Contemporary architecture in Jakarta can be charted in the utopian terms of the Five Pancasilas, the founding principles of modern Indonesia.

Jakarta is perhaps the truest realization of a post-colonial cosmopolis. Many former colonial capitals stage a rivalry between quaint traditional centers and desperation-driven peripheries. But Jakarta can be understood not as a dialogue with its former foreign overlords but rather as a fiercely insistent projection of Indonesian independence.

Geometry won’t save you in Jakarta. — Jeff Kipnis1 

Kipnis had a point: in Jakarta, geometries inundate you. All manner of stacked boxes, saddled peaks, and elliptical extrusions crowd the skyline of Indonesia’s capital, while throughout the city below there spreads a constant fractal surface of informal settlement. Tower designs that look like leftovers from other hyper-expansive cities seem to wash up here, at the ebb-tide of a few civilizations, like gargantuan discarded water bottles. In its glaring Global South disparities, Jakarta is akin to Rio or Johannesburg; yet those resemblances can hide more than they reveal. Like Houston, Jakarta is a boom-and-bust city;2  like Mexico City, Jakarta is hectic and culturally dense; like … I don’t know — after two years here, Jakarta is no longer a simile to me. It remains, however, a constant complement to my hometown of Los Angeles, a personal trans-Pacific polarity. We moved to Jakarta in November 2014 when my wife began a diplomatic appointment posted to the Association of South East Asian Nations. For the first few months, I wished almost daily that ASEAN had been headquartered in Bangkok or Singapore or Hanoi. Then Jakarta, and its local Betawi cool, started to sink in. 3

This is not simply or strictly a gangster cool, though ever since Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, and again with the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, Jakarta has loomed in the Western cultural imaginary as a tropical noir, an urban heart of darkness. Joseph Conrad actually did write a 1915 novel set on Java, called Victory: An Island Tale, and, in tandem with the Dutch classic of political awakening, Max Havelaar, anonymously penned in 1860, it portrays Indonesia as the Asian colony in extremis. Much like the films, both novels are rife with complex cultural misunderstandings, moments of startling clarity, and undercurrents of unfathomable cruelty. Yet none of these works delves much into the spatial character of Batavia, old or new. In contemporary culture Jakarta registers now as a vague haven of criminal reinvention (see Blackhat, by Michael Mann), just as Los Angeles did for much of its history, bathed in the seductive shadows of ill repute. In both cities, though, one finds as much sunshine as noir — and in Jakarta far more day-to-day consideration than corruption.

Abetting their outlaw casting, Jakarta and Los Angeles are both cities of systems, rather than boundaries. Indeed, Jakarta is shaped by the same two dynamic forces as Los Angeles, and their corollary infrastructures: waterflow, though measured in deluge rather than drought; and traffic, though more constant and intense here than in L.A.


  • 1. Caution to the author, SCI-Arc, October 29, 2014
  • 2. Houston’s flooding after Hurricane Harvey is another similarity that masks differences, as Jakarta, founded and well polderized by the Dutch, floods frequently but drains within hours.
  • 3. Deriving from the Javanese word for “Batavia,” Betawi is the term for Jakarta’s historical Indonesian ethnic group, identified in the 19th century as a creole of Javanese, Chinese, Muslim, and Portuguese Christian diasporas.