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.
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.