Looking Beyond the Horror: The Architectural History of Lawang Sewu
Lawang Sewu, 1916
(Image source: Colonial Architecture and Town Planning, Colonialarchitecture.eu)
As an heirdom from the Dutch colonial government, designed by Citroen, it took an immense amount of time for Lawang Sewu to be fully constructed; the construction started around 1904 and was completed 14 years later. Lawang Sewu was initially known as the Nederlands-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij (NIS) building, a private railway company during Dutch colonial rule. Before the construction of Lawang Sewu, the office complex was located at the main station of Semarang, now known as Tawang Station. Due to its success, employee expansion, increased administrative and technical activities, and other functional requirements for additional space, the NIS company obtained a new piece of land not far from the central station to start the construction of Lawang Sewu, the new office bureau for the growing company. Lawang Sewu is one of the most important and historical buildings in Indonesia and encompasses a high architectural reputation, a combination of western architecture, especially European, and the integration of local adaptation.
The name ‘Lawang Sewu’ itself was derived from its architectural elements, where hundreds of doors and windows were made along with the elongated corridors; moreover, in Javanese, the local dialect of Semarang, The word lawang means door, and sewu means a thousand; hence, the name Lawang Sewu was founded, has been used for decades, and has established a new identity amongst the people of Semarang. The installation of numerous windows and doors is a feature associated with the architecture's adaptation to the tropical climate; windows, doors, and wide corridors allow ventilation and air circulation to let air spread throughout the building.
The presence of Lawang Sewu complies with the Romanesque Revival style that epitomizes these architectural elements: simple curves, complicated roof works, and round towers with cone-shaped roofs that are accustomed to the local climate and surroundings. Lawang Sewu was built according to colonial architecture design, in the sense that European characteristics and ornaments can be found, yet the particular design adapted to the Indonesian tropical climate; therefore, the stylistic elements could be separated from the typical architecture in the Netherlands or in Europe in general. The architectural structure considers the influence of local rainfall, sun, and wind; therefore, the architectural elements are made to fit and facilitate the weather and climate problems. This is evident through the use of pitched roofs. This type of roofing was implemented in order to be able to regulate the heavy tropical rainfall. Aside from that, rooms with high ceilings supported by lots of windows were installed to maintain good ventilation and keep the air circulating around the building since, during the day, the temperature could reach around 34 degrees Celsius.
In regard to the architectural theory of affordance published by Maier et al., affordance is utilized to comprehend the relationship between environments and their occupants, especially with respect to form and function. Another focus should also be drawn towards the placement of the building; Lawang Sewu has an important role in terms of its site and placement. With symmetric entrances, it functions as a central axis, complemented by various geometrical shapes in the decorations, windows, and other elements. The repetition of columns is very prominent; this decorative aspect is quite dominant on the facade of the building. This feature is a distinctive characteristic of Dutch colonial architecture. Another attribute that is distinguishable is the front foyer of the building that is pushed forward towards the main street, thus providing the architectural structure with a solid-void effect and accentuating the contrast of light and dark on the facade of the building.
Initially functioning as an administrative office of a private Dutch railway company and as a monument to signify the glorious trade and railway business of the NIS, which was later taken over by the Japanese government during World War II, There were no major transformations on the exterior of the building, but the underground space had been transformed into a drainage channel and torture dungeon. Lawang Sewu was a witness to the massacre of thousands of Indonesians. 50 years after Indonesia declared its independence, the Indonesian Railroad Department took over the building and restored it to its primary function as the administrative building of a railway company and the regional office of the Central Java Ministry of Transportation. However, due to old age, multiple issues involving the construction started to arise: leaking, mites, and more. The building was left empty and neglected.
During its time as the NIS bureau, the architectural structure of Lawang Sewu was perceived by society as an ornate and grand building situated at the heart of the city. Years after the building had been taken over during the Japanese occupation, a bad reputation and mystical perception had been lingering around the building due to its disturbing and turbulent past. Even popular urban legends arose from the harsh past of Lawang Sewu, where the people of Semarang experienced and witnessed rare activities such as hearing screams, shadows, and figures appearing at the abandoned Lawang Sewu. In 2009, due to its growing popularity as an urban legend and its significant presence as a monumental heritage site, Lawang Sewu underwent renovation and conservation, rebranding itself as a heritage museum.
Lawang Sewu epitomizes European architectural elements yet is familiar to Indonesian eyes, and the cycle of life of the building, including the changing of its perception, function, and meaning, visualizes its embodiment of time. Thus, it represents the embodiment of time and heritage. Every city in Indonesia has its own identity, tradition, and history, and for Semarang, it is Lawang Sewu. Further studies about colonial architecture in Indonesia should be considered, for the sake of strengthening the relationship between Indonesia and the Netherlands, to take into account the cultural and historical similarities and differences, therefore bridging both nations in a better way.