Indonesia’s third largest city has been burnishing its creative credentials as of late, with plenty of young talent, free-thinking art galleries, and a series of new urban spaces that could provide a template for the rest of the country.
It’s just another Sunday morning at NuArt Sculpture Park, and the creativity unfolding outdoors here immediately catches my eye. I watch, enraptured, as a group of dancers in sarongs swirl across the floor of a breezy pavilion to the strains of Balinese gamelan. Off in the distance, beyond a copper humpback whale rising out of the manicured lawns, visitors shape figurines from balls of clay at low wooden tables set up around a bubbling fountain. Given its setting beside a wooded ravine, I can see why the celebrated Balinese sculptor I Nyoman Nuarta chose this three-hectare site to build his gallery and studio.
The sea of concrete surrounding it, though, isn’t quite so appealing at first glance. Sprawling across a mountain basin in West Java’s Sundanese highlands, Bandung grapples with many of the same issues faced by major cities elsewhere in Indonesia: high population growth, uncontrolled development, and inadequate transport infrastructure. Traffic congestion reaches its peak on weekends, when Jakartans flock here to enjoy the cooler climes and shop at the dizzying number of factory outlets. But a large student population, representing more than 120 institutes of higher learning, has given the place a long-standing reputation as a hub of creativity. And the local flair for design is now even more apparent thanks to its previous mayor Ridwan Kamil, an architect whose five-year term at City Hall saw sweeping bureaucratic reforms and a dramatic overhaul of the city’s public spaces.
One prime example of the latter is Teras Cihampelas, an elevated pedestrian walkway that soars above a tree-lined shopping street formerly clogged with roadside vendors. Inaugurated in 2017, the promenade is enlivened by stalls selling souvenir shirts, jeans, and dresses, as well as local snacks like colenak—a dessert of grilled, fermented cassava topped with coconut shavings and palm sugar syrup. There’s also a tourist information booth, ample places to sit among the greenery, and a series of wheelchair-accessible lifts and ramps. Ambling along the rainbow-hued deck just below the treetops, it’s all too easy to forget about the constant stream of traffic underfoot.
I soon realize how small Bandung actually is, both in the literal and figurative sense. Creatives here almost always have a connection to the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), one of Indonesia’s most prestigious universities. That institution has played a major role in nurturing local talent: Nuarta and other high-profile figures in the Indonesian art world graduated from its Faculty of Art and Design, while Kamil studied at ITB’s school of architecture. As monsoon clouds gather overhead, I arrive at the main campus to learn more about the Bandung Creative City Forum (BCCF), an organization established in 2008 by Kamil and a group of almost 50 like-minded friends.
“We didn’t like the way Bandung was run at the time,” explains current chair and founding member Dwinita Larasati, a product design lecturer who is herself an ITB graduate. “So we agreed that we needed to take the city in our own hands if we wanted real change.”
BCCF brought together people of all stripes: not just architects, designers, and artists, but also musicians, vintage motorbike collectors, environmental activists, and those in the IT and media industries. Kamil served as its first chairman, and under his leadership members created prototypes of the parks, streets, and neighborhoods they envisioned for Bandung. The overarching concept was one of “urban acupuncture” championed by Finnish architect and social theorist Marco Casagrande. “Imagine the city as a body,” Larasati says. “Our projects are needles of creativity that we can pin into the hurting nodes, with the hope that by doing it repeatedly, it will spread the healing.”
When Kamil took up his mayoral duties in 2013, BCCF evolved to focus on developing human resources rather than physical infrastructure. “The goal has always been to use creativity and our creative potential as a mover for economic activity, for the improvement of livelihoods and the generation of wealth,” Larasati adds. Simultaneously, she authored a dossier submitted with Bandung’s application to become a UNESCO Creative City of Design. Bandung earned that distinction in 2015, the same year as Singapore, although its “emerging” status underlines the urban issues and challenges that still need to be overcome. Now, as chair, Larasati is steering BCCF toward social entrepreneurship. “Young people these days are different from those 10 years ago,” she says. “That idealism is still there, but they will ask, ‘what are we going to do with it?’”
Elsewhere on the ITB campus, recent master’s graduate Etza Meisyara speaks of her mission to make art more accessible. “People think that art is very exclusive, but I try to combine sound and braille to create something that you can feel without seeing.” Meisyara is someone to watch: at the most recent edition of the biannual Bandung Contemporary Art Awards, she was chosen as one of the top three finalists out of 400 young Indonesian artists. A three-month residency in the French port city of La Rochelle followed last year, as did a solo exhibition at Lawangwangi Creative Space, which hosted the awards. When I ask why Bandung is so conducive to creating art, she points to its geographical advantages. “The cooler weather makes it good for contemplation,” Meisyara says. “And there are so many places to chill and be inspired. When I feel like I am stuck with my ideas, I always go to the mountains.”
My next stop, appropriately enough, is the verdant highland area of Dago Pakar on Bandung’s northern outskirts. A trio of notable galleries have sprung up here, including Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, where I marvel at an immersive bamboo-and -video art installation conceived as a supersize babu (traditional fish trap) made by the eminent artist Sunaryo Soetono, another ITB alumnus. Across the valley at Lawangwangi, diners throng the upstairs café as workers set up the next exhibition, a group show that will feature Meisyara’s work. The newest of the bunch is Orbital Dago, launched in 2017 by curator Rifky Effendy after years of living between Bandung and the Indonesian capital.
“My wife and I wanted to settle down, to have our own gallery combined with a café, a place to hang out with friends or artists,” he says. The result is a cozy venue that erases the boundaries between a formal exhibition space and a dining area, with full-length screen doors that fold back to connect the gallery to an outdoor terrace. Effendy also wanted to showcase new and lesser-known artists without needing to consider the demands of the market. “Artists here are more experimental—most are not really into the market system so they have more freedom in developing their ideas. And because most Bandung galleries aren’t commercially driven, it’s easy to put together a show. There isn’t any pressure to sell, not like in Jakarta.”
I then brave the late afternoon traffic to visit Bandung Creative Hub, a zany five-story building pocked with a colorful array of truncated pyramids. Inside, the classrooms and photography studios appear largely empty; middle-schoolers sit and chatter in its corridors. It doesn’t seem quite as successful as the small-scale urban interventions Kamil also presided over. For one thing, he has breathed new life into an unused space beneath the cable-stayed Pasupati Bridge by enlisting the expertise of locally based design studio SHAU—short for Suryawinata Heinzelmann Architecture Urbanism—to create an outdoor cinema known as Pasupati Film Park.
The following week, I return to Bandung to meet SHAU’s founding directors, Florian Heinzelmann, who hails from Munich, and Jakarta-born Daliana Suryawinata. “We call the film park a big urban living room, because people see the artificial lawn as a carpet and take off their shoes, and in the background you have this big TV screen showing movies,” Heinzelmann says. The artificial lawn also blankets a seating area made up of curving tiers, giving it a striking resemblance to the rice terraces so prevalent in the surrounding West Java countryside. Heinzelmann tells me this is a happy coincidence—the seats were actually designed that way to create cozy nooks for small groups of people.
SHAU also created Alun-Alun Cicendo, a newly built park in a mixed industrial-residential area near the airport. What was once vacant land used as a garbage dump has been turned into a fantastical playground clad in ocher-hued corten steel. Following Kamil’s instruction not to evict them, makeshift blacksmith workshops and second-hand steel vendors on the roadside were moved into stalls beneath a sky deck stepping down to a central plaza. Visitors will also find an art market with shaded seating, a basketball court, a small skatepark, and a much-Instagrammed scissor-shaped pavilion that offers panoramic views of the city. And taking pride of place on podiums around the park are the creations of six young Bandung artists handpicked by Asmudjo Jono Irianto, a contemporary master based at ITB.
Another landmark project, Bima Microlibrary, lies just a few minutes’ walk away. Raised above an existing stage overlooking a small sports field, it represents SHAU’s wish to tackle low literacy rates and the lack of reading interest in Indonesia. “Reading is usually seen as a punishment,” Suryawinata explains. “If we create only libraries, nobody would come, because why would you go to a place where you are punished? What we are doing here is to pair a reading facility with a community facility, so that people can also do all sorts of other things—like going to a baby clinic or joining an arts and crafts or drawing workshop.”
Bima and two other microlibraries were jointly financed by the Bandung municipal government and private corporations. A budget of around 500 million rupiah (roughly US$35,000) called for the use of low-cost materials, and the architects procured 2,000 recycled ice cream tubs to act as a shading screen on the glass facade. Over on the other side of town, SHAU’s just-opened Hanging Gardens Microlibrary in the Babakan Sari neighborhood looks completely different; the brutalist structure features a whimsical slide and a stepped form whose flat roofs provide soil beds for urban farming.
As for Kamil, he successfully ran for the governorship of West Java last year. Heinzelmann says that SHAU still works with the former mayor in his new, more influential position. “We were in a recent two-day marathon meeting with around 16 to 20 different architecture firms, and all are designing a public park in one place and a creative center in another,” he tells me. “What Ridwan Kamil is doing now, as governor, is implementing the Bandung model in other cities across West Java. It’s a very exciting time to be here.”
Several airlines fly to Bandung from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, including SilkAir and AirAsia. From Jakarta, the most reliable option is the three-and-a-half hour Argo Parahyangan train service; seats can be booked via Traveloka.
NuArt Sculpture Park
Jl. Setraduta Raya Blok L 6, Ciwaruga.
Jl. Rancakendal No. 7, Cigadung.
Selasar Sunaryo Art Space
Jl. Bukit Pakar Timur No. 100, Ciburial.
Jl. Arjuna, Husen Sastranegara.
Jl. Cihampelas, Cipaganti.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Blueprint For Bandung”).