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Sampoerna Strategic Square: Jakarta, West Java

It is not clear what the owner of Sampoerna Strategic Square is trying to achieve with the building’s revamp. Is he trying to copy the gardens of Buckingham palace or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Maybe his vision is somewhere in between. What is certain though is that the building’s new appearance is breathtaking, and not in a good way.

The lower parts of its towers have been removed and replaced with panels painted in a color that doesn’t match and Babylonian columns that have been added look out of place.
So far the building’s overhaul looks unsightly.

Some of you may think this is an unfair conclusion to make, considering Sampoerna Strategic Square is far from being Jakarta’s worst example of architecture.

But I have my reasons for singling out this building.

Huge constructions in the center of the city affect the eyes and souls of members of the public considerably. Buildings can either provide inspiration, or be nothing more than mistakes.

Before I continue to explain why these renovations are such a mistake, I will explain why I was driven to write this column.

I don’t have anything against the Sampoerna family who own the building. The family runs the Sampoerna Foundation, which is focused on improving education in the country. The family’s organization is indeed noble.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t bash the building.

The main reason I dislike the new-look Sampoerna Strategic Square is the fact that the destroyed part of the complex was once a well-used public space.

Before the revamp, the part of the complex overlooking Jl. Sudirman was a small, functional square. In it were a number of marble blocks for people to sit on while waiting for their buses.

While the blocks were not suitable for prolonged sitting and chatting, they were good enough for passersby wanting to rest their legs.

Every Saturday night, this public space was occupied by lovebirds and star gazers. Several times I passed the building on Saturday nights to witness this scene.

Quite often groups of young people would be gathered in the square in a circle, singing along to an old guitar being strummed.
Some time ago I asked a security guard about the people who gathered in the square. He told me they lived in the area surrounding the building, in places such as Karet and Setiabudi.

They generally were people who could not afford to have a chat over a fancy cappuccino at Starbucks.

The security guard also said he did not like the locals gathering in the square. However, he also admitted they never caused any serious trouble.

“Well, they throw their garbage here sometimes. But not that frequently,” he said.

Eventually, sensing an opportunity to make some extra money, street vendors started operating in the square every weekend.
Of course the city administration decided to prohibit them from trading in the area, and a wire fence was constructed around the square.

When the Sampoerna family purchased the building, they knocked down the lower part of it and constructed a barrier.

To the press, PT Buana Sakti, the building’s management, said a large green area would be created to replace the old public space.

“It will be the building with the largest green area in the city and its design will reflect a deep concern for the environment”, a Buana Sakti representative said.

While the new building’s green area will be a public space, it will have fences around it, restricting the extent to which it can be used by those it is meant to have been designed for.

There will be three access points into the area, but on the side overlooking Jl. Sudirman, there will be no access at all.

While I’m not crazy about star gazing, it seems the new design of the building has destroyed one of Jakarta’s rare free public spaces.

It is further proof of the wary relationship between different social classes in the capital. The old design of the building showed, albeit briefly, that a trusting relationship between building owners and passersby can be forged.

I’m not saying such relationships are easy to forge. Riots in the past in which people threw stones at buildings worsened the situation.

Nonetheless, for a short while watching the star gazers and lovebirds sitting in the small square made me believe that such relationships would be possible.

Now I will have to be happy with the high-fenced English-Babylonian-garden that has been built.

What other choice do I have? It is huge and it is central. One cannot really avoid noticing it.

Evi Mariani