Sarinah: A Compelling Restoration

55 comments
Asia, Indonesia, Southeast

The recently-restored Sarinah department store in downtown Jakarta

Until three weeks ago, if you asked me if I would ever write a blog post about a mall, I would have certainly said no, or highly unlikely at best. That was also what I had in mind when I decided to revisit a decades-old mall in downtown Jakarta earlier this month which has recently been reopened after undergoing a major restoration. Conceived by the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, in 1962 after his trips to the capitals of several Eastern Bloc countries in Europe, Sarinah was Indonesia’s first ever modern department store, intended to help stabilize the prices of goods amid high inflation rates that were spiraling out of control. It was eventually opened in 1966, a particularly tumultuous year for the country which saw the effective transfer of authority from Sukarno (who was increasingly leaning closer to the Soviet Union during his final years in power) to Soeharto, a US-backed army general who would eventually become a dictator himself and rule Indonesia for 32 years.

Sarinah, which was named after Sukarno’s childhood nanny, was among the megaprojects inaugurated in the early 1960s, a period of time when the first Indonesian president commissioned structures on a scale the nascent republic had never seen before. A gigantic 110,000-seater national stadium and a massive 5-star hotel – first in the country – were completed around this time. In fact, Sarinah is the first skyscraper ever built in Indonesia. During his official visit to the Southeast Asian country in 2010, President Barack Obama recalled how Sarinah was the tallest building in the city during the four childhood years he spent living in Jakarta.

Alas, financially Sarinah never performed well, and by the early 1970s it amassed a lot of debts and was struggling to survive. This prompted the department store to pivot its business toward selling local handicrafts which seemed to have worked quite well as decades later it is still championing such items produced by Indonesia’s burgeoning small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Over the years, the façade of Sarinah was altered to probably suit the zeitgeist of the era. And in 1991, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Indonesia at this very building, paving the way for a new chapter for Sarinah as one of Jakartans’ favorite hangout spots, understandably so given its strategic location right at the heart of the city’s central business district.

During my early years living in Jakarta, I went to Sarinah on multiple occasions, from karaoke sessions with friends to joining a morning radio talk show when I was still working at an HR consulting firm. The Sarinah I remembered was old, cold, and outdated. So, I was very excited when it was announced that the government was going to revitalize Sarinah and restore its original look. When the renovation had already started, workers uncovered a large relief panel that, for an unknown reason, had been concealed from the public behind thick walls for decades. It depicts larger-than-life traditional merchants and retail vendors symbolizing Sarinah’s mission in the grand scheme of Sukarno’s vision for the Indonesian economy.

After around 1.5 years of restoration, finally Sarinah reopened its doors to the public at the end of March 2022, and it immediately generated positive reviews. But I waited a little over a month to check this place out myself. On a hot and sunny Sunday morning, James and I took the MRT to reach it, as the mall is just a short walk away from the nearest station. At first glance, Sarinah’s current incarnation appears to be a huge departure from its car-oriented predecessor. A green plaza welcomes pedestrians from three different sides with a grand staircase right in the middle of the west entrance functioning both as an access way to enter the mall and as seats for visitors to enjoy outdoor live music performances. The façade of the high-rise building above the mall now looks clean and elegant with filigree panels in traditional patterns embellishing the lower part of the structure.

A pedestrian plaza at the western side of the compound

This used to be a car park

Looking north

Indonesian fashion is the star of this department store

Javanese and Madurese batik

These ikat fabrics are from East Nusa Tenggara in eastern Indonesia

Decorations inspired mostly by traditional masks and wayang (Javanese shadow puppet) characters

More items for desk decorations

When traditional becomes modern

The relief panel proves to be popular among visitors

A closer look at the faces that were hidden for decades

I can imagine my mother doing the same thing as this woman

The first escalator in Indonesia (middle) flanked by its modern counterparts

As we stepped inside, it was evident that the long-hidden sculptures have now become the centerpiece of the mall with an endless stream of visitors taking selfies or group photos in front of the artwork which remains at its original location. Thanks to the use of dark steel frames, the interior of Sarinah reminded me of The Mills in Hong Kong, a former cotton mill that had been repurposed as a community space a few years ago. However, the addition of wooden latticework has managed to soften the otherwise rigid and somewhat industrial appearance. Above us, a glass ceiling allows ample sunlight to enter the mall. When I looked around and explored one floor after another, it was obvious that each tenant incorporates some Indonesian elements in their design. Some opted for Javanese or Balinese patterns, while others utilized visual aspects of Indonesian handicrafts on their walls and ceilings. However, one particular restaurant caught our attention the most for its creative use of rather simple lines which were then arranged in a way so that it gives the impression of the interior of an ancient Javanese temple. And to make things better, the food was delicious there.

Another part of the building we were curious about was its so-called Sky Deck which can be accessed from the third floor. Right next to the escalator that took us there is the original moving staircase which is purposefully kept to show visitors the very first escalator that has ever been installed in the entire country. It’s no longer in use now, but this piece of engineering surely is a nice memento from the past. Unsurprisingly, the Sky Deck was a popular spot when we went, for it provides visitors with a better view of the street below, in the middle of which the extension of Jakarta’s sole MRT line is currently under construction. However, it seemed like the third floor was as far as most people went, while in fact there is a hidden gem on the sixth floor that’s well worth a visit. We had to take the elevator to reach it, and as we arrived on this level we were welcomed by silence and empty spaces. But I knew there should be an art gallery here and I was determined to find it, so I kept walking until I saw a large artwork being displayed at the far end of the floor. A friendly young woman at a table inside greeted me.

Across the length of this room, a modern interpretation of the long-hidden sculpture took center stage. Self-taught artist Iwan Yusuf created this artwork from fishing nets which were then stitched and woven to replicate the scenes depicted on the original relief panel. While the latter was swarmed by people with cameras and smartphones, the one we were looking at stood in solitude. However, James and I agree that we actually prefer the modern one. There is something grand yet humble, and mysterious yet appealing about it that I can’t quite describe in words. The lone staff member explained to me that the entire floor would be closed for two weeks and then reopen on the first day of June for the grand opening of Sarinah itself. By then, these empty spaces will have been filled with artworks from some of Indonesia’s finest sculptors and painters, as well as those created by young talents.

When James and I decided to pay Sarinah a visit we knew we would see something fresh. But as we were leaving this place, we were both surprised by how the mall left such a deep and positive  impression on us. From the accessibility for everyone, the inviting public spaces, the highlighting of Indonesian culture, and the quality of the curated tenants, the restoration of Sarinah has proved to be a project that adds so much value to the city. It sets a high standard for other similar schemes in the future, and it also brings Jakartans closer to each other. But above all, it remains true to its original spirit of serving the community.

A morning stroll at the Sky Deck

A perfect place to hang out with family and friends

Those excavators are working on the extension of the MRT line

A look at the southeastern side of Sarinah

Iwan Yusuf’s modern interpretation of Sarinah’s decades-old relief panel

This impressive artwork occupies a corner on the sixth floor

A peaceful refuge from the busy mall downstairs

In the hands of an artist, fishing nets can be transformed into something so delicately beautiful

An unexpected highlight of our visit

Where we had our lunch

The ceiling of this restaurant reminds me of the interior of an ancient Javanese temple

Sourdough prawn toast, a surprisingly delicious appetizer

A slice of the toast with thick prawn cake on top

A modern version of soto Betawi, a traditional dish from Jakarta

The warm interior of a café at Sarinah

Steel frames with wooden latticework

Occasionally there are musical performances in front of these stairs

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

55 thoughts on “Sarinah: A Compelling Restoration”

  1. It’s good to hear that they refurbished the old mall and made a more appropriate, inclusive use of it rather than tearing it down and build something new, which is what usually happens here. I love the artwork, both the old and new versions. Bama, only you can find a new mall and make it interesting. 😊 Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

    • They really did a sensible job in restoring this mall’s original look while adding modern touches to parts of it. To be honest, I’m never excited when a new mall appears because eventually most of them look the same and they tend to be filled with similar tenants. That’s why when I went to the new Sarinah, I was really impressed. Hence the post. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s always exciting to see something old that has been given a new breath of life and energy, and some places did it better than others. If I could only have that toast for lunch, I think I would need two, or one and a half at least. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. They did a very good job renovating that’s for sure! Looks so inviting and a great mall to explore. Although I’d still rather explore outside! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    • Haha nothing beats exploring the great outdoors, indeed. Actually I’ve gone hiking quite a lot this year to the point where I’ve already had some blog posts lining up for the next few months. I just love to be surrounded by so much greenery and fresh air!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Brilliant! I couldn’t believe that the mural is made of fishing nets. It looks like someone use a pencil to draw it. I also like how they incorporate Indonesian architectural elements and craftworks into this mall. A place to go if I need souvenirs 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • That artwork by Iwan Yusuf really was amazing. Looking at it made me curious about how artists think and bring all the ideas in their minds into reality. You definitely can find good quality souvenirs at this place! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t the previous and current versions of Sarinah look completely different? It’s one of those places many people who live or had lived in Jakarta have fond memories about. Did you go before or after McDonald’s was opened?

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    • Much appreciated, Wulan! Tanggal 1 Juni katanya grand openingnya. Kayaknya sampai beberapa bulan ke depan bakal tambah rame sih. Apalagi nanti pas ekstensi jalur MRT sudah dibuka. Semoga seterusnya bisa jadi tempat yang seru Sarinah ini.

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  4. Sarinah really has a sense of history and character that you can’t find at other malls elsewhere in Jakarta – I was so impressed with the new design and the fact that they added so much public space both at street level and on the third-floor roof deck. I imagine the gardens/outdoor sitting area will become really inviting once the trees have a chance to grow out and create more shaded spots. This is definitely a place I would bring friends from out-of-town for souvenir shopping and some great Indonesian food! Next time we go, we should try one of the Balinese restaurants there. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • I tried to think of other malls in Jakarta with historical importance like Sarinah, but I couldn’t find any. (I would be pleasantly surprised if this was not the case.) Sarinah’s restoration has set the bar high not only for Jakarta, but also for the entire country. And that is a good thing. I agree with you about the trees, although I was slightly disappointed to see inaccurate placements of some plants in the ground-level plaza (those that thrive better under shade were planted in a spot where they receive direct sun most of the time). Oh well.

      Yes! I have a Balinese restaurant in mind and the food looks delicious, at least from the photos.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful restoration, Bama! Thank you for sharing.

    Your post brings up a good point that with the proper vision and execution, a public space as seemingly mundane as a department store/mall can be transformational.

    I love seeing a lot of the current space design trends reflected in this renovation – the dual use of a terrace staircase as also a gathering space, lots of natural light and the use of natural wood elements. I love that the past – relief space and the first escalator – was respectfully incorporated into the design. Rooftop gardens are also very nice, like your Sky Deck.

    Your food pictures are always mouth watering. Good thing I’m about to head out for lunch! 😆

    Liked by 2 people

    • The pleasure is mine, Ab. It’s really encouraging to see projects like this being carried out in more and more cities throughout the region because you really don’t have to always construct new buildings to create spaces that inspire people.

      Ha! I’m fully aware that when I publish a blog post with food photos, there will always be some people out there who read it on an empty stomach, and I’m really sorry about that. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

      • Restoration projects often have an extra layer of excitement, for sure, because of the before and after transformation. 👍

        It’s always nice to see food pics, especially from further away. So keep posting away! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Very impressive both the renovations and the quality of the Indonesian goods on display. I cannot imagine why such an impressive relief was hidden. The paintings hidden in my last post showed scenes of Aboriginal women carrying heavy loads and white men standing by doing nothing so I understand them being covered up, but not the one in your photos. It would be interesting to delve into that mystery.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I read that some people speculate the reason why that relief was covered was because Indonesia’s second president wasn’t a big fan of artworks commissioned by Sukarno — many of them were done in Socialist/Communist style. But others think the real reason was practicality following the changes done to the mall’s layout. I guess it will remain a mystery until a historical document regarding this issue is discovered.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Good to know a little bit of the history of a mall as old as Sarinah. It amazed me a little as I had never seen a mall until 2000. I didn’t even know of such places existed. The renovation has been done so well. Looks like a great place now, very chic and posh. The skydeck looks great. I can imagine how good a live music would be in front of those steps.
    And, know what when I started reading this post, I laughed to myself. The reason being just this morning I thought of writing a post on a resort we visited yesterday and I thought to myself that never did I ever think I would consider writing about a resort. Resorts feel so unreal to me. And, here I’m thinking of writing one. LOL 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • It was only in 2002 when I moved to a city with malls, and just like most people coming from small cities I saw that as a progress. My perception toward such places changed over time, especially when I realized that most of them look pretty much the same. That’s why when there is a mall that appears to be different, I’m usually curious to see it in person.

      LOL. I guess sometimes we stumble upon really exceptional places that left us thinking: “there’s no way we don’t write about them.”

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      • I share the exact thoughts about malls. In Bangalore, all we have is malls. That’s where people flock during the weekends with their family and friends. That’s the kind of weekend outing most have have. There’s nothing more to do in the city. As a result malls remain crazily crowded during weekends. The likes of me would rather stay at home and do nothing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jakartans love malls too, but because of the pandemic there seems to be a shift in people’s preference. Now many opt for shopping centers and dining spaces with ample outdoor areas. In general, I myself only go to malls to eat — two hours at max — and go straight home afterward.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I love stories like this – a building and a business that have played a big role in Jakarta’s history, and now live on as a center for Indonesian arts. That relief panel – and the artist’s interpretation of it with fishing nets – is simply stunning! I reaaallly want to shop amongst those beautiful artisan wares. Maybe someday! We know there’s a trip to Indonesia in our future. Thanks for the great post, Bama!

    Liked by 2 people

    • You summed it up really well. I’m glad what they did to Sarinah was not a mere facelift. Instead, they turned this mall into a community space that I’m sure will inspire many people.

      That someday may be sooner than you think. I really hope you’ll get to visit Indonesia, and you can buy as many handicrafts here as you want! 😃

      Like

  9. This was such a pleasant surprise to me! I’m not a big fan of malls either, but they have done an excellent job of reviving this one. From the sleek exterior to the beautiful shops and art (and that panel!), it is a real homerun in my eyes. (The sourdough prawn toast looks pretty yummy also!) I can see why you guys came away from this visit feeling very positive about the new mall in particular and your rapidly changing city in general.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You can tell that this restoration project was carefully planned and quite well-executed, which unfortunately is a rarity in Indonesia. If you do come to Jakarta, I will certainly take you to this place, Lex.

      Speaking of this rapidly changing city, I’m really amazed by how fast things change — mostly for the better. There is an art center at the heart of the city that has been undergoing a multi-year revitalization project and is slated to open sometime this year. I have a feeling I’ll end up writing about it once it’s reopened.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Masih ingat dengan penutupan sarinah yang dramatis itu 🙂 keren banget relief-reliefnya … hanya pernah sekali berkunjung kesana, terima kasih atas reviewnya mas Bama

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yang saya paling ingat itu moment hari terakhir McD yang pas banget sama awal-awal pandemi. Alhasil menimbulkan kerumunan. Iya reliefnya memang cocok jadi bintang utama, dan untungnya setelah sekian tahun tersembunyi kondisinya tetap utuh. Terima kasih sudah membaca, Mas Isna.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve never been much of a mall person myself, but you can’t deny that Sarinah has a fascinating history. It must have been interesting to see its evolution throughout the years. I love that they repurposed some of the parking to turn it into a plaza with greenery. The inside of the mall looks beautiful as well, especially the relief panels.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really wish I had a photo of how it looked before the restoration to include in this post. Comparing the before and after images would make some people think that they were not the same place. Not that we need more malls, but if some developer decide to build a new one, they really should make Sarinah as a benchmark.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Sangat menarik! Salah satu hari aku akan balik ke Jakarta dan kunjung mal itu. Mungkin tahun depan..siapa paham. Kehidupan pos pandemic belum jelas. Love your informative blog …Makasih. oh iya kami punyai prime minister yg baru..semoga lebih baik daripada scomo 😄😊

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Really interesting blog post Bama, this is a great example of what a modern mall should look like. In the U.S. malls have become outdated and some demolished because of the rise of online shopping and other factors. But I’ve always liked old buildings, which are refurbished and then repurposed into something new. I also like how Sarinah incorporated Indonesian cultural aspects in their décor and architecture. Beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Today developers should really consider constructing malls that look less uniform, more humane, and are rooted in local cultures. And in the case of preserving old buildings, a lot of projects have shown that such endeavors can be fulfilled while keeping the structures relevant with the development of the society.

      Like

  14. I’m not a mall person but I do like this restoration. The greenery on the outside looks very nice esepecially when some of the younger trees grow bigger. I like the artwork and architecture and the focus on making the mall more of a people gathering place than one just for shopping or eating.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you, Matt. I tend to find places that are open and inviting very appealing — also, if they’ve been around for a long time and then repurposed into community-focused spaces. It could be an old mall, an abandoned building, a former factory, or a weary cultural center.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Nice to see that the old mall has been refurbished into a place where local handicrafts and art takes center stage. In Singapore, the old malls are refurbished into cookie cutter malls with the same shopping mix, because it’s all about making money here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Uniformity is cost-effective. But as people become more sophisticated, they demand spaces that are different and unique, and that allow them to do whatever they like more comfortably with the people they love. Malls that fail to provide these things will eventually be abandoned, as has been happening to many in Jakarta which for so long only focused merely on being places where sellers sell and buyers buy. No more than that.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Only you can visit a shopping mall, delve into its history in a way that is compelling, and make me feel that I’ve just travelled somewhere exciting. I also prefer the modern interpretation of the relief panel. It is exquisite❣

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s very kind of you, Jolandi! It’s because with Sarinah there’s more than meets the eye. So, naturally there are stories about it I can delve into and share with others.

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  17. I love that the mall was named after a nanny! It seems like the restoration of Sarinah was an incredibly successful project, and I love how they put a focus on Indonesian artists and fashion (which, btw, seems beautiful!). The art work on the sixth floor is absolutely stunning and sooo impressive!

    Liked by 1 person

    • While many modern malls have English-sounding names, often evoking a sense of grandeur, “Sarinah” feels more rooted in the Indonesian culture. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any other places named after a nanny! Today is supposed to be the grand opening of the new Sarinah, and just a few days ago another tenant just opened its doors. I think I will find myself returning to this mall every now and again in the next few months to check out what’s new — and probably also to watch some performances.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. hcyip says:

    The owners did an impressive job with the renovation, making the decor modern and attractive while also maintaining the old relief panels. I find the Indonesian goods really nice, especially the fabric from East Nusa Tenggara. It’s good to see products and art from different regions showcased.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sarinah is actually a state-owned enterprise (SOE). I just realized that the restoration project was started a month after the appointment of the company’s new board of directors. The current CEO has a long experience in one of Indonesia’s largest private retail companies. The combination of private expertise and SOE’s money often does wonder in this country. This has happened before when a former banker from Citigroup was appointed CEO of the national railway company who subsequently transformed the ailing business entity into a much-respected institution.

      Liked by 1 person

      • hcyip says:

        Bringing together private sector experience and SOE financial muscle can be the ideal combination when it leads to more efficiency and dynamism.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Kalo weekend mesti datang pagian. Gue terakhir ke sana itu datang sekitar jam 9 (mall-nya belum buka, tapi beberapa kafe udah buka), sarapan ringan di Bukanagara Coffee (arem-aremnya enak!), terus pas jam 10 baru deh eksplor mall-nya sebelum terlalu rame.

      Like

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