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The Appearances of Memory: mnemonic practices of architecture and urban form in Indonesia.

The Appearances of Memory: mnemonic practices of architecture and urban form in Indonesia

By Abidin Kusno

Durham: Duke University Press 2010

Pp: xi + 332

Price: US$24.95 pb.

The Appearances of Memory is the second book by the now renowned scholar of the Indonesian city, Abidin Kusno. The book itself--a compilation of separate articles and book chapters--is a departure from his first book, Behind the Postcolonial (2000). His first book more explicitly develops the theme of the city as a framework for displacement through which the Suharto government suppressed the popular take-over of the street that had prevailed in the fifteen years following independence (1949/50). This current book, at least in its consideration of the post-Suharto period (1998-2010), gives attention to the possibilities for incorporation and synthesis now taking place in the city through its architecture.

The book focuses on Jakarta's built environment and its potential to act as an 'unknowing host for a return of the past' and allow for a 'rethinking of histiography'. Kusno analyses a number of examples of architecture that attempt an incorporation of otherwise excluded or marginalized social forms in the city. This new incorporative built environment includes middle class housing concepts that are based on an idea of the more rudimentary kampung (low income urban neighbourhood) home, public commemorations by the ethnic Chinese that attempt to deal with their traumatic experience of May 1998, and middle class housing and shopping complexes that offer an inclusion of the urban poor. Yet, through his discussion of inclusive urban forms such as these, Kusno is able to demonstrate the essentially partial, mediated and symbolic nature of social inclusion in an urban landscape still rife with social asymmetry and division. This perspective allows also for a sensitivity to the particularistic nature of any interpretation of the urban landscape, which, as he states, 'makes the interpretive reading of the image of the city so important'

The Appearance of Memory emerges out of a time of declining authoritarian rule, which is most typified by the decentralized Indonesian state of the post-Suharto period. It is out of this context that we can make sense of Kusno's claim that his book aims to dispense with the narrative of victimhood so often embedded in post-colonial studies. Kusno does this by 'asking how the politics of architecture and urbanism, instead of simply producing forms of dominance, are bound up with the making of new subjectivisms'. But Kusno's analysis of the post-colonial politics of architecture is not an analysis of the post-Suharto period; it is also a mining of the past in order to explain its manifestations in the present. This location of the past in the present helps explain his book's structure, which moves back and forth between historical periods and begins in the present.

The first chapter is where the departure from his first book is strongest. In contrast to his first book, which casts the street as a place of danger for the poor, the first chapter casts the street as taken over by their street stalls and informal economic activities. The second chapter is the strongest and somewhat challenges his ideas of the poor's' take-over of the street put forward in the first chapter. This second chapter offers a sustained analysis of Jakarta's recently completed busway system, which Kusno views as a modernist spectacle of order and a loud intervention (contra panopticon) that works as a powerful means for the institution of order in the city and the displacement of the poor from the street. The third chapter fits nicely with the second by showing how the middle class have returned to the city. Their return is by way of gated communities, middle class housing concepts based on kampung homes, and multi-complexes that symbolically incorporate the poor. In the case of the multi-complexes, Kusno cleverly gives a sense of the past by noting the once historic buildings upon whose site the multi-complexes now stand.

Chapter four deals with the remembering of the rapes and riots of 1998 and makes the point that an amnesic architecture and a celebration of Chinese culture in architecture functions to suppress the traumatic memory associated with the anti-Chinese violence of 1998. This chapter, however, moves beyond the issue of suppression. It does so by depicting the violence through the eyes of three women, whose characters Kusno takes from a popular short story published in 1999. In keeping with the theme of the past in the present, chapter five discusses the affinity between urban Indonesia's 1930s Empire-style architecture and the top-down currents of pembangunan, or development, that reconfigured the city during the 1980s and 1990s towards a grandiose landscape of plazas and hotels that dominate the skyline today. An interesting point touched on by Kusno in this discussion is that, within the triumphalism of the Empire-style, there exists a point of rupture that allows some expression to dissenting voices.

In chapter six, Kusno offers an account of the leftist revolutionary, Tan Malaka, to explicate the now well studied theme of movement or motion first inspired by the short stories of radical journalist Marco Kartodikromo. Chapter seven details the decline of the more free-wheeling spirit of urban movement in the wake of a regime of urban order and control typified by what Kusno calls the zaman normal, or time of normality, that prevailed throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Taken together, these two chapters identify an important shift towards authority and control in late-colonial urban society. This shift is not only important in itself but has provided Indonesianists with interesting parallels between the late-colonial regime and that of the thirty two year New Order regime that reconfigured the urban landscape so profoundly since 1965.

Chapter eight covers the well developed theme of the syncretism between Javanism and Islam through a number of revealing examples, which include an analysis of resistance at attempts to orient the Demak Mosque (Java's most iconic example of syncretic religious architecture) towards Mecca. The final chapter takes the unremarkable kampung guard post an urban form that exists on the margins of monumental architecture according to Kusno--to provide rich insight into the development of urban sovereignty and citizenship from the revolutionary period (1945-9) to the present. The guard post, or gardu, is the opening into the often unseen kampung world that houses the poor urban majority in Indonesia and Kusno astutely locates it as the architectural vehicle into an understanding of the graduated and changing nature of sovereignty in urban Indonesia

The Appearance of Memory is very much a revisionist work that deftly manages a plethora of knowledge and detail about the Indonesian city to provide new insight into its dynamics. The book is full of pithy summations that deftly capture well developed themes in Indonesian sociological studies, but, more importantly, it contextualizes these themes through insightful analysis of architectural forms.

Robbie Peters

University of Sydney
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Author:Peters, Robbie
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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