Tropical Modernity | book review

MovingCities reviews “Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker” [CJ van Dullemen, SUN Architecture], a book dealing with the work and life of the Dutch architect in the Dutch East Indies [Indonesia].

Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker | SUN Architecture
Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker | SUN Architecture

Recently, MovingCities received ‘Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker‘ [SUN Architecture – now uitgeverij Boom] in the mailbox [contact]. The book gives an interesting overview and insight into the life and work of the Dutch architect Wolff Schoemaker (1882-1949), the Frank Lloyd Wright of Indonesia. The book is as a great introduction to projects such as Villa Isola [Bandung, 1933], Koloniale Bank [Surabaya, 1940] and Nederlandse Handelsmaatschappij [Batavia/Jakarta, 1922].

The book puts forward an encompassing introduction to a debate that oftentimes has been overlooked in the official architectural agenda and theories about modernism at the beginning of the 20th century. The blurb explains this:

Histories of Dutch architecture often pass over the architecture of Dutch architects in the former Dutch East Indies. […] Magazines and newspapers between 1923 and 1937 carried a heated debate on vernacular applications in modern architecture. Maclaine Pont translated them into a regionally based architecture, while Wolff Schoemaker developed a new modern language of forms based on tropical conditions and principles.

Jaarbeurs by Wolff Schoemaker [plus reference to FL Wright] | Bandung, 1920
Jaarbeurs by Wolff Schoemaker [plus reference to FL Wright] | Bandung, 1920

Hotel Preanger by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1927
Hotel Preanger by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1927

Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933
Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933

In the period between 1910-1940 the Dutch East Indies featured a prosperous architectural climate to rethink modernism in a colonial and tropical environment, despite the fact that there were hardly any architects working in this condition as CJ van Dullemen [the author of the book] explains: “Architecture in the Dutch East Indies was subject to a rapid development in the first decades of the twentieth century. There were hardly any architects there at the start of this period, and the situation in the building industry was not very favourable for this profession.” With a bit of imagination, one could find in this condition one of the origins of a “critical regional” approach. CJ van Dullemen writes about this as:

The most interesting aspect of architecture in the Dutch East Indies was the interaction between the sphere of influences of East and West: the influence of the ‘rational West’ with its organisational and technical solutions for the problems of the tropical climate.

In one way or another the Dutch architects, born in Dutch East Indies or having moved there, were confronted with a climatic condition none were unfamiliar building for: the tropical climate. Next to this, the question how to develop an Indo-European architectural style was investigated:

The two opposing parties in the debate on architecture each had its own vision of the Indo-European architectural style that was to be developed. The party with a European orientation wanted an architecture that was based on modern European architecture but that nevertheless closely matched the tropical environment and ‘an East Indian expression full of character.’ Wolff Schoemaker was the main proponent of this view. The other party wanted an architecture rooted in the architectural history of the Indonesian archipelago, though enhanced with the technical advances of Western architecture.

Hotel Preanger - Gopura [India,reference] - Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933
Hotel Preanger - Gopura [India,reference] - Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933

Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933
Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933

In this environment Wolff Schoemaker set out to find “a synthesis of Western and classical Indian architecture that he considered to offer exactly the right adaptation to the tropical environment.” Although it never really becomes clear in the book why Wolff Schoemaker can or should be called the Frank Lloyd Wright of Indonesia [besides pointing out that Wolff Schoemaker visited some of the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright], the book offers a couple of intriguing architectural juxtapositions and references to showcase the influence of modernism on his work.

One of the main buildings of Wolff Schoemaker is the Villa Isola in Bandung, “also known as ‘the most luxurious villa in the world’, Villa Isola is an Art Deco creation from top to bottom and has become one of the icons of the city of Bandung. […] Villa Isola clearly made an impact on the history of architecture in the colony: it meant the definitive breakthrough of Modernist architecture in the colony.

Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933
Villa Isola by Wolff Schoemaker | Bandung, 1933

Although at first impression “Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker” might seem like a publication for a niche audience – despite the suspiciously ambitious title -, it signales also that something else might going on, of interest for a larger architectural public. In a detailed, and well-written, manner it introduces the potential of reconsidering and rewriting architectural history in the 1910-1940 period, and its consequent relevance for today’s architectural practices and theories.

Being blessed to be absent from and/or neglected by the dogmatic debate on modernism that occupied much of the avant-garde architects in Europe and America at the time, CJ van Dullemen puts the work of Schoemaker within a cultural, social, political and economical context of a colonial power that desires to position itself within a modern world. Schoemaker’s experiments with indigenous ornaments, the collaboration with his brother, his affiliation with the work of Otto Wagner, Mendelsohn, Mallet-Stevens and Frank Lloyd Wright, his lifelong friendship with Sukarno [Indonesia’s first president] and his own vision of the Indo-European architectural style, have led to an oeuvre, but also a country, in dire need for re-examination.

Pictures from “Tropical Modernity, Life and Work of C.P. Wolff Schoemaker” [SUN Architecture]

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