monumen nasional and lapangan merdeka

A feature written for “Cultural Wonders of Indonesia”.

This article is an excerpt of the upcoming publication.


Monumen Nasional (The National Monument or simply addressed as ‘Monas’) is a 132 meter-high structure standing in the middle of the capital Jakarta. It was commenced in 1961, inaugurated in 1975, and since then was actively witnessing many of the country’s important events. It sits on the very center of a vast 80-hectares square site crossed by diagonal streets namely Lapangan Merdeka (Freedom Square).


The monument consists of a platform, a base (or ‘the cup’), and a tower topped with a gold-covered flame. The overall structure is reinforced concrete clad with marble.


The platform is a museum that displays dioramas depicting important patriotic historical events. It was partially positioned below ground level. The exterior facade is decorated with relief depicting heroes and events beginning from the classical periods up to post-Independence period.


The cup is the house of outmost sacred relics and symbols. The relics and symbols are positioned at the core of the building facing four cardinal directions surrounded by an amphitheater. The north face shows the entire vast territory of the country. The south face contains the national coat of arms Garuda Pancasila. Garuda Pancasila is a mythical bird wearing a shield depicting the Pancasila – the five (5) foundational principles – holding a band of ribbon with a motto ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ – ‘unity in diversity’.

The east face originally contains the original “Sang Saka Merah Putih” – the sacred authentic National Flag. The west face contains the original ‘Naskah Proklamasi’ – the original Declaration of Independence. The west is the most elaborate one as it show up a mechanized opening of a pair of gold-coated bronze doors followed by the original recording of Soekarno (1901-1970, the first president of Indonesia) reading the declaration. Some details of the rituals exhibited in this hall might have been slightly changed over the years.


While the cup also holds a viewing platform on its top, the upper most platform at top of the obelisk offers the best view to explore the square and the surrounding structures. The monument is surrounded by important civic monuments and functions. The official Presidential Palace and residence is located at the northeast. The Supreme Court is at the north. At the west, there are the NationalMuseum, the National Radio Headquarter (Radio Republik Indonesia), and the Constitutional Court. At the east, there are several important state-owned enterprises headquarters, the National Gallery, and Gambir railway station. At the southwest stands the Bank of Indonesia headquarter. At the south, there are important national enterprise headquarters and the US Embassy.


Since its inception, Monas has been captured by the public as the symbol of modernity, progress, and prosperity along with other monuments and modern infrastructures initiated by Soekarno. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Monas was often popularly and heroically depicted in movies as the background along with the vacant wide streets, vast open space, and set-back buildings. Apart from its destiny to become a national symbol at best, Monas is now more associated as the icon of the capital.


To understand how this monument works, it is important to relate Monas with the site and its surroundings as a result of the chain of symbolic urban interventions since 17th century. The ground has been part of the southern expansion of Batavia, the old port city, since 1640s.  It was intended as a vast open ground to house public and civic functions of the new town dedicated for the growing European population. During the British-French occupation (1808-1811) Daendels established it as ‘Champ de Mars’ (‘Field of Wars’). But then, the Dutch later on addressed it as ‘Koningsplein’ (‘King’s Square’). The names suggests the ground has always been considered as a symbolic civic place to hold parades and important public rituals.


However, the Dutch never really used it right as the name suggested. The current State Palace (Istana Negara, the one facing Veteran Street, at the north) located at the northeast of the ground was originally a private residence owned by a wealthy businessman J.A. van Braam, built in 1796. The current FreedomPalace (Istana Merdeka, the one facing south) was built only in 1873, after it was sold in 1821 to the colonial government to be used as the center of colonial administration and official residence of the Governor General. But it seemed that the generals rarely used it and preferred Buitenzorg (Bogor) more as the seat since it provided more desirable climate and scenery.


By the end of 19th and early 20th century, the ground is considered far less monumental as it was planned as a park and to host public social functions and municipal administrations. The plan by Melchior Treub (1851-1910, a prominent botanist and former director the Buitenzorg Botanical Garden) showing the garden was considered as a garden; a big green open space. Treub’s design placed a roundabout in the middle linked with four avenues leading to the four corners of the square and one avenue to the east; one to the Citadel (now the Istiqlal Mosque), one towards the southeast – passing a cricket field, one towards the southwest, one towards the northwest. The one towards the northwest was not axially related to the Governor General Palace. Curiously, one avenue direcly leading to the east, towards the ‘Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen’ (Royal Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences) which is now the NationalMuseum. A 1937 plan by Thomas Karsten shows the Koningsplein divided into smaller squares to house municipality administrations and social functions: parks, sport fields, expanded railway station, government offices, etc. Apart from being the ground for the Raadhuis (city council), parts were intended to host recreational facilities to the rich families and settlers in the newly established Nieuw Batavia; consisting of Meester, Weltevreden, Tanah Abang, Passer Baroe areas. In the square there was also an annual popular fair known as ‘Pasar Gambir’. Pasar Gambir was interestingly similar to international colonial exhibitions in the way of using indigenous traditional architectural forms mixed into semi-permanent structures.


During and after the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), the east part of the square was known to the public as the ‘Lapangan Ikada’. Ikada actually stands for Ikatan Atletik Djakarta, municipal athletics association. The names sticks due to a historic political rally held by Soekarno (remembered as the ‘Rapat Raksasa Ikada’) in the stadium a month after the Declaration of Independence, in September 19th 1945. Then Soekarno delivered a short speech asking the public to remain calm and to give support to form a government.


Being an engineer-architect himself, Soekarno finds himself full of ideas and passion of turning the ex-colonial capital into a showcase of a new-born nation. He believes that monumental architecture and urban planning can show not only to the world, but also the people some hope and spirit to live in a new world order. To do just that, Soekarno were systematically altering the monuments, buildings, and urban planning associated with the Dutch colonial government and society during 1950s and early 1960s. Soekarno began demolishing and replacing specific monuments and buildings with new ones, including the colonial Koningsplein.


The current form of the square was the result of continuous planning initiated by Soekarno since 1954. A call for a national competition was held during 1955-1956 attracted professional architects as well as students. Among 51 entries, the jury (which was obviously directed by Soekarno) decided that there is not first prize winner and instead awarded Friedrich Silaban as the second prize winner. It was an enormous vertical block in the middle of four horizontal blocks encircled by eight avenues. Silaban’s proposal was considered best among others but yet did not exactly meet the specific requirements demanded by Soekarno. It is also said that the scale of the proposal designed by Silaban was too big and might be too expensive to build.


As the result, the second wind competition was held in 1960 and Silaban was invited into the board of jury along with renowned engineer Rooseno and architect Hasan Purbo. Unfortunately, the second is not better than the first. Among 136 entries, Soekarno and the jury decided that there were no first and second prize winners. Soekarno displeased with the entries that they were not adequately addressed the idea of ‘national’, ‘the flaming/ burning spirit’ and ‘Indonesian characteristics’ in the proposals. It was also stated by that the proposals mostly failed to feature ‘obelisk’ and to express ‘movement/ dynamics’ in ‘durable materials’.


Soekarno took this into his own hand and appointed Silaban and Soedarsono to design together the monument under his direction. Silaban refused and preferred to come up with his own proposal. After lengthy meetings and intensive discussions over the height, scale, proportion and ideas; it was decided that the monument should be an obelisk (‘tugu’), made out of reinforced concrete and clad with marble, and should addressed Hindu-Jawa symbolism of linggam-yoni. The linggam-yoni scheme was explained as ‘ancient symbols which denote eternal life’, a marriage between ‘positive-day-good-male’ and ‘negative-night-evil-female’, and also referred as ‘mortar-and-pestle’ as ‘everyday kitchen utensils owned by every Indonesian family particularly in the countryside’.


Silaban’s second proposal was curiously formed as a thin pyramidal obelisk as the linggam placed on a yoni which is a very wide square base. This second design was conceptually closer to the built linggam-yoni design but not in the conventional proportion. In fact, the obelisk was closer to a needle or a ray of light instead its phallic form. Silaban’s second design also integrated the Istiqlal Mosque plan and the Istana Merdeka extension. Silaban intends to put the main facade of the Istana exactly in the north-south grand axis with the Monas and eliminates the east and west axis. The main entrance of the Istiqlal Mosque, at the northeast corner, would face directly to the Monas. However this plan is never executed.


Finally Soekarno turned to Soedarsono’s proposal which literally shows everything that demanded: the curvy linggam and yoni cladded with marble topped with a gold-covered copper flame. The cross diagonal roads divided the square into four areas. Because the entire square is enormous, it could not be simply turned into a unified whole. Under Ali Sadikin (1966-1977), the square hosted the annual Jakarta Fair, an amusement park, and several night clubs. The square was never entirely cleared up as an open space until 1993 when Soeharto initiated a plan to  convert most of the square into green open spaces.


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