Henri Maclaine Pont’s Pohsarang: Java’s Most Idiosyncratic Church?

In 1936 Netherlands-born architect Henri Maclaine Pont completed his final architectural masterpiece, a church complex located about 7 kilometres outside the city of Kediri in East Java. While all of his designs had mixed the traditional architecture of the Indonesian archipelago with Western influences, at Pohsarang he pushed this direction further than ever before, creating one of the most unusual buildings of the late colonial period in Indonesia. It is a must-see for anyone passing through this little-visited part of East Java.

Most Dutch architects of the period had rather dismissive attitudes towards the indigenous architecture of Indonesia. They were more interested in the latest designs coming out of Europe, in particular art-deco, and this interest is best reflected in the many remarkable art-deco buildings of Bandung and Surabaya. Having spent much of his life in the Dutch East Indies, Pont was much more sympathetic towards the vernacular architecture of Indonesia, and that interest is expressed in the unique design of Pohsarang.

In the years before accepting the commission to design Pohsarang, Pont had been working at Trowulan in East Java, which was the site of the former keraton (palace) of Majapahit, the fifteenth century Javanese kingdom which had been one of the most powerful in the history of Indonesia. He had been involved in the excavation of the former palace of Trowulan and in setting up the first museum at the site. His experiences at Trowulan had a profound influence on the design of Pohsarang, which is modelled on the keraton of Majapahit.

Pohsarang

Unlike Western palaces, those of ancient Java were not closed-in buildings; they were open in design, consisting of a series of interconnected courtyards, separated by ornamental gateways. Within were a series of ornate pavilions, known as pendopo, which had a large roof but no walls, which allowed the air to circulate freely. In tropical Indonesia, it was important to be able to make the most of any wind to maximize the cooling effect. Pont had studied all these features of Majapahit architecture and blended them with the liturgical needs of a Catholic church at Pohsarang.

When we visited the church in 2007, we were surprised by just how Javanese this church was. There was a traditional gamelan orchestra accompanying prayers for one thing. It also had the ‘split gateways’, which were familiar from the palaces of Trowulan and Cirebon, and the walls and courtyards which separated the main buildings had a Javanese sense of openness. The materials were also organic and natural, with stone being used throughout. There were also some unexpected Sumatran touches in the roof-lines, with West Sumatran style bull-horns on some of the buildings and a Lake Toba saddle-back design on some of the others. The whole complex is well worth it for anyone interested in architecture and design in Indonesia.

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