The Hi(story) in Between Old Buildings

"What is this place? Is it a conservation site? A first glance makes me think that it is not." A spontaneous question posed by my friend, an architecture student from Japan, while visiting several conservation sites in Yogyakarta. At the time, we were enrolled in a workshop concerning the preservation of cultural heritage related to architecture. We had the opportunity to visit several government protected sites, because of their status as a "Heritage Building". Besides visiting more familiar sites, such as Kotagede (an old city of the former capital of the Sultanate of Mataram), Malioboro (a road that was constructed as an imaginary axis between the South Coast, the Jogja Palace and Mount Merapi) and Kotabaru (a Dutch colonial neighborhood), which are more popular tourist destinations, this activity also allowed us to set foot for the first time in areas with royal histories, such as Imogiri (a royal graveyard complex), Pakualaman (a minor Javanese princely state within the Sultanate of Yogyakarta), and the Dalem Jeron Benteng Mangkubumen (an area around Jeron Benteng given to the Royal Family's relatives). My friend expressed this curiousity as we walked around Kotabaru. She was quite confused as to what conservation areas in Yogyakarta should have looked like, because to her the sites we visited did not seem outstanding, but rather ordinary and very much part of everyday life. Her confusion made me realize that many people in Yogyakarta are actually not aware of heritage sites, let alone the histories behind them, but also that this, in a way, could be an advantage.

Between Two Gates Kotagede. Photo by Brigita Murti, 2019.

Besides revealing the buildings themselves as well as the areas they were situated in, the heritage sites we visited also presented something else; the life that takes place in them. People are still living and working in these buildings, they use them despite their official predicate as cultural heritage. When compared to cultural heritage sites in other countries, this is rather exceptional, because there, heritage sites are usually isolated from everyday life and treated as solidified material testimonials of the past. They undergo special treatment in relation to building conservation, with very strict measurements regarding the maintenance and preservation of cultural and historical values, as if they are an object on display in a museum. In contrast, Kotagede for example, shows a lively coexistence somewhere between a heritage site and a local neighborhood. With Dutch and traditional Javanese style architecture as a backdrop, the local residents carry out their daily activities, undisturbed by the many tourists visiting and taking pictures, as if they are part of the show. Another example is that of the houses in the area of ​​Dalem Jeron Benteng Mangkubumen. Once, this area was built as a royal residence formerly called Dalem Kadipaten. At present, several buildings in the Dalem Mangkubumen complex are being used by the Mataram Foundation to organize education programmes for the University of Widya Mataram. As time went by, people living in and around the royal residential area built houses without permission, slowly changing the formation of the site. The royal residence is not visible anymore, but behind the houses still lies a hidden remnant of the past: the swimming pool that was once part of it.

Dalem Jeron Benteng Mangkubumen. Photo by Brigita Murti, 2019.

Cultural Heritage Buildings undergo a process of degradation over time, leading to a situation in which they are unable to fulfill the purpose for which they were built. If this continues, the building will become old and deteriorate, and will eventually be demolished or collapse of its own accord. When there are no forms of support nor financial means to restore heritage buildings, they are simply left to crumble, making way for pending demolition and new real estate developments. Which brings us to one of the core issues within the politics of heritage formation in Indonesia: who is responsible for Cultural Heritage Buildings? And, coming back to the question my friend posed, while wondering why certain places are conservation sites, she might well also have asked: what makes a building and/or site an object of conservation and cultural heritage? Who has the right or power to choose these objects (or instead leave them to deteriorate)? On what basis are these choices made, and why is it important? These questions go hand in hand with the conflicting desires for long-term preservation of past histories for future generations, alongside short-term economic growth, financial profit and cultural prestige for the region.


How Old Buildings are Treated

Until now, the existence of cultural and historical heritage buildings/sites (with or without official status) has been threatened, because they are still not given adequate attention from the local governments and communities who maintain ambiguous heritage policies, as well as from the owners who are discouraged in doing so by unfavorable regulations and financial constraints. A good example of an ambiguous governmental practice is Pesanggrahan Ambarukmo, a Cultural Heritage Building belonging to the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. Built in the first half of the nineteen centuries under Sultan Hamengkubuwono V, Pesanggrahan Ambarukmo was as a place of reception for the Sultan’s guests, and later turned into a restaurant and wedding location. In 1960, Gendok Kiwo, the left part of the building, was destroyed in order to build the Ambarukmo Hotel. Subsequently, in 2006, Ambarukmo Plaza, a shopping mall, crashed into Gendok Tengen, the right side of the building, due to illegal constructions that exceeded the predetermined site boundary. Ironically, both constructions were agreed upon by the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, which therefore should have helped protect and preserve the Cultural Heritage Building. When the planning for the construction of Ambarukmo Plaza was underway, the Sultan himself assured that he would supervise the construction and would not let the Pesanggrahan Ambarukmo be touched. Unfortunately, the old Javanese building was forced to unite with modernization. Half of Gendok Tengen was dismantled and the walls of Ambarukmo Plaza were perched on the roof of Pesanggrahan Ambarukmo. As a result, the inner wall of Gendok Tengen is no longer the original, as it was replaced by the Ambarukmo Plaza wall which mainly serves as an exit route for vehicles from the basement parking lot and is by no means  integrated with the architecture of the old building.

One of the main concerns felt by many owners of Cultural Heritage Buildings is the lack of substantial heritage funds. According to Tjahjono Raharjo, architecture lecturer and chairman of the Sobokartti Association, who researched the heritage developments in Kota Lama, the old city center of Semarang, many owners of old historic buildings have difficulty maintaining their property because they simply don’t have the money for it.[1] Therefore, some have objections when their building is designated as cultural heritage, and some even ask for this status to be removed. One of the main problems is that Cultural Heritage Buildings cannot be sold and cashed in as inheritance when the owner dies, while heirs are often unable to maintain the building and need the money instead. According to Rukardi, head of the Komunitas Pegiat Sejarah Semarang [Semarang History Activists Community], the lack of governmental funds for preserving Cultural Heritage Buildings has incited some owners to abandon their property on purpose in the hope that it would collapse by itself, after which they can construct a new building that carries no label and can easily be sold.[2]

Even though it has been said that there will be support and assistance to take care of heritage buildings, owners consider the heritage label a disadvantage, because of the restrictions imposed in the event of renovations. Moreover, based on the Law No. 11 of 2010 regarding cultural heritage policy, renovations that damage or destruct a Cultural Heritage Building are now considered a criminal act, resulting in penalties of imprisonment for a minimum of one year and a maximum of 15 years and/or a fine of at least IDR 500,000,000.00 (five hundred million rupiah) and a maximum of IDR 5. 000,000,000.00 (five billion rupiah).[3] This policy therefore significantly limits what owners can do with their own properties.

The attitude of the Sultan and the government in Yogyakarta reflects a pessimism towards cultural preservation. This is seen, quite alarmingly, in the number of cases where Cultural Heritage Buildings were sacrificed in order to erect generic commercial buildings under the guise of economic interests that would help fund projects in relevant regions. But this (often opportunistic) economic gain goes hand in hand with the loss of valuable, historically relevant buildings that can never be replaced, and thus with the erasure of local cultural identity. Historical buildings can be seen as both a witness and as tangible evidence for what happened in the past. Their maintenance also enables the continuation of the histories they carry, allowing them to move into the future. Heritage buildings and historical sites play a role in connecting histories and stories of the past. When they disappear, the values ​​that existed within them are subsequently displaced or lost, often overwritten by new modern buildings that pay little attention to their context and environment. It is important for history to continue to live in something material, but equally so to have materials (objects, buildings, sites) on which we can project a history. In other words, materials that can function as mediators for public discussion, imagination and the continuous revaluation of values and identities.

Conservation activities in historic buildings and areas assist not only in preserving and maintaining architectural objects, but also in protecting cultural and communal values ​​in the everyday life of the wider community. In Semarang, the historical colonial area of Kota Lama has been revived for economic purposes and developed into a popular tourist destination. In order to maintain and preserve the heritage buildings, this has been seen as a very beneficial strategy for both the residents and government. Yet the way this revitalization is coordinated and implemented has all the characteristics of a gentrification process. The question is then how can we find a model for heritage conservation and preservation that uses forms of tourism and education to support the local economy without compromising the qualities of local daily life?


Old Buildings in Kaliurang

Kaliurang is a natural tourist area in Yogyakarta, known for its refreshing climate and majestic scenery of the Merapi volcano and its surroundings. Compared to other neighboring villages Kaliurang has remarkably escaped the disasters of multiple volcanic eruptions, which is why its original layout has been preserved so well. The village was established as a hill station and summer holiday resort for the Dutch who sought to escape the warm tropical climate of Yogyakarta. Many colonial bungalows are still present, witnessing both the history of the village’s establishment as a colonial retreat area, and its development into the tourist destination it still is today. Together with the beauty of the surrounding nature and the unique local cuisine, the bungalows form a main feature of the village. What is less known, however, is that Kaliurang was the backdrop for a series of important negotiations in the prelude to Indonesia's independence.

In 1946-1949, when several conflicts between the Netherlands and Indonesia emerged, a number of negotiations for independence were held. One of these moments led to the Perundingan Kaliurang [Kaliurang Agreement]. The Perundingan Kaliurang negotiations took place on January 13, 1948 between the Republic of Indonesia and the Komisi Tiga Negara [Committee of Good Offices] which included Australia, Belgium and the United States. Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX made some of his properties, Pesanggrahan Ngeksigondo and Wisma Kaliurang, available for the preparations and the negotiations.[4]

These same negotiations also deliberated the Notulen Kaliurang [Kaliurang Manuscript] regarding the position of the Republic of Indonesia in the context of the Perjanjian Renville [Renville Agreement].[5] The conditions of the Renville agreement —a transitional period towards the formation of the RIS (United States of Indonesia), during which the Dutch would have full sovereignty over Indonesia, were questioned and problematized by the position of the Republic of Indonesia, which stood as an independent and fully sovereign country, backed up by its own army and direct relations with foreign countries. A member of the Committee of Good Offices, Prof. Graham, explained with his own words: “You are what You are, from bullets to ballots,” which was interpreted by the Republic as an option to maintain its independent position. On this basis, the Republic of Indonesia signed the Renville Agreement. However, when ratified on 17 January 1948, the agreement was unsuccessful in its attempts to resolve the disputes.[6] It instead recognized a cease-fire along the temporary border or Status Quo lijn [Status Quo line], which connected the Dutch positions, but the war didn’t stop and diplomatic efforts between the Netherlands and the Republic continued throughout 1948 and 1949.

Although Kaliurang has an interesting and important historical background, little attention has been paid to it. Some parties, such as BP3 DIY, the Sleman Regency Bappeda, and the Sleman Regency Tourism Office, have tried to address the importance of the village and its cultural heritage, but so far, the only building that has received special treatment is the Pesanggrahan Ngeksigondo.[7] There are still many other buildings that also deserve this same treatment. The Sleman Regency Tourism Office, however, sees Kaliurang only as an area for increasing tourism, and the cultural historical value of the village has no part in that, despite that fact that many changes could be made, such as promoting the colonial bungalows that bear witness to, for example, the struggle for Indonesian independence.


How Old Buildings Witness Hi(stories)

From the 1920s onwards the Dutch built several bungalows in Kaliurang, echoing architectural typologies they were familiar with, to cure their homesickness. Wisma Kaliurang, already built in the 1910s, was one of the first colonial buildings to be constructed in Kaliurang. Situated in the loji area [lodges area], it was built and owned by a Dutch family and later bought by Mr. Leh Meyer, a German businessman.[8] Mr. Leh Meyer turned the building into a commercial hotel. Following its success, the hotel incorporated a postal office, and was the first building with electricity. The commercial success of the Hotel Leh Meyer set an example for Kaliurang, and soon many lodgings followed.

Hotel Kalioerang, circa 1930 (Leiden University Libraries, Collection KITLV)

Mr. Leh Meyer left his hotel when the Japanese arrived during the second world war, after which it was managed by local residents who changed its name into Wisma Kaliurang.[9]  Wisma Kaliurang functioned as an Inn, commonly used for weekend events by young people and the community. Although it is still in use today, the building is currently in bad condition and has not been maintained or cared for a long time. Architecturally, there are additional annexes and shacks attached to it that cover the original building without regard to the original design of the facade or layout of the floor plan. Some parts therefore do not function and are left unused due to their bad condition. What is unknown to many people, however, is that during the Kaliurang Agreement, the Dutch delegation used Wisma Kaliurang as their place to reside.[10] The preservation of heritage buildings such as Wisma Kaliurang could unlock potential hi(stories) of the past and connect them to the present and the future. Wisma Kaliurang, along with the colonial buildings surrounding it, can be read just as much a symbol of the village’s role in the transition of power during Indonesia's revolution for independence as it can an object of layered meaning and function relating to colonial architecture, the history of Dutch occupation, and the way these together influenced the Kaliurang region.

How Old Buildings are Used by Local People

The majority of the original owners of the colonial buildings in Kaliurang were owned by the Dutch and after Independence the buildings were either sold to businessmen, investors and foreigners or taken over by the government. According to Angelica Herdy Andani, who conducted researched into the colonial bungalows for her book Strategi Pelestarian Bangunan Kolonial di Kaliurang (2011), today the majority of the bungalows are owned by the government of Yogyakarta, who took care of them after they were abandoned by their original owners. The new owners often delegated the responsibility of maintaining the bungalows to the "guards" and "caretakers" who had overseen this job since 1920-1940, when most of the buildings were built. The guards, generally local residents of Kaliurang, played a key role in maintaining and preserving the bungalows, not only passing on the work from generation to generation but also in transmitting the hi(stories) that surround these buildings. Since they have such extensive knowledge of the buildings, they respect that what they have been guarding is of cultural importance.

When the owners are not there, the buildings are generally rented out, an activity that is managed by the guards and caretakers, ensuring an ongoing liveliness in the village and giving the buildings another function and purpose. The coming and going of visitors leaves traces of use and gives the buildings a spirit. Furthermore, to ensure the houses are in good condition, the guards regularly carry out small repairs and maintenance duties. In doing so, the guards independently develop the bungalows, preserving its elegant characteristics without conserving it directly as a specific and solidified monument.

While conducting research in Kaliurang as well as following the process of the 900mdpl biennale, I felt that the role of the local community in preserving the hi(stories) and buildings of the village to be more meaningful and impactful than that of the government or the actual owners of the buildings themselves. In the case of BP3 DIY, which conducted research on the Pesanggrahan Ngeksigondo from 1984-1985, the achievements obtained were still very limited. The research therefore became more of a technical feasibility study focusing only on a single building in the village ensemble, resulting in a report on restoration recommendations.[11]

Meanwhile, after seeing the 2nd 900mdpl exhibition in 2019, which used the loji area as its main location, the local people became aware of the touristic potential for this area, while at the same time recognizing the danger of its destruction by developers, investors and big hotel chains. One of the local community organizations, Kaliurang Explore, wanted to develop a tour that explores the colonial houses and their hi(stories). Recently they discovered that the PPAY site (one of the bungalow sites in the loji area), was in danger of being sold and demolished for the development of a new business. Out of a sense of responsibility they have since been fighting against it, hoping to prevent the owner from selling the building so that it can be looked after by the local community.

I think crossing paths with historical buildings and sites —whether they are the colonial bungalows of Kaliurang or the royal sites in Yogyakarta, and whether they are officially acknowledged as heritage or not— could be a great opportunity to raise awareness for the untold histories and stories of the past and provide insight into local and global constellations of the present. As we have seen from the different examples discussed, it is the people themselves who play an important role in maintaining the historical buildings they inhabit, yet the ways in which this is done differs from place to place and responsibility is often undertaken for different reasons.

The examples of the neighborhoods around Antara Dua Gerbang in Kotagede and Dalem Jeron Beteng in Yogyakarta show that people have adapted the historical buildings they inhabit by taking care of them and appropriating them over time. However, in contrast to what was achieved by the local community of Kaliurang, who naturally defended the loji area in its original state, the pressure for housing in the city urged for the construction of “new” buildings often built without permission or regulation. This “building rush”, which started in the 1980s when the Indonesian economy was rapidly growing, created dense and organically grown neighborhoods in which historically important sites were often pushed to the background and slowly erased from sight. A process that still continues today.    

Kota Lama in Semarang confronts us with the dangers of falling into the trap of international heritage regulations that often are disconnected with local realities, resulting in gentrification, mass tourism and the loss of meaning. However, the strategy for the revitalization of Kota Lama, which is based on tourism as a model to generate economic revenue, ensuring the costs for maintaining the buildings are covered, offers a potential solution. But of course, only when it avoids gentrification and involves the local community who have far more of an understanding of the buildings and the hi(stories) in the area. Tourism can be combined with other aspects, for instance different forms of education. The tour envisioned by Kaliurang Explore, for example, still allows for the bungalows to function as a villa or guesthouse. The case of the loji area in Kaliurang, is a good example of a community based cultural heritage strategy that combines the aspects of everyday life activities, a financial model, and preservation. It is not arbitrarily taken over by the government or large developers in pursuit of a heritage label and financial gain, but instead undertaken out of the responsibility for the preservation of buildings that carry important histories and stories of the past.

[1] “Mengapa sulit melindungi bangunan cagar budaya di Semarnag?”, BBC News Indonesia, August 5, 2015,

[2] “Mengapa sulit melindungi bangunan cagar budaya di Semarnag?”, BBC News Indonesia, August 5, 2015,

[3] Law No.11 of 2010 about Cultural Heritage, Chapter XI of Criminal Provisions

[4] Angelica Herdy Andani, "Strategi Pelestarian Bangunan Kolonial di Kaliurang" (Thesis, Gadjah Mada University, 2011), 26.

[5] Ensiklopedi Umum (PENERBIT KANISIUS, 1973), 2.

[6] Britannica Encyclopedia, Renville Agreement,

[7] Angelica Herdy Andani, 6.

[8] The ​​higher located colonial part of Kaliurang is referred to by the local inhabitants as the loji area (lodges area); Angelica Herdy Andani, 67.

[9] Angelica Herdy Andani, 67.

[10] Angelica Herdy Andani, 67.

[11] Angelica Herdy Andani, 6.