M Bloc Beneath the Hype; Trends, Values and a Soul

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Laila Afifa

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  • M Bloc Space entrance, South Jakarta, Tuesday, November 19, 2019. TEMPO/Bram Setiawan

    M Bloc Space entrance, South Jakarta, Tuesday, November 19, 2019. TEMPO/Bram Setiawan

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The ‘M’ in M Bloc stands for many things; Music, Meals, and Movies, amongst others, communicate the excitement in M Bloc Space. As a house of vibrant gigs and creative culture, M Bloc stands out in its facade. Upon entering the premises, visitors will be greeted by the eye-catching broadway sign adorning the lobby and a cluster of jubilant groups of friends clearly excited in their disposition to be at M Bloc.  

    Chatter and laughter fill the space at M Bloc. As millennials would enjoy their daily afternoon sweet iced coffee along with a healthy dose of the setting sun, vibrance is a quality M Bloc has in abundance. When night comes, these groups of millennials would usually then shuffle their way to the Live House, to enjoy the night’s entertainment.

    Visitors attending Iwan Sastrawan’s ‘Circle of Life’ Exhibition, in Mataruang, M Bloc, South Jakarta, on Thursday, February 22, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda

    “I think M Bloc is heading in the right direction; they know what really appeals to the younger generation. The same thing goes for the concept as well, I think a lot of the younger generation are looking for something nostalgic, and I’m not surprised that millennials would love to frequent here,” said Nadia, an M Bloc visitor, on February 22, 2020.

    After their successful ‘Semua Kembali ke Blok M’ opening party on September 26, 2019, one cannot help but to ponder whether M Bloc is just another easy-come easy-go millennial trend or is it a movement, here to stay. 

    Located in Jalan Panglima Polim, South Jakarta, M Bloc Space is pinned between the ASEAN and Blok M MRT station. Furthermore, as M Bloc is situated within a stone's throw away from the Blok M terminal, its location highly favors the usage of public transport. As a result, M Bloc daringly opens its doors to visitors without any parking space available within the vicinity; ensuring that visitors will resort to public transport for access.

    Visitors enjoying M Bloc’s row of tenants on Jalan Panglima Polim, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda. 

    Walking along the main hallways of M Bloc, parallel to Jalan Panglima Polim, visitors can enjoy a number of tenants, ranging from food and beverages, to music merchandises and comics, cheerily inviting passersby to enjoy the goods on offer. Any commercial transaction, notably, is only facilitated through debit or credit cards, making M Bloc entirely cashless. 

    From a first glance, M Bloc Space exudes a vintage fifties aesthetic. With their cut-out doors and big ornate windows, to a decoratively angled roof and lively canopies, M Bloc continues to pay homage to the ‘Jengki’ style of architecture, ever so popular in the development of Kebayoran Baru as a satellite city in the 1950s.

    Visitors enjoying M Bloc’s row of tenants on Jalan Panglima Polim, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda.

    Aptly, therefore, it is important to note that M Bloc Space has been built on a 6500-meter square plot of state property. Previously owned by state-owned securities paper and banknote printing company Perum Peruri, M Bloc occupies space that has been left abandoned to the mercy of time for decades. As a result, plans were drafted to revitalize this dormant asset, located in one of Jakarta’s most strategic areas.

    “Once we have formulated that this (space) will be a creative hub with music as the crowd puller, we place music at the back of the structure, while the tenants at the front are the introduction. The climax of the M Bloc spatial experience would be the walk from the tenants at the front to the live house at the back of the structure; that’s the scenario we planned,” said the architect behind M Bloc, Jacob Gatot Sura, in an interview with Tempo, on March 5, 2020.

    Although it has been well known that M Bloc stands on state-owned Perum Peruri land, the blueprint was prepared in a mere two months. Furthermore, construction for M Bloc Space was rushed in order to celebrate Perum Peruri’s 48 birthday in September. With construction starting in June, Jacob was mindful of the three and a half month period allotted for construction. “We work with what we have, we did not demolish any building,” said Jacob.

    The appearance of Peruri's ex-employee official houses, built in 1955, before being renovated to become M Bloc tenants, on Jalan Panglima Polim, South Jakarta, February 7, 2019. Credit: Wendi Putranto.

    With this decision in mind, Jacob went on to highlight his careful consideration behind the architectural decision of keeping M Bloc’s ‘Jengki’ aesthetic. The persistence with this architecture style, a celebration of the newfound sense of liberation from classical Dutch influence, is more than just a time or cost constraint.  Rather, Jacob considered the aesthetic to be one the millennials are fond of.

    More fundamentally, however, Jacob realized the historical value inherent in every structure. “The effort to preserve, revitalize, and respect existing buildings; that’s where we started off. We want to preserve the true character of a structure built in the fifties. We want to make this a precedent; a public space does not need to start from demolition,” stated Jacob.

    One of the shop windows at M Bloc Space, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda.

    Thus far, there exists a certain charm in M Bloc’s aesthetic appeal, geared towards attracting the selfie-seeking millennials. On top of that, amplified by the paramount decision to establish M Bloc as a cashless hub accessible only by public transport, there seems to be a calculated measure in appealing to the millennials of Jakarta.

    Be it as it may, certain skeptics might point to these clearly defined values as nothing more than a publicity stunt. The millennial generation is infamously known to be unapologetic in their cyclical tendencies to pick up certain trends as easy as they quickly discard those same trends. 

    M Bloc is as clearly defined in their identity as it is divisive. As a public space groomed to be the millennial’s playground unlike any other in Jakarta, the vocality in which they exude their identity is undeniably uncanny. Over 5 months on from its September opening, M Bloc Space has been well received by the millennials of Jakarta through their unwavering commitment to their values.

    M Bloc’s Broadway sign at the lobby, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda.

    This, however, is no time for celebrations. M Bloc is now enjoying the calm after the storm. Aided by their Instagrammable appeal, M Bloc’s virality in their initial 5 months is undoubtedly not the end goal it is willing to settle with. With more grandeur visions ahead, M Bloc and its trendy identity would need to be grounded, not just a marketing trope to keep the crowd shuffling in.

    Any trend created on virality and without a sense of purpose, would surely be regressed only as a passing millennial trend. Essentially, beneath all the flashy headlines on how ‘millennial-friendly’ M Bloc is, it needs to ensure a sense of fundamental direction present in its vision, as well as genuine underlying values.

    “We want to go grassroots, especially in our appreciation of locality. Culturally, that is the essence of the millennials. M Bloc facilitates that and we aim to avoid fabrications. We keep this place authentic. We create our own trends, as purposive problem solvers,” said M Bloc CEO Handoko Hendyrono to Tempo, on Thursday, March 5, 2020.

    Continuing on, Handoko believes that authenticity is a crucial aspect of how and why M Bloc creates trends. When asked about the no parking policy, Handoko acknowledged that in the greater scheme of things, M Bloc Space contributes only a negligible amount in lowering Jakarta’s carbon emission.

    M Bloc’s Demajors music store, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda.

    However, he remains unbothered in his disposition. Perhaps, this juncture is what separates an authentic sense of belief in trend creation compared to marketing schemes relying on the virality of a trend. “We are authentic in the trends we create; it’s natural and organic branding,” he remarked. 

    As marketable as it is to establish a public space with environmental concern, M Bloc’s vision is grounded on a celebration of the locality. More specifically, Handoko aims to instill a sense of pride and honor in local brands to be able to compete commercially with international brands.

    Having a lengthy background in the advertising and creative agency, Handoko remained perplexed on the underappreciation of local brands. “I saw that local brands ponder for too long in what they see as inferiority. I know I had to make a product; a movement. This is a strong message to how strong local brands are,” Handoko added.

    M Bloc’s row of food and beverage tenants on Jalan Panglima Polim, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda.

    Perhaps then, one will now notice the exclusively local tenants lining up in M Bloc. For a newly established public space relying on the commercial success of their tenants, it initially seemed criminal to not have any recognizable international brands, such as Starbucks or Burger King. These brands are a surefire crowd puller and would provide a sense of familiarity that keeps the wheels of commerce keep on turning.

    Yet, one cannot find any international and capitalistic food and beverage franchise chain in sight. “I am fighting for an ecosystem or creative confidence (for local brands) that truly needs to be designed and pursued communally. Without a sense of community, we will never get there,” Handoko stated.

    Five months in, Handoko acknowledges the importance of the virality they have enjoyed after the opening party. However, when Instagram likes starts to dwindle down, and the location tags disappear, the difficulty will shift to maintain their relevance.

    M Bloc’s Mural Zone, South Jakarta, Thursday, March 5, 2020. Credit: Dio Suhenda.

    Taking into the context that M Bloc’s target market is the notoriously volatile millennial generation, the challenge of relevance is one recognized by Handoko. “After (we are) viral, so what? That’s the most dangerous question. There is no math behind it; it’s different compared to advertising,” he reflected.

    “The most important aspect is the soul. Constructing physical buildings is nothing, as it’s very cheap. Building a soul, however, is not easy. It needs to be made with a purpose and social impact,”  concluded Handoko. 

    Perhaps, ‘the soul’ of public space in all its state, as Handoko would put it, is the antithesis to the bane of public spaces; millennial volatility. 

    DIO SUHENDA