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Dream Merchant, Part 1

Your faithful reporter at right at press conference
See Part 2 here.

One of our long-time reader/correspondents, Mr. P. in Thailand, suggested that I post a sort of Lessons Learned from my experience building the Ciputra Artpreneur, which is Indonesia's first private, for-profit cultural arts centers.  Never one to turn down a faithful reader if I can help it, read on, McDuff!  You will want to brew up a pot of strong coffee for this one.  It's going to be long.

The Ciputra Artpreneur is the latest destination cultural arts center in Jakarta.  It is located in Kuningan, South Jakarta at Ciputra World 1, part of a three-phase multi-use development that includes malls, hotels, health care, apartments, park areas, a convention center and other amenities.  Once complete, one could almost spend their entire life there with no need to explore the world at large.

The Artpreneur is located on the 11th floor above Lotte Shopping Avenue and is comprised of three levels totaling 3,000 square meters with half of it being a large gallery/expo area, an art museum and a 1,200-seat proscenium theater.  It is owned by the Ciputra family, as is the entire development, and adjoins the Raffles Hotel, which is Jakarta's first so-called 6-diamond hotel (personal butlers optional).

I was the Executive Director for Operations for the Artpreneur and oversaw the construction and start-up of the center, including bringing the first-ever Broadway musical to Indonesia (Disney's Beauty and the Beast).  You may have noticed that I used the simple past tense, and thereby hangs a tale.

The first show we held was the largest collection of Kurt Wenner's work ever assembled - 11 pieces taking up the entire 1,300 sqm of the exhibition space.  The place was not finished and work schedules were shifted to night in order to accommodate the show.  It wasn't my first choice to host the show at the time, since we were well behind schedule, but it was a great show and meeting Kurt was a real pleasure.  Having the general public running around in what was essentially still a construction zone, though, had me doing my best long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

The greatest number of problems I encountered on the project were directly related to cultural differences.  Nothng of this kind had previously existed in the country and Indonesian's are not particularly concerned with safety and standards.  Since I have never had more than a paper cut on any project I've ever done, I was determined not to start now, and spent an inordinate amount of time running around wailing and gnashing my teeth about safe working environments.

A major cultural difference is that Indonesians do not like directness.  It is an affront to them and it makes them feel as if the person being direct is angry.  This fact leads to meetings that are interminable.  They start late (no Indonesian is ever on time), involve a lot of small talk and useless chatter, and no one ever gets passionate about anything.  You can imagine the fun when a hot-tempered Irish-Texan walked into this mix.

At any rate, the construction update meetings were all-day affairs, with at least one or two meals being served in the process.  However, I was deeply frustrated because the actual business at hand was no more than an hour or two.  One day, I finally had had enough and told everyone we were going to have a meeting ex-pat style.  We finished the primary business in 45 minutes, with an additional hour of break-out meetings to address specific problems.  This was down from 8 to 10 hours.  I am not sure how offended anyone was, but I was hugely relieved.  Meetings after that were significantly faster and more productive.

The construction had languished for nearly two years because there was no one involved who had any clue as to how to proceed.  From the moment I stepped in until we hosted the owner's 83rd birthday party was eight months.  That means it went from a dark, dirty, mosquito-infested hell-hole to a mostly functional art center in one-third the time it took to get to the hell-hole phase.

The first major problem I faced when I came on-board was that no one had been following ISO standards, thus as-built drawings were virtually non-existent.  This was a major headache because the contractor had re-positioned air-handling units into the audio booth, had not built out the sound-proof wall according to spec and had made a hundred modifications that were not documented.  I spent the first month walking around with a massive roll of drawings trying to catalog all the changes.  This was vital in order to know which things could pass and which had to be fixed.

The big wrench in the works was that the local contractor had never built a theater or museum, and was making changed based on lack of knowledge of the specialized uses and needs for these kinds of places.  He would cut vital systems to save money with no concept of why they were designed in the first place and absolutely no experience to guide his judgement.

This led to a number of big yelling matches in which I demanded partial demolitions to back up and start again, making sure the second time that things were correct.  Out of a (I assume) genuine desire to understand, the contractor constantly asked me "why."  I tried my best to educate him and his team, but after several months, and a fast approaching deadline, I finally lost my cool and said that I never wanted to hear "why" again.  Just do what I say and be happy with it.  I will worry about the "why" part.

This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the owner really had no idea what they had gotten into.  Thinking that most of the really expensive stuff was just over-engineering, it caused a great amount of consternation when I informed them that they could not bring major shows into the center without meeting certain criteria, including a very expensive rigging system, an even more expensive lighting and sound system, and so forth.  But these were the easy battles.  The big one was yet to come.

Remember I said the Artpreneur was on the 13th floor?  It is surrounded by a parking garage with two enormous spiral ramps leading up from ground level.  The only way to get anything, including a Broadway show, onto the stage was to drive everything up the ramp to the 12th floor, off-load it and hand-carry it up a bank of escalators, through the theater lobby and onto the stage from the audience (house).  This, frankly, wasn't going to fly.  I gave the owner a choice: either you settle for hosting lecture series on the stage, or you need a lift system to get the equipment and scenery from the ground to the stage door.  To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, Beauty and the Beast travels in 12 x 40-foot containers that were never going to fit on the spiral ramp, and the only lift that came anywhere near the stage was just big enough for about eight adults.

This led to a six-month battle because the cost of retrofitting a heavy lift system was considerable, but the entire goal of the center was moot without it.  One day, while enjoying one of my frequent smoke breaks to calm my temper down, I was standing at the spiral ramp when I had a true "eureka" moment.

I proposed fitting a 3.5-tonne lift into the center core of the spiral ramp.  This would get us to the 11th floor, which was 11/13ths of the problem solved.  Later, after very long hours of examining drawings, I found a hole between the beams and columns that would perfectly accommodate another 3.5-tonne lift to go from the 11th floor garage to the 14th floor, directly behind the stage.  This system would require significant demolition and expense, but there was no way I could do what I had been asked to do without it.

Turns out, the lift system was completed less than 24 hours before Beauty and the Beast arrived, and had yet to be tested and commissioned the last time I checked.

The next major issue was the orchestra pit.  Keep in mind that the bottom of the pit was the ceiling for the museum, which houses the largest private collection of the now-deceased artist Hendra Gunawan.  Being a ceiling, it has a greatly reduced load capacity, as well as a number of beams running through the pit smack in the middle of where all the lift gears should be.

For those who don't know, orchestra pits have a number of purposes.  First, they provide a place for a live orchestra that is well below floor level in order to mute the sound and prevent the music from overwhelming the voices.  Second, the pit lift provides a means to raise and lower equipment from storage areas beneath the stage (road boxes, etc.).  Third, it provides additional functionality for things like special effects or an extended apron in front of the grand drape (convenient for hosting 2 shows at the same time).  Without a mechanical lift, one function (storage) is lost, another is reduced (muting) and the third is severely hampered by requiring complex scaffolding and manual labor for the remaining functions.

Because the pit floor is also a ceiling, we lost 2 tonnes off of the loading capacity that was specified.  We lost a full 65 cm off the depth, meaning the orchestra would be much louder than it should have been.  The ability to provide a thrust area in front of the drape was all but abandoned.  And most of the special effects applications I can think of are lost.

These are just a few examples of the many construction and engineering problems I faced.  Others included the rigging system, halon system, UV-reduced lighting, and oh so much more.  Most were solved or at least reduced, but the outcome was strictly dependent on the owner's willingness to purchase the needed equipment and specialized services to correct the issues.

In Part 2, we'll look at the more interesting and intractable problem: cultural.  How does one create a culture that does not exist?

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