Jakarta’s upscale Menteng neighbourhood now hosts a new arts, cultural and dining venue – and it’s called Kunstkring. Text: Jim Read. Photos: Tugu
“I passed it almost every day … and noticed how beautiful and prestigious it was, and the potential it had as a heritage centre.”
Many will be familar with the Kunstkring Building in its earlier guises as the Central Jakarta Immigration Department, Buddha Bar or Bistro Boulevard, but maybe not as the recently reopened, mixed-used heritage centre it became on the very day it turned 99-years-old. Construction of the building commenced in 1913, with design by Dutch architect PAJ Moolen. In the early days it was surrounded almost entirely by fields and must have been a very notable feature in the local landscape.
Jakarta Governor, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was at the relaunch party as the guest of honour of the building’s new tenant, Tugu Hotels and Restaurants Group. The group is well known for its four heritage-themed restaurants in Jakarta, as well as its boutique hotels in Malang, Blitar, Bali, and Lombok. Tugu Group, together with Lingkar Seni Indonesia, will liaise with artists and arrange exhibitions, while Annette Anhar, who runs the Tugu Group’s Jakarta restaurants, is supervising operations on behalf of the group. Its reputation in showcasing Indonesian culture and heritage was a major factor in persuading DKI (the Jakarta administration and the building’s owner) to grant a 10-year renewable tenancy to the group in the face of stiff competition from other would-be occupants. Annette is no stranger to the Kunstkring Building. “I passed it almost every day when I first came to live in Jakarta (in 2004) and noticed how beautiful and prestigious it was, and the potential it had as a heritage centre,” she says.
The imposing edifice originally housed the Fine Arts Circle of the Dutch East Indies and was inaugurated on April 17, 1914 by Governor General Alexander Willem Frederik Idenburg. The building, now renamed Tugu Kunstkring Paleis, subsequently passed through many hands over the years and was used for many purposes, some more controversial than others. It also lay unoccupied for years at a time, during which fixtures and fittings would have been vulnerable to plunder by looters.
The Suzy Wong lounge takes its design theme from a film poster.
Initially aimed at Dutch expatriates, the centre subsequently broadened its appeal in the 1930s to target the wider local community and staged exhibitions of the work of world-class artists like van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin and Chagall. Under wartime Japanese occupation, the building functioned as the head office of Muslim organization Majelis Islam A’la Indonesia from 1942 to 1945.
from the restaurant waiting room onwards, every available space seems to be filled with furniture, artworks or handicrafts.
From 1950 to 1997 the building was used as the Central Jakarta office of the government’s Immigration Department, and in 1998, Tommy Soeharto, the youngest son of former president Soeharto, bought the building but it was left neglected, during which time window frames and stairs were stripped out by robbers. In 2003, the government bought back the building on the order of then Jakarta governor Sutiyoso. In late 2008, following an extensive internal refit, it was announced that the building was to house a nightclub owned by the international franchise chain Buddha Bar. Objections to the name and use of Buddha statues in the bar and restaurant eventually persuaded the city authorities to seal off the building in late 2010. After further refurbishment, the owners reopened the building in mid-2011 under a new name, Bistro Boulevard, with a restaurant and art gallery on the ground floor, and exhibition space above.
At the beginning of 2012, Tugu Hotels & Restaurants Group as potential tenant entered into negotiations with DKI, which wanted to ensure that renovations would respect the building’s design heritage and that usage would reflect its original function as a centre for art and culture.
The Tugu Group was able to occupy the building in mid-2012 and renovation work commenced in September. The building was reopened on April 17, 2013, the 99th anniversary of its original inauguration. It will continue to operate as a multifunctional centre, with fine-dining, accommodation and a gallery shop on the ground floor subsidizing an exhibition display space above. The Royal Ballroom can double as a venue for sit-down dining or a buffet with dancing, as its name suggests.
The gallery shop is much more than a simple souvenir stall one can often find in this kind of situation. It will be run on the principle of “celebrating creativity”, says Annette, with handicrafts and housewares for purchase, produced by craftspeople well-known for high quality. Wherever possible, a Jakarta theme will characterize the items on offer. It is planned that stock will be changed monthly. Upstairs, comprising a main room with many smaller rooms around it, will function as an exhibition space for contemporary artwork from both established and up-and-coming artists. New artists who show promise and potential will be encouraged by the waiving of display fees. There will also be an al fresco tea shop on the balcony.
When entering the premises, from the restaurant waiting room onwards, every available space seems to be filled with furniture, artworks or handicrafts. Most of the artefacts were previously stored in Tugu warehouses at various locations in Indonesia, explains Annette, and were awaiting a suitable time (and place) to be displayed.
The Suzie Wong bar/lounge, which lies adjacent to the Royal Ballroom, shows how well historical artefacts can be combined to produce a satisfying composite. Poster boards that originally promoted the 1960 romantic movie The World of Suzie Wong (starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan) dominate the walls at either end of the rectangular space. They also provide a comprehensive design rationale for the Chinoiserie and Javanese furniture and craft items that fill the room.
That task is still not over, for restoration and redecoration continue apace. Annette is now devoting almost all her available time to supervising the project. “There’s still a lot of work to do on the building,” she says.