The early twentieth colonial city was the target of ‘planning’ which has been defined as “a form of social technology in which environments, and people, were modelled or controlled in accordance with an assumed ‘public good’ (King, 1991, 54). The late colonial city thus became the site in which modernity was, quite literally being constructed and for historians of colonialism the focus for studying the nature and impact of what has been referred to as ‘colonial modernity’.
In the Indonesian context the name most prominently associated with the development of town planning is that of Thomas Karsten. He was only one of a number of European ‘experts’ at the beginning of the 20th century focusing on the ‘orderly development’ of the colonial city in the Dutch East Indies . Their role as professional experts became particularly significant following the Decentralization Act of 1903 granting limited administrative autonomy to the larger Javanese cities. In the colonial context they formed a ‘progressive vanguard’ advocating the modernization of colonial governance. However, as the colonial state became more increasingly reactionary in response to the radicalization of the Indonesian nationalist movement, ‘colonial progressives’ such as Karsten were increasingly marginalized. Karsten died in a Japanese internment camp declaring his hopes for a free Indonesia
This project, part of a larger multi-authored biography, is specifically concerned to uncover Thomas Karsten’s ideas for a modern, post-colonial Indonesia. It draws on an analysis of both his published writing on cultural issues and surviving personal papers relating to his latter years to plot the evolution of and influences on his thinking. It argues that this broader ‘vision’ underpinned his professional life as architect and town planner.