Designing Free Speech: West Irian Liberation Monument

Revitalisation and beautification of the square which still leaves questions unanswered

Kelvin Andrian Winarta

In Indonesia, the history of public protests has been a long and winding journey. Today, many of these protests are confiscating roads and essential public space, often causing more destruction and nuisance than progressive change. It is hard to imagine that in the early days of independence public squares were established and designed as a dedicated site for freedom of speech. However, along with the changes of political power, design of these public squares can also be used to limit such activities, creating a pseudo-democracy with nominal freedom of speech but no place to voice it.

The Monument of West Irian Liberation had been the most prominent public square for such political activities. Built on the ground of Lapangan Banteng (Waterlooplein), the monument is situated at the epicentre of the bygone colonial Jakarta. This location helped the square in becoming a prominent setting for Jakarta’s greatest political movements (notably in the protest to dissolve parliament in 1952), even before the erection of the monument. In 1963, the square’s significance was further accentuated by the erection of its monument, celebrating Indonesia’s complete freedom from colonial ties after West Irian was reintegrated with the decolonised Indonesia. This monument commissioned by Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, and designed by his trusted architect, Friedrich Silaban, marked a new chapter of the square as an explicitly political space. It became a showcase of how different political orders conditioned its design and its effectiveness as a medium of free speech.

An ideal design for public space has to include several factors, above all accessibility, visibility, and a prominent location. The West Irian Liberation Monument ticked all those boxes. For a newly independent country, such dedicated space is needed to gather and distribute ideas from and to the public. Not only were many public demonstrations held in this area; the government also tends to proclaim its political views on the public square. Its prominent location and the proximity to many government institutions, in particular to the parliament building, supports this function of a platform for political communication. Visibility and accessibility from the road are also important factors, as the space is designed as an exposed field, making it easier for the public to see the protest from the road. This design allowed for political activities to be kept under control

The public square in 1980s being used as bus terminal (Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures / CC BY-SA)

However, the next chapter of Indonesian politics showed how political order challenged freedom of speech by limiting the public space. 1970 saw a new era of Indonesian political order, with an authoritarian government that would last for 32 years. During this era, freedom of speech and press was suppressed and public protests were deemed illegal. Along with the changes, West Irian Monument was transformed into a bus terminal, further limiting its function as a political and spatial medium. People lost the “publicness” of the space and were forced to protest illegally on the street. The condition was exacerbated by the relocation of many government buildings to Tanah Abang Area, along with the shifting of the political centre of Jakarta. The new parliament building was situated near a major thoroughfare with no open public space, rendering protests as destructive and invasive to the public’s daily activities. The peak of the conflict between the authorities and the public happened in May 1998 when disturbances marked the end of the authoritarian regime. During the protests, many public amenities were destroyed and personal property was raided.

These destructive tendencies proved the need for a well-designed and accessible public space in the city with constant political movement as Jakarta. But after the return of the right to protest in 1998, the popularity of the West Irian Monument never really came back. Fortified with the overbearing amount of trees and fences delimiting it from the rest of the city, it was no longer an effective location for protests. The monument was deteriorated and dirty, with crimes and vandalism occurring despite the busy streets surrounding the square. The loss of its prominence, public location and visibility, have forced protests to shift towards different areas. Many busy streets, private properties, and even human lives have been the victims of these uncontrolled and disorderly protests.

West Irian Liberation Monuments After 2018 Revitalization (source: /CC BY 2.0)

Revitalization of the complex came in 2018. With the cleaning of the monument and the addition of city forest with an amphitheatre in the middle of it, the square has once again been reinstated as a genuine public space. Yet the revitalization seemed to have fallen in love with the monumental value of the space itself, instead of its potential as a public square. While the planting of trees has helped the area to be more inviting for leisure, the positioning of the amphitheatre in the centre of the forested area has rendered the square isolated from its surroundings. The fences around the area left only small portions of the square visible from the road. This irony seems to be proven by people who tend to choose to protest on the road in front of the Ministry of Economy, located next to the square, instead of choosing the square itself. The nature of revitalisation and beautification of the square still leaves unanswered the question of the public nature and visual accessibility of a public space.

From building a new independent nation through the fall of authoritarianism and up to now, when the nation is slowly embracing the freedom of political expression, the role of protests has been indispensable. This is reflected in the design of public space. The case of West Irian Liberation Monument shows that design, redevelopment and renovation could support, hinder, or exacerbate this activity. The ability to design public spaces as part of the city instead as a walled garden would allow not only for the public to protest and voice their opinions in a safe and dignified environment, but also a space that would act as a forum for the government to talk to the citizens in a democratic way.

Text by Kelvin Adrian

Title photo by Jeromi Mikhael (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Kelvin Andrian is an Architectural Assistant practicing in Red Bean Architects, Singapore. He recently graduated and obtained his M.ARCH from NUS with his thesis about the film industry as a revitalization engine for Jakarta’s Old Town. His fascination on the junctions between architecture and other fields of study leads him to the exploration of politics, film, music as moving forces to architecture. This keen interest is channeled through film-making and writing. He has also given several talks about architecture and film.

Kelvin writes that for him, the Nonument! Project highlights the most basic property of architecture: that it does not exist in vacuum and is always influenced by time and context surrounding it, be it political situation, economic force, or cultural change.