids; who felt familiar after only two days of time together.
The ease of being with people who feel like family seeped into the one day we had free. We visited the touristy part of town, Fort Kochi, but we hardly had tourism on our minds. Instead, we wandered through artist Paris Mohan Kumar’s art exhibition at the iconic David Hall, a restored art gallery and cafe that was once a Dutch bungalow. The paintings, which were largely monochrome revolved around the themes of nature and human relationships with an emphasis on the female form, were fascinating in their ability to be complex and simple at the same time.
We then hung out in the cafe part of the building for a while, cooling down drinking mint iced tea and gazing onto the patch of Kerala green and the pristine white stone wall, solid like they built them in the 16th century. Talking, laughing, thinking. And having some unexpected deep conversations.
Soon enough, phone calls came in, errands were run and appointments were rushed towards. The afternoon went by in a tizzy of sushi tasting, professional commitments, shopping and driving around a city temporarily scarred by the construction of the Metro line.
A week later, I’m still carrying that slice of time at David Hall with me. Memories are not necessarily made of a famous piece of architecture, high culture or amusement parks. Nor of expensive meals, cruises and moonlit walks. They are equally made of ordinariness, of words exchanged with an 11-year old child wise far beyond her years, of time spent with someone who understands you better than yourself. Of laughing over spilt cold coffee and of counting ants climbing up a tree. And in the day of smart phone, of taking a goofy selfie.
Let’s improve museums, but also create shared spaces to experience culture, explore identity
I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.
Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.
Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.
A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.
To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.
There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!
The Maidens Hotel, a sliver of ‘old world’ amidst Delhi’s chaos
A colleague had an amazing idea. To take a bunch of us away from our usual office conference room to an alternate location for a day long brainstorm. A retreat within the city, she called it. In her infinite wisdom, she chose The Maidens Hotel in Civil Lines. And she stuck to her plan despite the flimsy excuses that others offered to escape the imprisonment of a location far from the buzz!
I felt a bit cheated at getting no opportunity to explore this lovely property that was built in 1903 to host guests attending the famous Delhi Durbar. Here are a few hasty shots taken post sunset. I’ll be back for more!
A sight for sore eyes: Humayun’s Tomb
Visiting a heritage site always gives me a high. I’ve had people roll their eyes at me about my particular enthusiasm for ruins and tombs, palaces and serais, but there is a magic in the texture and aura of brick and stone that has stood there so long and seen so much change. The Humayun’s Tomb complex, so lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, is a real treat to visit. Perhaps ‘the’ showcase heritage treasure for Delhi at this time, as the city struggles year after year to get onto UNESCO’s Heritage City list (this year I hear it’s losing out to Amdavad). It’s a pity, but I do find that a number of Delhi’s important heritage sites are not well maintained, with no information to help visitors contextualize what they are experiencing and with very little connection to the city at large.
On the Saturday morning we rambled through the Humayun’s Tomb complex, we saw long lines of chattering school children, photography enthusiasts, tourists and families, all excited and many in awe. I learn something new each visit at the small exhibition set up at the entrance to the Tomb. This time, it helped me explain a bit of the history, architecture and cultural context of the monument to our visitors from the Netherlands.
Humayun’s tomb never fails to impress; its scale and proportions, its craftsmanship so perfect. But beyond its historical value and perhaps because of it, what Udai and me (we’ve both visited several times before) most enjoyed this time around were the beautifully landscaped spaces that surround the smaller monuments in the complex. Spaces that allow you to sit and contemplate life, spaces that involve a little climbing up and down and offer a sense of adventure. As I pen this post, it does occur to me that this is a metaphor for how in life side dishes are often far more pleasurable than the mains and what we consider the ‘extra’ often adds the best flavours!
Some snapshots from my iphone6.
Kolkata’s delights: Eclectic Fairlawn Hotel
I’d only been once to Kolkata before, a long time ago. And I’d been dying to go. Our team at work had been engaged in a field study on auto rickshaws in Kolkata and a consultative workshop in December was the perfect occasion for us all to go in an engage with the project a bit more.
My colleague Manish, who is never satisfied with the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, bullied us all into booking what he called “a quaint heritage property on Sudder Street”. It’s only when we got there that we realized this was the famous Fairlawn Hotel. With its interiors painted a bizarre green, its walls cluttered with newspaper clips, photographs and paintings, and its rooms full of eclectic curios, Fairlawn is a sensory explosion indeed!
We spent quite a few amused and excited moments recognising famous faces, including Patick Swayze and Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor (who apparently spent their honeymoon here!), several photographs of British Royals (I’m not they ever visited though!) and some very detailed water colours of Fairlawn that I particularly liked. Fairlawn’s infamous owner Violet (Vi) Smith, who was well known as a talented racconteur and host, passed away at the ripe old age of 93 only in 2014! One could see, standing there in those rooms full of atmosphere, that Fairlawn had seen some really interesting times! The building, I gather from news reports online, is over 200 years and was inherited by Vi from her Armenian mother. Through its history, it has been a home, a barracks and mess for Canadian airmen during the World War II and finally, a hotel that was a must-visit for foreign visitors in Kolkata for years. Vi’s daughter Jennifer runs it now.
Amid our busy work schedules, we managed to sneak in some crazy pictures of ourselves in Fairlawn as well as some moments of leisure chatting while standing in its historic corridors.
Divya Agrawal’s sketches and words bring Jaipur alive #TheCityasMuse Runners Up
Divya is an artist and a designer. She is greatly inspired by nature, cultures, patterns and places. An architect by training, she Divya in Mumbai and co-authors a Design blog On the Design Boat.
Comment: The size of the computer screen (and some of you might be reading this on a mobile phone or tab) doesn’t do justice to Divya’s enormously detailed and accurate sketches. Through her beautiful drawings and eloquent writing, she has been able to offer a glimpse into the rich heritage and street life of the vibrant city of Jaipur.
An omni-present array of jalis, cupolas and jharokhas; red crowned with the desert brown, streets brimming over with color and people, rickshaws, cows, food, fabric and divinity. This is the walled city of Jaipur, a place that has enthralled and inspired me for the longest time.
A city, besides being a destination, is a celebration of its occupants and their culture. It is a living canvas with a pulse, a unique style; a repository for history, a landscape that is constantly colored by the people who live out their dreams & aspirations in it.
Home to a multitude, a source of livelihood to many, a city can also be an inspiration, companion and muse. Being a history and architecture lover, the Pink City’s grandeur and detail envelop me. I have explored Jaipur on foot over many journeys, a sketchbook in hand, from the rooftops in its bazaars to the calm and desolate streets of old Amer; falling in love with it time and over again.
The walled city lives at a pace that defies comprehension, life throbbing effortlessly and endlessly around its pink facades. I feel transported into surrounds of another era – so profuse is the striking succession of facades, replete with latticed openings, balconies and arches. The city surprises me at every turn – be it discovering calm courtyards behind bustling shop fronts, or, landing in the midst of vast chaurahas big enough to double up as bus and rickshaw stands with idle parking for cows alongside…. Equally mesmerizing is the transformation of these spaces. As shops down shutters for the day, temple bells welcome darkness and aartis fill the soundscape, permeating my soul with devotion and calm.
At times the chaos and noise magically disappear, like inside the Hawa Mahal, just off one of the city’s busiest streets. And then, as I peep out of one of its latticed windows, I can’t help but marvel at its architecture – who did ever think of a wall for a palace? Moving further on entering Jantar Mantar, I catch a glimpse of the City Palace and the Nahargarh Fort – three different kinds of architecture in a snapshot!
I find a foil in the invigorating, sometimes exhausting chaos of the city in some very unusual and calm historic spaces on the outskirts, including the abandoned city of Amer, complete in its breathtaking remains.
This unique intersection of people, culture and landscapes has been a deep inspiration to the explorer and artist in me. I have found tremendous joy in sketching Jaipur’s environs, experiencing its interiors, interacting with its people and discovering their crafts. Sights, sounds and smells of a place make for a complete experience. With it’s palate satiating offerings of desert specialties, lassi, kachouris and ghevar, the city makes sure that the foodie in me too never has enough of it, beckoning to relive the experience yet again!
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‘Meeting’ the Magna Carta at Salisbury #democracy #rights #justice
We swung by Salisbury on our way from Stonehenge to Bath. Walking towards the cathedral, built in the 13th century, I immediately recalled Ken Follet’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’, one of the most enjoyable books I have read about the construction of the first Gothic cathedral in England, set in a fictitious place called Kingsbridge. The author admits himself in an interview that the fictional cathedral he recreates in his book resembled Salisbury closely.
Gothic construction was a new technology in those times and the ability to create tall soaring structure that appeared light instead of the squat, heavy stone buildings they were used to certainly changed the experience of visiting the church drastically. Though I’m sure the Gothic cathedrals in Amiens and Lyon are more impressive, I really liked Salisbury, with its faux cloister and Catholic-turned-Church of England interiors.
But what was really fun about visiting the cathedral was ‘meeting’ the Magna Carta or The Great Charter, which is a document signed way back in 1215. Though the barons who protested the tyranny of King John did so to protect their own property and rights, two tenets from the document became the founding principles for democracy and common law in England, and consequently the world over.
Consider these two tenets, keeping in mind the context of feudalism at the time they were written:
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.
For the first time, the king was no longer above the law. For the first time, the common man was entitled to justice. For the first time, the King (or Queen, as I remember Alice in Wonderland) could not scream “Off with his head!” and expect someone to carry that order out. It really hit me as I stared at the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta, that many before us have fought hard for the rights we take for granted today!
And yet, so many continue to be unaware of their rights and in many countries, oppressive dictators continue to deny people basic rights and freedoms. That history not only is cyclical but also that different geographies experience their own cycles of oppression and freedom, making the world a hard place to understand.
I focused on the Magna Carta’s simplicity and directness and willed myself to absorb the meaning of those words. Not just in terms of being a citizen of my country but also in how I judge myself and those around me.
The mysticism of the past: Visiting Stonehenge
I’ve wanted to visit Stonehenge since the year 2000. Back then, I was pursuing a Masters in Urban Planning at Texas A&M University and taking a course in historic preservation. Professor David Woodcock encouraged me to pursue my interest in cultural landscapes, and with his help (he leveraged his contacts at English Heritage and got them to send me every piece of research they had in their possession!) I wrote a great term paper on Stonehenge.
The mysticism of this circle of stones has stayed with me ever since. It’s the kind of place that evokes in me an unnamed indescribable fascination for history. I wonder how humans in those long bygone days conceived the world around them, how they built their social fabric and how they sowed the seeds for the complexities of existence that we take for granted today.
Stonehenge is a neolithic site created from enormous stones over different period of time probably to understand or pay obeisance to the elements of nature, namely the movement of the sun across the sky around the year. It is part of a larger landscape of monuments scattered around this area, dating from 4000 BC to about 1600 BC. Many of these, and more are being excavated and interpreted even now, seem to be ritual gathering places, burial grounds and they reiterate how important birth and death, religion and rituals must have been to ancient humans. No one knows how they transported these gigantic stones from far away to the site, and its hard to imagine the complete monument today when you see only a ruin from which stones have been taken away or that has degenerated with time.
It is, however, possible to feel the primal energy when you stand there next to Stonehenge. A sense of mystery and strength, of peace even, a dedication to the powers that be! This time, I had only an hour to see it, but it would be fun to return one day to this World Heritage Site and walk the entire landscape that includes Stonehenge, Avebury and surrounding areas.
The reconstruction of neolithic homes near the Visitor Centre really added value to the visit for me, as one could better imagine what life was like back then, bringing Stonehenge back from a monument of mystery to one that was used for specific purposes by real people!
Also, a mention must be made of how well the site and visitor flow is managed. I was surprised to know that the entire 6500 acres of the World Heritage Site is owned and managed by English Heritage or the National Trust and that even the land around is owned by the armed forces and other government agencies so that the disturbances to the site and the experiences are minimal! It is possible to walk for miles through fields and woods to explore important prehistoric sites.
There’s a lot of fascinating info about Stonehenge online, if you want to read more….