By Tritip Chayasombat
As a Thai architect, I noticed that the most common architectural projects in Thailand today, and many other metropolitan areas in Southeast Asia, are high-rise living developments. The romanticized images of elephants and temples are nothing more than symbolic representations of the past. Instead, at the peak of a consumerist society, the collective aim of Thai people is to attain a better-than-good life, fueled by constant advertising and social media. To respond to such a desire, high-rise developments disregard the natural evolution of an architecture that is unique and suitable to a Thai context in favor of a luxurious “Western” style.
Thailand changed drastically in 1942, when the country discarded its old name, Siam, in an effort to escape colonization. It was an opportunity to redefine values and beliefs according to the Western standards. Without time to mobilize our own traditions and wisdom, we embodied what seemed to be superior ideas and technologies in order to seek acceptance from others. Even though we have remained an independent nation, the result is no different from one of overpowering modernization
‘Architecture Redux’ reflects on high-rise developments in Thailand and their fundamental architectural elements. It is based on an existing project in Bangkok, designed and built in 2012 during my time as a project architecture for Atelier of Architects. The process of a developer-driven imagination started with a “municipality designed” and “municipality approved” set of drawings that the client brought to us, asking for beautification in order to satisfy the tastes of their target group. The building was finished in 2014, but due to budget cuts and logistical difficulties along the way, all design elements were removed or replaced with basic methods and mass-produced materials. Only a few wealthy clients could have matched our high ambition. Not everybody can afford an architect’s dream.
In such a prescriptive and predetermined system, all real estate developers go for “maximum-profit” feasibility by using easy, fast, and standardized construction methods. Consequently, inhabitants must adapt to “minimum-required” artificial contexts. Long gone are the local materials and skill sets, replaced by shiny mass-produced modules and BIM design projects. Many local architects have tried to fight against this trajectory, but rarely succeed to make their solutions economically reasonable. Rather than being subordinated and flattened by globalization, regions should be embedded in a world system of complex interdependencies that are physical, social, cultural, and, above all today, ecological.
A neglected and underestimated part of our work as architects is to deal with architectural elements at the component level because they contain the potential to exert influence beyond just one building. I selected seven important components to manipulate: floors, walls, ceilings, shadings, railings, doors, and windows. All went through a series of experiments structured into categories: aesthetics, climatic context, standardization, relations, and economics. I then observed their performance and their repercussions on various living conditions.
From the experiment, I concluded that there is no one true answer but rather chains of possible events. It also proves that the whole building process can be subverted by implementing small changes to a standardized component. Whether it is a window, a ceiling, or the position of a unit in the building, my manipulations guarantee a better performance of the same ordinary building. By reinserting the trial components into an actual working process, I generated three possible scenarios from their different combinations that respond to different situations and target groups: luxury, comfort, and budget. All show the extent to which the effects can spread, from one single unit, to the whole building, and perhaps, to a building designed by another architect, and maybe, in time, to another one after that. Even if each scenario has different focal points, they all share an improved living quality. At the same time, they respond to the client’s financial concerns and contractor’s limited skill sets, and most importantly safeguard an architect’s personal design agenda.
Modernization favors the tabula rasa approach to clear and flatten the site, thereby optimizing the economy of earth-moving equipment and also making way for the rational layout of building. This removal of topography is a gesture of the universal technique resulting in placelessness. Critical regionalism would instead embrace the topography as a manifestation of the regions geologic and agricultural history. This then would be transferred into the form of any building placed here, the building set into the terracing contours of the land.
Though without the appearances and materials, vernacularity can be embedded in the knowledge, the process, the performance and in tiny pieces of details.
(1) Lefaivre, Liane, and Alexander Tzonis. Architecture of Regionalism in the Age of Globalization: Peaks and Valleys in the Flat World. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2012.
(2) Frampton, Kenneth. “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance.” In The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture. Seattle: Bay Press, 1983.
Tritip Chayasombat is an architect from Bangkok, Thailand, with a Post-Masters degree from The Berlage Center of Advance Architecture and Urban Design at TU Delft in the Netherlands. An inspired critical regionalist and a passionate multidisciplinary designer, Tritip is currently working at VMX Architects in Amsterdam.