This article first appeared on VICE Indonesia
After gaining independence in 1945, the country’s elites, architects, and engineers ran wild with their imagination and created a new style of buildings called Jengki—taken from the word “Yankee”—in a celebration of newfound freedom and luxury.
Tariq Khalil, a Scottish-born natural scientist turned photographer, have spent the last 10 years traveling around Indonesia to discover the remnants of the post-independence Indonesian culture often overlooked by many: unique buildings inspired by clashing European and American architectural styles that have long gone out of style.
Khalil’s book Retronesia: The Years of Building Dangerously provides a sort of time travel to the early years of post-independence Indonesia, where everything, including buildings, seemed to have boundless possibilities.
I took a walk with Khalil in Blok M, a neighborhood in South Jakarta to look at some Jengki-style buildings and talked about the inspiration behind his book, the link between Jengki-style buildings to Dangdut music and Hermes bags, and what those unique buildings meant to Indonesia.
VICE: Hi Tariq. So how did your obsessions with Indonesia’s weird buildings come to be?
Tariq Khalil: It all started around 15 years ago when I went to Indonesia on a vacation. That’s also the first time I listened to Dangdut. When I first heard Dangdut, I was like, what the fuck, it’s Indian drums man, it’s tabla, what are you doing with my Indian drums? But there’s this weird guitar, with all the fuzz, and the Indonesian singing. Then I thought, what the fuck is this? This is amazing. And then couple of years later, I went to Bandung. My friend showed me all of the stuff, where to eat, where to live. And then at the end of the day she showed me an Indonesian building from the 50s. I saw the building and thought, what the fuck? This is just the same with Dangdut. Weird elements coming together, and I think the beauty is the whole thing together.
So why did you decide to take photos of them?
So the first photography project I did was an exhibition on my family’s homes. I asked my parents where or how they lived in India, because we were refugees from Pakistan. I wanted to find my dad’s house, my mom’s house, my aunts’ and uncles’ in India and compared all of those house and photographed them. Then I was asked to do this exhibition on these houses. I was always interested in houses, but not for its architectural value. A house for me always has its own story.
For the Retronesia project, I started to just taking the photographs. Then I realized, shit, these photos don’t have stories. So I went to academics to ask them, and they don’t know anything man, they just gave me bullshit about architecture, and I don’t have any background on architecture. There’s no point on asking academics.
The architects are good for showing you the stuff on architecture, identification, and all that stuff. And the owner will give you all the stories. So I just knocked on their door, asking them, “how do you get these buildings? Do you know who build them?” And then all of these names started coming up.
But how did you find the right buildings and the right people to talk to?
I started with the Chinatowns and old markets, then I talked to the grannys, because there might be some rukos and their houses. But it’s quite hard to find because buildings get changed and renovated and all.
Did you notice a trend with these buildings?
Yes, because who got the money? The business owners have the money, they’re sophisticated. The first generation of those businessmen were living above the ruko, and then after independence they got all of this cash flowing in, and they probably thought, “We got this money, so let’s get a house and a garden and a dog, let’s do this with the Dutch style but different.”
When I started to speak to people living townhouses in provincial towns or fading villas in mountain resorts, I began to understand these were serious monuments of wealth towering above a landscape marked by economic crisis.
Many ethnic groups in Indonesia have had their own unique architectural styles. Do you think the Jengki style is a defining architectural style of Indonesia?
I think this is the first national style, full stop. Because it’s spread all over the place, and Indonesia is in charge, you can call this the first national style. First national style for certain kind of people. Because only few people could afford to build this kind of houses Most of it was a copy from something else because usually the owner is the one who’s fucking around. Copy this, add this. But it’s a collaboration with the builders, architects and the owner. This collaboration makes this buildings so amazing, it’s like Dangdut in concrete.
So what do you think of Indonesian architecture now?
The irony is right now there are many architects, but they’re boring. Indonesia is more interesting without any architect, there were more experimentation. The mixing of this Jengki stuff was more interesting, because there were fewer rules.
How does the Jengki architectural style represent the life of Indonesians in the past?
So basically you got these Indonesian traditional style, American modernism, and then the Dutch Indies style. The American is mutating all the traditional stuff, but also mutating the Indies stuff. So the mixing zone is the Jengki stuff. You can have Jengki traditional and Jengki American art deco. So this mutating stuff what makes this Jengki style is interesting, showing you how Indonesians were playing around with their new toy.
The country was still coming together like a young volcano, it’s getting bigger and evolving. This architecture was at the right place and at the right time, reflecting who is making Indonesia. The architecture was the Gucci handbag, it’s the Hermes handbag, it's my private jet. Having a Jenki was like having a Hermes. it’s not for ordinary people. It’s a statement architecture to celebrate and to show, “I’ve made it."
What do you think is the purpose of this book?
I think you can use RETRONESIA as the urban archeology of Indonesia from day one. To show who had Indonesia, who controlled Indonesia, who’s the high end. The architecture is the blanket, but inside is what is going on in this country There’s no point on asking about the architecture issue, what’s really important is the customer, who you building for, thats the real retro story. If you talk about the architecture only, only few people are interested. If you look at the lives of these people, that's what interesting.
This article originally appeared on VICE ID.