Adnya Sarasmita, doctoral candidate from the Built Environment PhD program in the College of Built Environment, recently presented her paper “Spatial theater: A contested informality in an Indonesian urban public space” at the 2018 Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE). With the theme of “The Politics of Tradition,” this year’s conference was held on October 4-7 in Coimbra, Portugal. The paper analyzes a portion of her dissertation fieldwork data, which was collected in Malang, Indonesia, over two periods between the summer of 2017 and the summer of 2018. This fieldwork was partially funded by the Chester Fritz Fellowship for International Research awarded by the Graduate School. At the conference, Adnya’s paper was awarded the IASTE – Berkeley Prize for Best Paper by a junior scholar.
Adnya’s research focuses on the study of traditional public spaces in Java. The space, called alun-alun, used to indicate the center of a town. In the past, it took form in a large, four – sided open field, often lined with a few old growth banyan tees, far from the image of a modern, landscaped city square. Nowadays, alun-alun in Javanese cities more closely resemble a modern city park.
Alun-Alun Kota Malang is one of Adnya’s four case studies, each of which was chosen for its spatial characteristics and its relative centrality to the municipal government’s modernization and formalization agendas. What makes Alun-Alun Kota Malang unique is because it was originally built by the colonial government, not by locals. In her research, Adnya described Alun-Alun Kota Malang in Indonesia as a contested public space, dating back to the Dutch colonial period. For several hundred years, Alun-Alun Kota Malang illustrated the separation between government (formal power) and the citizens (informal power).
Adnya’s study highlights the roles of Alun-Alun Kota Malang as a public space where the marginalized have over time struggled to claim their rights in the city, and in a larger picture, their rights to lead a liberated life. She engaged both vendors and the municipal government in the area to get a better picture on the unique nature of Alun-Alun Kota Malang.
During her research, Adnya encountered several challenges primarily due to labor pressures for the vendors. Because time was very valuable to them, it was difficult at times to engage in an exploratory conversation. In addition, vendors typically don’t have a routine schedule and move among multiple sites, so Adnya couldn’t always locate them for follow-up questions or to obtain more data. Despite that, gathering information from the municipal government was even more challenging since she had to overcome many bureaucratic hurdles.
In most parts of the world today, public spaces are becoming more and more regulated, which raises the question of how much autonomy each member of the public still has in these spaces. While it is relatively easier for municipal governments in western societies to sustain a degree of control over their public spaces, it is more complex to do so in developing societies that up until recently were still experiencing structural repression in their public spaces, such as Indonesia. The presence of covert understanding between all the actors, both formal and informal, and room for flexibility set these urban public spaces apart from their western counterparts. Alun-alun as a form of public space continues to see the emergence of non-prescribed uses today. It is one of the remaining spaces where the have-nots can claim their rights in the city and, in a larger sense, their right to lead a liberated life.
Alun-Alun Kota Malang