Art Deco, a movement that married minimalist shapes and geometrical motifs, is best associated with Miami, New York, Shanghai, or Helsinki. Less conspicuous among those cinematic conurbations is Bandung, the capital of West Java. A three-hour drive from Jakarta, this tropical outpost may not have the size or sparkle of its larger foreign brethren, but it does have a wealth of architectural wonders calling back heritage enthusiasts time and time again.
In Malaysia or Singapore today, the name “Bandung” elicits memories of weekend-long shopping sprees. The city is home to countless outlet stores, particularly those selling shoes. But the city wasn’t built on an empire of sneakers and stilettos.
Over the mountains and luminescent paddy fields blows a soft breeze. Bandung, a city with one of Java’s most pleasant climates, welcomes visitors with its cool embrace. It’s no wonder that, during colonial times, the Dutch had dreamt of turning this place into Indonesia’s capital. While the change never came to be, the infrastructure of a rising pluralistic city took shape.
In the former Dutch East Indies, Dutch and Indonesian architects set to work transforming the city. The height of their activity took place between 1900 and 1940. With tree-lined avenues, a multitude of parks, and elegant streets, Bandung was given the nickname “The Paris of Java.” According to US-born Frances B. Affandy, former executive director of the Bandung Heritage Society, the city boasts about 500 Art Deco buildings, an astounding figure for any metropolis.
Indeed, Art Deco stipples the city. The omnipresence of buildings constructed in the style has a dissolutive effect — they have become almost invisible to Bandung’s citizens. Kids attend school in a structure made brick by brick in the 1920s. Locals sip milkshakes and coffee in a small shop with bold geometrical lines. At the most prestigious university in the area, the Institut Teknologi Bandung, students file in to the 90-year-old auditorium each morning. The novelty of the architecture sinks in to the structure of routine.
Despite an ostensible lack of knowledge concerning Bandung’s architectural history, locals have nevertheless fashioned their lives around their iconic heritage buildings. Each evening, a joyful crowd of young people gather around Gedung Sate, so named because the spire of its roof suggests the shape of a satay skewer. Built in 1920, the white neo-classical structure, now the office of West Java’s governor, shows classical Hindu-Buddhist elements entwined with Art Deco details. Apart from its historical importance, it does double-duty as Bandung’s preferred spot to snap a selfie.
The heritage/photo-op combination continues at the Gedung Merdeka, the independence hall that stood witness as Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands. Today, it’s a recurrent background in cell phone shots — especially so among teenagers, seeing as Gedung Merdeka is just a few minutes by foot from Braga Road, a popular destination for young adults.
This street used to be the centre of commercial life in the 1920s. In fact, it might have been the inspiration for the city’s comparison to Paris, thanks to long lines of shops that recall the grandeur of Europe. Now, only fading signage above a tailor shop bearing “Paris” suggests its prestigious past.
Although boutiques have relocated to shopping malls and the vacated premises have been turned into small restaurants or music clubs that attract groups of youth counter-culture, not all sites have conceded to the times. In an old bakery shop called Sumber Hindangan Bakerij, counters and chairs date back to the late 1940s — and so do, perhaps, some of the employees. If the throwback style doesn’t attract visitors, then the sweet, buttery smell of baked goods will. In a parallel street, the owner of Aroma Paberik still uses machines made in 1936 to grill coffee beans, and the advertising on its coffee bags hardly seem to have changed from the golden days, either.
From anachronistic imagery to shop workers transplanted from days gone by, Bandung has a fun side. The city is rich with incredible architectural details that lend the city its charm. Near the Institut Teknologi Bandung, Dutch architect Henri Maclaine Pont let his imagination run wild in the construction of villas. The “On Thuis Villa” (today, the University’s Department of Mining) adds a playful surprise with its disproportionate roof. Visitors are often equally astonished upon viewing a huge roof crowning another of Pont’s achievements, the Villa Merah, named for the vivid colours of the bricks used to build it.
There are so many fantastic buildings around Bandung that doing triage — which to view, which to skip — can be a true challenge. One not to miss is Villa Isola. Perched at the top of a hill, the villa was built by Bandung’s most famous architect, C.P. Wolff Schoemaker, in the 1920s. With its soft curves and rounded windows, it looks like a lost ship among a sea of green. This setting is pure Schoemaker. His skill lay in the way he blended Dutch Expressionism with Indonesian influences, mostly from Sundanese (West Java) and Batak (North Sumatra) cultures.
Among some of his other masterpieces in Bandung are the Cipaganti mosque, which mixes Moorish, Sundanese, and Art Deco styles, and the Kologdam Building, which originally served as the home of the annual trade fair and is crowned by three giant sculptures of a nude male, an image seemingly at odds with the country’s conservative underpinnings.
A trip to Bandung is a plunge into a bygone era of architecture. Even some of its hotels capture the lavish spirit of Art Deco, including the recently built IBIS Style. The trendy property has preserved its glass doors etched with past titles “Hotel Wilhelmina” and “Hôtel des Pays- Bas” — a symbol of Bandung’s blend of old and new, indigenous and imported.