Jengki: Homes for a Free Indonesia
In newly independent Indonesia in the 1950s, a quirky new architectural style, called Jengki, was born out of the shift from Dutch colonial rule to sovereign status and America’s new influence in the country.
Gunawan Tjahjono, a professor of architecture at the University of Indonesia, wrote in 1998 that the name Jengki derived from the Indonesian phonetic pronunciation and spelling of the word Yankee.
In 1997, architect Arinaka Trisuharno wrote a short paper on the origins of Jengki architecture. Then a postgraduate student at the Bandung Institute of Technology in West Java, he argued that the architectural influence was imported from the United States via some Americans teaching at the school in the mid-1950s.
Buildings in the Jengki style stood out against Dutch colonial architecture for their asymmetrical roofs and facades, playful cut-out doors and windows and oddly tilted roofs and eaves — and they were imbued with a spirit of cheerfulness and freedom.
Over the years, many of the Jengki buildings faced the wrecking ball to make way for trendier designs, but examples of the style continue to be found scattered about neighborhoods in Bandung, Jakarta and beyond.
The odd angles of Jengki buildings make them a popular subject with photographers like Tariq Khalil, a Scot who worked as an environmental consultant in London and Singapore for 10 years, prior to arriving in Jakarta.
Khalil discovered the Jengki style about a year ago, when he received an invitation to Jakarta to attend a lecture on the history of Bandung’s architecture. The lecture was given by Frances Affandy, the executive director of the Bandung Heritage Society.
During the lecture, some slides of Jengki buildings were shown.
“I’d never seen buildings like those before,” Khalil recalled during a recent interview at the hip Kuningan restaurant Loewy. “They looked weird, strange and playful.”
What also struck Khalil at the time was that this little-heralded architectural style was in need of a savior.
“It’s one of those things in Indonesia that no one really knows about,” Khalil said. “Let’s do something about it [I thought].”
Combining his desire for some time off work and his love of photography, Khalil proposed to Frances that they put together a detailed study and photographic record of Jengki buildings.
To his delight, Frances responded with an enthusiastic, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
Frances, an American who has lived in Bandung since 1982, said: “This is a project that should have happened a long time ago. Tariq has been the new motor to shove me to do what we should’ve done.”
Frances said that aside from a 1997 architecture conference that took place in Semarang, Central Java, which didn’t exclusively talk about Jengki, “nothing else has been done to research or to create a movement to recognize more broadly this wonderful architectural form.”
She said Jengki’s existence had been overshadowed by Art Deco, also dating from the post-independence era in the 1950s.
“Much has been made of Art Deco, but Jengki is artistically worthwhile as well,” Frances said. “It is charming and noteworthy, but underresearched, underdocumented and underappreciated.”
Khalil began his photographic expedition in January this year. Going back and forth between Bandung, Jakarta and Yogyakarta within the span of four months, Khalil was successful in tracing and photographing about 30 examples of Jengki in the form of public buildings, churches and residential buildings.
Some of the finest examples in Bandung were Gedung PDAM (Regional Water Utility Company Building), Gedung BPI (Scientific Research Institute Building) and the Gedung Politeknik Kesehatan (Health and Polytechnic Building).
Referring to the last building, Khalil said: “It reminds me of a shop-house, at the same time an ocean liner, with big window portholes. It’s a work of genius.”
In Jakarta, Khalil, working off tips and recommendations from cultural buffs, found Jengki buildings in areas including Blok M, Kebayoran Baru and Tebet.
For someone who has only lived in Indonesia for a year, Khalil has a uniquely local way of describing Jengki architecture.
“There’s something in this that reminds me of Asia, there’s something in this that reminds me of America, it’s like a fusion going on,” he said. “It’s like a gado-gado.”
After gathering enough samples, Khalil came up for air around April and started to think about what he could do with the project.
“What are we going to do with these lovely photographs?” he asked.
The idea of a book then emerged.
“I see a lot of coffee-table books on Indonesian architecture,” he said.
“Rather than going for the usual subjects, which are the Bali-type house, the Dutch bungalows or the vernacular houses like in Manado, Toraja or Minangkabau, why don’t we do something that’s never been done, this 1950s nation-building style?”
The book itself will be comprised of photos by Khalil and a comprehensive study by Frances, who said she had also thought about publishing a book on the architectural style a while back, but never did.
In 2003, France wrote an article on Jengki for the Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, better-known as DoCoMoMo, an international organization interested in documenting and conserving modern architecture.
“It should have been, at that point, made into a book, but I didn’t have the leisure of time,” she said. “My personal hope is to not only tell why Jengki is important but also to show the intrinsic beauty in the forms of this architectural style.”
Khalil and Frances have finished a dummy version of the book project.
“The dummy book is about 12 sites [of Jengki buildings], there’s a little introduction, the background to the movement, the character of the style and why it’s important for the region and Indonesia,” Khalil said.
The two consider the dummy book a “synopsis to a larger project,” as they plan to publish a lengthier and more in-depth book, one that surveys the existence of Jengki architecture from Aceh to Papua.
“We want to capture styles, morphology and building use of Jengki,” explained Khalil, “but also have the changes as it evolves from Jakarta and the big cities into the smaller cities, and its physical manifestation as it spreads geographically across the country through time.”
Adji Damais is a renowned cultural observer in Indonesia. He is aware of Khalil and Frances’ ongoing project, and speaks highly of it.
“It’s about time someone observed and studied this architecture style,” the 67-year-old said. “This is one of the first national architecture styles — one that is accepted in many cities and areas across Indonesia.”
He said that although there are just a few left in big cities like Jakarta and Bandung, Jengki buildings can be found in other places in Java, including Yogyakarta, Solo and Semarang. Cities outside Java, such as Biak, Makassar and Balikpapan, are also home to Jengki structures.
Adji commended the project for its ability to document the remnants of a historical architecture movement, particularly in light of the many Jengki buildings already erased from history.
“This is for the sake of the history of art and architecture,” he said.
“People need to learn to respect the architecture of the past, and to adjust it to life at present.”