Architectural influences

Thomas Karsten pasar-gede-soloThus far I have designed and built three buildings, which are, for reasons of budget constraints and inexperience, not as spectacular as I would have liked them to be. Nevertheless I am very proud of how my hotel turned out to be, and I know I am capable of designing buildings that are truly special.

Studying architecture this day and age is quite a challenge, for there are very few architects left in the world. Allow me to explain. Architects are primarily artists who have to know a lot about engineering, in the same way a painter needs to know a lot about paint, but isn’t a chemist. Like a painter or a sculptor, it is the architects’ job to make a building that is more than the sum of its materials, more than simply walls and roofs, but a building that is a work of art.

Thomas Karsten pasar-gede-solo

Simply applying paint to a canvas does not make one an artist, nor does the engineer who only knows how to erect walls and roofs become an architect. To become an architect one needs to develop his own style, and if he’s good, style can further evolve to become a language.

At present, few if any architects manage to reach that level. What they manage to achieve at most is incorporating some recognizable gimmick: a certain shape, material or colour that is repeated in all of their creations. Which is hardly more than a signature. If we compare such buildings to a book, walls and roofs resemble the pages, and by the signature we know who made it, but the pages are blank.

Architecture is the combination of shapes, colours, elements, ornaments, art. Buildings which lack any style are soulless, forgettable or worse: unnoticeable.

Therefore, for inspiration I have to go back in time to see how real architects use to do it. Not to copy them but to learn from their artistic processes and emulate the method, not the result.

My main interests are architects from the art nouveau, art deco, futurism and early modernists period. In particular I’m interested in buildings from the colonial era, which were designed to deal with tropical conditions in the same way I designed my hotel with certain features for passive climate control. What’s more, architects who designed buildings in the French, Dutch or English colonies enjoyed more freedom and less constraints than in their home countries, which let to quite a few spectacular creations, many of which seem to have been forgotten or overshadowed by political crimes.

The history of the Dutch East Indies is one that touches on a personal level. It was from there that part of my family originated. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother, who had a house full of old furniture, art and strange fascinating objects that were even more fascinating to a child. Every time we stayed over, my brother and I would go to her room in the morning, climb in her bed and ‘force’ her to tell stories. She was a productive artist who painted most unusual dream landscapes filled with spirits and fantasy creatures from her Indonesian upbringing.

A picture from the family archive, my great-grandmother

The history of the Netherlands and Indonesia go back 400 years, but for much of this period the Dutch possessions consisted of a few ports cities, fortresses and trading posts. Most of the land was ruled by indigenous royal families. It was only during the 19th century that these often ruthless dynasties were overthrown for both economical and humanitarian reasons. This offered tremendous opportunities for engineers and architects: roads and railroads were built, hospitals, water treatments plants, schools, marketplaces, governments buildings, entire cities had to be made. Oil was drilled, rubber, tobacco and tea plantations were set up, and contagious diseases were eradicated. This economic development attracted capable men to the colonies who soon mixed with locals and started families and business ventures. The middle and upper-classes thus formed demanded entertainment venues, theaters and cinemas to rival those in Europe and the US, and villas made to the highest standards.

When Indonesia became independent, ethnic cleansing campaigns forced everyone who wasn’t considered ‘Indonesian’ to leave, which meant hundreds of thousands of people of mixed blood, Dutch, Chinese and Indian families had to leave their motherland. It included my grandmother and her family. The newfound dictatorship led by Sukarno plunged the country into a period of poverty and starvation, and massacred over a million of its own people during the decades that followed.

Many of the buildings from the booming prewar years crumbled, but thanks to the sheer beauty and quality a large number survived. The following documentary from 1996 shows the unique “Dutch tropical style”: a mixture of international and Dutch styles, local architectural influences and unique solutions by local architects. It is mostly in Dutch but the images speak for themselves:

In this video one can see quite a few buildings in the Dutch Tropical style, as you can see it is hardly a single style but more a general name to categorize the creative wealth of architecture that was allowed to exist in this new world:

Hard to believe these images were shot when World War II was already raging Europe.

More to come on my favourite architecture!

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