Published Article: Mi Isolo E Vivo

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Imagine, The Story of Dutch Indo  |  2018

Somewhere in 2002, while visiting the old Dutch cemetery in Bandung, I found a nearly abandoned tombstone overgrown with scrub and weed. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that it was the tombstone of Professor Charles Prosper Wolff Schoemaker, a prominent architect that I had for so long admired.

Back then, as an architecture student, I was fascinated with all his works, particularly the ones in Bandung, a city where he had designed so many buildings before the World War Two broke out. Those buildings had become priceless heritages that helped Bandung find its identity as the city of Art Deco.

Of all his works in Bandung that I have visited, I would say that Villa Isola was the most sophisticated one. Located higher than the city of Bandung, on the side of the road connecting Bandung with Lembang, the building was designed with strong Art Deco style as a private residence for a wealthy Eurasian man named Dominique Willem Berretty in 1930s. Not only did he design the building, but also the landscape. All were set harmoniously on a piece of land located in the northern part of the city.

I came to see the building for the very first time in the year of 2000. Standing right in front of it, I was amazed by how Schoemaker perfectly combined the western modern technology with Javanese mythology. I would say that east meet west in Villa Isola.

In the following year, I took a conservation class and made a small research on Schoemaker’s works in Indonesia. I learned that the professor had been very much inspired by ancient Hindu temples and shrines he had found in Java. He tried to apply the philosophy of the temples to his works. In many cases, he even put the head of Batara Kala, a deity figure from Hindu Mythology which could be found in every ancient Hindu temple in Java, at the entrance of his buildings.

Java is a volcanic island where mountains become sacred subjects. In the past, when the island was dominated by Hindu kingdoms, all temples and shrines were built facing volcanic mountains nearby. They believed that the gods resided up in the summits. All those ancient temples can still be found in Central and East Java.

In West Java, where Villa Isola was erected, there was no sacred mountains. However, Schoemaker insisted that the building built according to ancient Hindu philosophy. The only volcanic mountain in Bandung was Mount Tangkuban Perahu in the north, so he precisely put the building in an imaginary cosmic axis that spanned from south to north with the front façade facing the mountain.

In the north side of the building, he designed a beautiful garden with fountains and a marble statue. All were beautifully put in one axis line. This was something else I learned about his works. He loved symmetrical. In the south side where the ground was lower than in the north, he created a bigger garden with a pond in the center. Standing at this south garden, I could look down far at the city of Bandung.

In 2007, four years after graduating from college, I traveled to Bandung and intentionally revisited this magnificent building. This time I didn’t come for its architecture. I came for the story behind it. I sat on a stone bench on the park at the north side of the building and let my mind fly back far to one Sunday morning in March 1933 where the very first stone was laid in the beginning of the construction.

It was a huge ceremony attended by many well respected figures like the mayor of Bandung, few members of Dutch East Indies parliament, the president director of Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij, the director of Post Telegraaf en Telefoondienst, the army commanders, editor in chief of several magazines, the Italian consul in Batavia, the regent of Bandung, and many more. Their presence showed us how important Dominique Willem Berrety was.

Born in Java from an Italian father and a Javanese mother in November 1890, Berretty became a successful entrepreneur at such a young age. He started his early career as an employee at Post Telegraaf en Telefoondienst (Post Telegraph and Telephone Service) of Dutch East Indies where he learned a lot about telegraph, shortly after finishing his secondary school.

As an ambitious young man, he pursued a more challenging career by working as an editor in some newspapers and ended up with Java Bode, a very popular daily newspaper published in the colony. He was so successful he was sent to several foreign countries for assignments before the World War One.

The year of 1917 became the most crucial year in Berretty’s life as he got a loan to found a news agency which he named ANETA, an abbreviation for Algemeen Nieuws en Telegraaf Agentschap. This news agency would later made him both famous and notorious, and for sure, wealthy and a media tycoon.

Known as an energetic man who focused mostly on wealth and power, Berrety spent about five hundred thousand guilders to build Villa Isola in 1933. It was such an enormous amount of money spent within the hard years of global great depression.

Deploying about seven hundreds workers, the construction of Villa Isola took only about nine months until it was ready to be occupied. On one Saturday evening in December 1933, Berretty held a house warming party, and of course it was very festive and attended by well respected guests, including the brilliant architect, C.P.W. Schoemaker.

At eight o’ clock that night, the guests were taken on tour around the interior of the house. They were impressed with how the architect work on the space. Every detail and ornament seemed to be carefully selected. It could be said that Villa Isola was few steps ahead for its time. It was modern, sophisticated, and yet built with local ancient philosophy.

Rumor had it that Berretty was close to his downfall by the time he occupied the villa. Some people said that his news agency was under attack as it had irritated many journalists and politicians for its monopoly on news, including the Governor General Bonifacius Cornelis De Jong who saw him as a thread for the Dutch East Indies and suspected that he had been a spy for the Japan.

Whether it was true or not, in the late of 1934, almost a year after he occupied the villa, Berretty flew to Europe to seek a solution for his financial problem. It was sad that he never had the chance to see his beautiful villa ever again. His plane was crashed in December that year near the border of Iraq and Syria. His body was then buried at a British cemetery in Baghdad.

The mystery of his sudden death remains unsolved until today. The official news said that the plane was struck by thunder, buy many people didn’t buy it. They believed there was a conspiracy to eliminate this guy, and that accusation went to Governor General De Jong whose daughter was in a relationship with Berretty.

Apparently, Berretty’s good looking and charming personalities had attracted many women. Within the year of 1918 – 1934, Berretty married six times and had four children out of those marriages. His secret affair with the governor general’s daughter had brought him to classified information that he would pass on to the Japanese who had been interested to seize the colony from the Dutch for its rich natural resources.

Suddenly, I woke up, back to my full consciousness, and found my self standing on the roof top of Villa Isola. There, miles away in the north I could see the majestic Mount Tangkuban Perahu. She hadn’t changed a little bit since Berretty came here for the first time. Then I turned around to the south where I could see the city of Bandung down there. She had changed a lot since the Dutch left its colony. I wondered if the tomb of Professor Schoemaker remained abandoned then. So I sped my car heading to the old Dutch cemetery in the city.

Thanks to the increasing of awareness in preserving cultural heritages, the tomb of the professor was then in a much better condition. I stood for few minutes in front of it, said some prayers, and thanked him for his remarkable contributions to the city of Bandung.

Before leaving the cemetery, I whispered a question whether or not the rumor about Berretty was true. I heard nothing but the sound of wind. May be I should have stopped wondering and left that a mystery. It was a mystery buried down under with Berretty, a man who once said “Mi isolo e vivo,” an Italian phrase for “I isolate myself and I am alive.” And that’s where the name of Villa Isola came from.

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