Impressive colonial architecture
Published/Last edited or updated: 2nd June, 2017
What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Opera House is to Sydney, Lawang Sewu is to Semarang.
Ok, so it perhaps doesn’t attract as many punters, but it certainly piqued our interest enough to jump on a plane to check it out (we’re a bit nerdy when it comes to great architecture). Semarang’s iconic building has a mixed history: it was built at the beginning of the 20th century as an administrative building for the Dutch East Indies Railway Company (Nederlandsch-Indische Spoorweg Maatschappij) and during WWII was occupied by the Japanese, reportedly to have been used for torture and interrogation. For years later it lay derelict, occasionally used by the army until a major renovation project from 2010 to 2015 restored it to its former glory and has now reopened to the public as an excellent museum.
Lawang Sewu commands a grand corner position overlooking a major roundabout that harbours Tugu Muda Park. A city landmark, the Tugu Muda (youth monument), a flaming torch-like obelisk, commemorates the bloody “Battle of Semarang”, a five-day skirmish that took place in 1945 between the Angkatan Muda Kereta Api (Railway Youth Force) and the Japanese.
Impressive Lawang Sewu consists of several buildings, a massive L-shaped triple-storey construction known as Building A, and a single triple-storey rectangular block, Building B, that together forms a U shape. Smaller structures punctuate the complex. Building A was constructed between 1904 and 1907 using materials imported from Europe, and Building B, a later addition (1916–1918), uses local components. Both follow the same architectural style: faced with colonnade arches and huge louvred windows and doors lining open galleries. Corner-facing Building A is fronted by a grand peaked entrance with magnificent stained-glass windows and is flanked by two dome-topped towers. These buildings housed offices and additional smaller buildings were used for ticket printing, a cafeteria and sundry other functions. The name “Lawang Sewu” is Javanese for “one thousand doors”, so dubbed for the hundreds of doors and door-like windows within the complex—not quiet one thousand, but according to our guide, 928.
Inside the two main buildings, rows of adjoining offices run the length, opening to long central hallways and to the external galleries. When it was used by the railway company, one office was the administration centre for one station along Java’s railway network, 114 offices in all. The adjoining doors, when opened allowed overseers to monitor workers the length of the building, and as well as offering a practical cooling cross breeze in the tropical heat, gives the impression of carriages within a train.
The basement was kept flooded as part of the cooling system, but was infamously the place of torture during the Japanese occupation. Locals believe the building to be haunted and an Indonesia horror film, Lawang Sewu: Dendam Kuntilanak (Lawang Sewu: Kuntilanak’s Vengeance) as well as a reality TV show, Dunia Lain (Another World), have been set here.
The landmark historical complex is today Semarang’s most popular tourist site, open daily from 07:00 to 21:00. Guided tours are available in both English (75,000 rupiah) and Indonesian (50,000 rupiah), and are well worth taking, as they not only offer insight into the history and architecture, but they also take you into parts of the buildings you may not easily find independently including the magnificent beamed roof (complete with bats) and original glazed tiled urinals. Our guide opened the door to the (rather spooky) basement, but this area was still under renovation when we visited in May 2017.
A large component of the main structure is dedicated as a railway museum with model trains, railway equipment and information on the history of Indonesia’s rail system (the first train line began from Semarang), however the upper floor of the largest building is closed to the general public, but available to hire for events. The smaller former ticketing building offers information on the architecture and renovation of the complex.
Take time to admire the stupendous central marble staircase and beautiful church-like stained-glass windows in the grand foyer. The stained glass was made in Delft, Holland and features images of the Goddesses Fortuna and Venus facing a steaming winged train wheel. Additionally, the coat-of-arms of Semarang, Batavia (Jakarta) and Amsterdam are pictured along with numerous floral motifs depicting local flora and produce whose trade and transportation was the backbone of the railway industry.
Interestingly, the railways not only contributed to the development of Indonesia, although mostly benefiting the Dutch colonial overlords, but politically it provided a foothold for the formation of railway workers unions and as a result Indonesia’s Communist Party was formed here in 1920.
We recommend visiting Lawang Sewu during the day, taking a guided tour, and revisiting at night as it offers a very different (and somewhat spine-chilling) atmosphere. If you are just passing through Semarang and plan to see no other sights, take time to visit Lawang Sewu. If colonial architecture appeals, be sure to also visit Gereja Blenduk and Kota Lama and trainspotters will enjoy the Indonesian Railway Museum at Ambarawa.
Address: Cnr of Jalan Pemuda and Jalan Pandanaran
Coordinates (for GPS): 110º24'34.93" E, 6º59'3.17" S
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Admission: 10,000 rupiah for adults, 5,000 rupiah for kids.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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