This is a feature written for “Cultural Wonders of Indonesia”.
This article is an excerpt of the upcoming publication.
Istiqlal Mosque (‘Freedom’/ ‘Independence’ mosque) is one of essential parts of the Lapangan Merdeka (Freedom Square) along with the Monumen Nasional/ Monas and several other important (symbolic) structures; the Presidential Palace, the National Monument, the National Museum, the National Gallery, the Supreme Court, the Bank of Indonesia, the Cathedral and several other important institutions. Istiqlal is still the largest mosque in Indonesia and Southeast Asia today.
The mosque is located at a plot northeast of the Monas, linked with a monumental axis directly facing the monument. The axial/ visual relationship between Istiqlal and Monas was intentionally established since the early inception of the idea of transforming the Merdeka Square as the national civic center.
The surrounding configuration of the Merdeka Square was to create a new civic center by erasing former colonial symbols. Among others, Sukarno had been concieved with the idea of replacing monuments and places closely associated with colonialism with the ones associated with Indonesia as an emerging independent (and modernizing) nation. Istiqlal occupies a siteof a former Prins Frederik Citadel (built in 1837 during the Cultivation System period to establish a new defense line of Batavia). The citadel was surrounded by a moat, which is actually Ciliwung River. By the second half of the 19th century, the site was turned into Wilhelmina Park. At the northern entrance, the park housed a monument to Aceh War (1873-1903). Nearby there was also another square called Waterlooplein (now Lapangan Banteng) which hosted a memorial that commemorates the Battle of Waterloo (which Napoleon/ French lost the war). Waterlooplein shared similar fate as the Wilhelmina Park, as it was latern turned into a site for The Liberation of West Papua monument (in which Silaban also designed the pedestal, while Henk Ngantung designed the sculpture).
The design of the mosque was the result of a national architectural competition held in 1953-1955. Among 27 entries, Friedrich Silaban’s proposal was named as the first prize winner and afterward appointed as the main architect of the project. However the development went slow mainly due to the lack of funding and political instabilities. The construction did not start before 1961 and halted during the 1965-66 political turmoils. Under a new regime, the construction was restarted after 1967 and finished in 1978. Despite the long and exhausting process, the original proposal and Silaban’s involvement survived up to the end – and making the project as his masterpiece.
Since the very beginning, both Sukarno had been aware that this new national mosque should not be originated from a local tradition nor referring to particular historic nor provincial forms. He intended the mosque being ‘modern’, ‘monumental’, as well as ‘politically neutral’. In his own words upon the ground-breaking ceremony in 1961, Sukarno referred the mosques as ‘a structure that should stand a thousand years’, ‘not made of wood and terracotta tiles’ (kayu dan genteng), but ‘made of steel, concrete, bronze, and marble’. The statement might had been consequently dismissed traditional mosque roof forms or any architectural reference to vernacular forms such as pyramidal stacked roof or onion-shaped dome.
The overall design of the mosque comprises of a main prayer hall, a tower, a courtyard surrounded by arcades, and a tall minaret. The main building (prayer hall) is topped with a huge hemispherical dome; alligned towards qiblat, to the holy city of Mecca. The interior, designed to accommodate 20,000 prayers, is a 75 m x 75 m hall surrounded by 5 (five) level of galleries. Inside there are 12 stainless-steel-cladded columns supporting the dome. From the outside, the main building is a square; 102 meter for each side, soaring up 5-story tall – 30-meter high structure – topped with a semihemispherical dome spanning 45 meter in diameter. The dome was an engineering daredevil in Indonesia at that time. The dome is formed by a very thin light-weight concrete shell reinforced by 1950 pieces of steel tubes in a form of a polyhedron.
Another the striking feature of the mosque is that the entire hall was designed as a open-air space. The walls are actually not solid walls, instead they are two layers of gigantic arcades formed by three layers of collonades. The marble-cladded columns are soaring 26-meter high holding the flat concrete slab which supports the dome. Between the columns, there are metal trellis that function as sun-shading device, protecting the interior space from the solar radiation (and rainfall) and allows fresh breeze of air coming through the space. This feature, in fact, covers most of other surfaces and gives a distinctive identity to the whole complex.
Next to the main building, a smaller dome with a tower pedestal sits at the southeast linked with a ring of arcade, forming a big paved open courtyard. The 11,600-square-meter courtyard is actually a raised platform; below there is a18,000-square-meter basement to accommodate utilities, offices, toilets, and extra space for prayers. At the southern tip of the arcade, a pointy minaret soars 96 meters high. Interestingly, the allignment of the smaller dome, the arcade and the courtyard follows is determined by the diagonal axis facing the Monas. Originally there courtyard was not divided into two, making the position of Monas right in the middle of the southern side of the arcade. At earlier schemes, this intention was clearly visible. Due to several additions and unrealized details, this axial connection is no longer easily noticeable.