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Thai Roots and Contemporary Architecture

Thai Roots and Contemporary Architecture
Sumet Jumsai

The book Six Hundred Years of Work by Thai Artists & Architects by Choti Kalyanamitra, ASA 2003, gives a good inventory of works in the Thai design world, a product of Austronesian cultural entity overlaid with Indian civilization. Thai culture, with its distinctive art and architecture, is marked by adaptability, open-endedness and playfulness, qualities which facilitate the entry of Thai design into the Modern and Contemporary art world. 

After Indianization came Western culture which made its first appearance in the 17th century when Siam exchanged embassies with European powers. Westernization, however, took root firmly from the 19th century under pressure of colonization in the region. Thai students who returned from Europe during that period also projected their own visions of modernity in the system of government as well as in the lifestyle and architecture. However, it was with the change from Absolute to Constitutional Monarchy in 1932 that modern architecture made its debut in Bangkok with such projects as Chalerm Krung Theatre by Prince Samaichalerm Krisdakara, the buildings in the Rietveld style on Rajdamnern Avenue, and the National Stadium by Miu Abhaiwongs. Meanwhile, traditional or classical Thai art and architecture ran their course in parallel seemingly unperturbed, although in reality they too, as in all art movements, went through the cycle of paralysis, re-invention and an uneasy truce, merger even, with Modernism.

By 1970, modern Thai architecture became established with Le Corbusier as the principal source of inspiration. Examples are Rangsan Torsuwan’s Mazda Showroom in Chon Buri, a Boston City Hall-like project which, nevertheless, has an energy of its own; Ong-ard Satrabhandhu’s Panaphan School, a re-interpretation in Bangkok of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt French embassy in Brazilia, now unfortunately demolished; and Sumet Jumsai’s former British Council Building in Siam Square, Bangkok, a Modernist statement which, through the interventions of users, was forced to metamorphose into a deconstructed building. Later, in 1986, his Robot Building would become the mascot of modern Bangkok and feature in a History Channel programme. Later still, in 2009, A49 designers would create for BU Landmark Complex in Rangsit, a diamond-shape or cubist building in the best of the Late Modernist tradition.

With the transformation of Singapore and Hong Kong into financial centres, brand-name architects were commissioned to design buildings in those two cities with, on the whole, fine results. China was the last nation to have joined the club in recruiting the big names in architecture from the West in conjunction with the Beijing Olympics 2008 and the Shanghai World Expo 2010. The prime donne were given cartes-blanches to create masterpieces with seemingly limitless budgets. Bangkok also played the game and ‘bought’ foreign names in architecture but with, at best, glossy results due to the new elite’s limited appreciation of art and architecture. 

Waiting in the wings, however, is the new generation of Thai designers without the prima donna baggage. On many fronts they have broken through the cordon established by Modernists and have ventured into the Contemporary art world to create works which explore antitheses in design and which are therefore inclusive as well as inconclusive.

Among the new generation designers, whose number is rapidly increasing, is architect Thaiwijit Poengkasemsomboon. His design for Mo Hotel in Chiang Mai is exemplary of Contemporary Thai architecture encompassing interior and landscape design in the same spirit. For this project, the architect gathered around him Contemporary interior designers, painters, sculptors and installation artists to design a room each with themes according to the traditional twelve-animal year cycle. There are therefore twelve rooms, one of which was designed by Thaiwijit himself. Walking in there is a poetic experience and freedom outside the design grammar of Modern art allowing one to enjoy the unexpected and the ungrammatical. It is an experience that nevertheless revokes the spirit which underlies Thai culture from its inception. The result is another breath of fresh air in the design world.