Where this idea stems from
There is a journal article by Ragna Boden on the influence of the Soviet Union on Indonesia that details instances where aid was given between 1950 to the 1960s. One of the mentioned areas where aid was given and realized came in the form of a sports complex in an area in Jakarta called Senayan. At the center of that complex was a 100,000-seater stadium that served as a prestige project for the ASEAN games in 1962 and the first GANEFO games in 1964. A project that would realize, then President of Indonesia at the time, Sukarno’s architecture vision and at the same time show cooperation between the two ideologically different nations.
In a New York Times article, Joe Cochrane highlights the many monumental places that have clear, yet subtle traces of Soviet-inspired architecture. He highlights some of Jakarta’s important monuments, such as the National Monument, where the plaza surrounding it is reminiscent of Moscow’s Red Square, social realist-inspired reliefs on the base of the monument. Statues placed across Jakarta commemorating national values are directly designed and built by Soviet sculptors or evoke a style reminiscent of certain Soviet artists.
It is evident that in Sukarno’s approach toward building his nation, he gained direct finance from the Soviet Union or was inspired by the stylistic approach reminiscent of Soviet-influenced styles. Yet the reason for using such a specific architectural style has to do with his vision.
Sukarno’s Nation Building
Indonesia’s architecture during Sukarno’s presidency is a topic that has been written extensively by various authors. One extensive account is a journal article by Setiadi Sopandi that deals with the diverse range of influences that Indonesian architecture had in a period when the country was experiencing a point in history to find its architectural identity. Led by Sukarno’s indigenous syncretic approach to political discourse and focused on architect Friedrich Silaban’s development of his Modernist style of architecture. Which, as the article emphasizes, is a style influenced by a Modernist framework in an attempt to shift away from local and vernacular architectural forms and toward climate-based design. Both of their ideas culminated into an architectural identity that was relevant to Jakarta’s transformation as a modern city of independence and diplomacy to the international world.
The point to be made from summarizing this segment of modern development is to understand where Indonesia was going as a post-colonial country.
On one hand, as the article states, “Sukarno could very well be aware that modernist architecture didn’t mean participating in any political polarity. He could believe that modernist architecture was best understood as a manifestation of modern ideals and a vehicle of equality.”
Achieving political neutrality amongst global powers during the Cold War was one of Sukarno’s goals in his main objective of inspiring other ‘developing’ nations. This whole article by Sopandi argues for Silaban’s appointment in city planning to achieve an architectural language of modernity and equality through European modernist principles. Hence, as the argument goes, why it would be easy to assume that Sukarno made use of ‘socialist’ ideals.
A Detailed Look at Soviet Influence on Architecture
Despite Indonesia’s neutral stance on architecture, it cannot be ignored that the Soviets contributed to the image that Sukarno wanted to present for Indonesia as a postcolonial nation. Art historian Da Hyung Jeong’s essay, ‘Soviet Architectural Presence in Southeast Asia’, narrates the involvement of the Soviets in helping to build Jakarta’s grand stadium ‘Gelora Bung Karno’. Architects and engineers associated with the architectural collective ‘Mosproekt-2’ contributed to the construction of the stadium. In a book commemorating the 42nd year of the stadium, ‘From Gelora Bung Karno to Gelora Bung Karno’, the ring-shaped roof and facade were attributed to the ingenuity of the Soviets by Sukarno in his speech to fellow athletes on the 22nd of August 1962. The stadium is highlighted in the book to be one of the highlights of the collaboration between both governments.
In the same short essay by Hyung Jeong, there are other mentions of the influence that the Soviet Union had on some of Indonesia’s architecture. Oei Tjong An created a pharmacy (‘apotek’ in Bahasa Indonesia) in Semarang called the “Sputnik” which makes use of a proto-pop vocabulary. The obvious inspiration for its architecture was the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite. The book by Tariq Khalil, Retronesia: The Years of Building Dangerously, details how the pharmacy reflects the excitement of the space race with the development of science and technology in Indonesia during the 1950s. A pharmacy that saw the opportunity to manufacture medicine after the supply of Western medicines was nationalized and only available to a select few government officials and the elite.
Current Discourse on Soviet Influence
Here is evidence that Soviet influence has stemmed as a result of several factors: inspiration for a style of Modernism linked with nation-building, direct funding from the Soviet Union, and admiration for the values that the Soviets represented at the time. Although Indonesia remains fervent in its anti-communist sentiment, one cannot deny the influence of the Soviet Union or the styles associated with it that are woven into the urban fabric of the city.
Cochrane, J. ‘Across Indonesia’s Capital, a Legacy of Soviet-Inspired Design’. 4th of January. New York Times. [Online] [Accessed on 30th of October] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/04/world/asia/indonesia-jakarta-communist-monuments.html
Boden, R. (2008) ‘Cold War Economics: Soviet Aid to Indonesia’ in Journal of Cold War Studies, 10(3), pp. 110-128. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26922777
Executive Committee of Gelora Bung Karno. ‘Dari Gelora Bung Karno ke Gelora Bung Karno (From Gelora Bung Karno to Gelora Bung Karno (translated from Bahasa Indonesia to English))’. Jakarta: PT. Grasindo.
Jeong, D. (2020) ‘Soviet Architectural Presence in Southeast Asia’. 18th of November. Museum of Modern Art. [Online] [Accessed on 29th of October] https://post.moma.org/soviet-architectural-presence-in-southeast-asia/
Khalil, T. (2018) ‘Retronesia: Years of Building Dangerously’. 2nd ed., Jakarta: Kabar Media
Sopandi, S. (2009) ‘Indonesian Architecture Culture during Guided Democracy (1959-1965): Sukarno and the works of Friedrich Silaban’. In Vu, T. Wongsurawat, W. (eds.) ‘The Dynamic of Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture’. 1st ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 53-72
‘Fig. 2. R. I. Semerdzhiev, Iu. V. Raninskii, K. P. Pchel’nikov, and L. A. Muromtsev. Bung Karno Sports Arena, Jakarta, Indonesia. Completed 1962.’ in Jeong, D. (2020) ‘Soviet Architectural Presence in Southeast Asia’. 18th November. Museum of Modern Art. [Online] [Accessed on 29th of October] https://post.moma.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Fig.-2-scaled.jpg
Tsyganov, M. ‘Nikita Kruschev (left) and President Sukarno (right) Overlook the Model for the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium’. Private archive of Igor Kashmadze. [Online image] [Accessed on 29th of October 2023] https://failedarchitecture.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/7.-Nikita-Kruschev-left-and-President-Sukarno-right-Overlook-the-Model-for-the-Gelora-Bung-Karno-Stadium.jpg.
Khalil, T. (2018) ‘View of Apotek Sputnik’s curvaceous counters and cabinets’. In: Khalil, T. (2018) ‘Retronesia: Years of Building Dangerously’. 2nd ed., pp. 82-83. Jakarta: Kabar Media.