A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Bangkok Architecture (draft)

April 5, 2013

Some notes today on Bangkok architecture. I’ve been surprised to learn that there is no comprehensive guide to architecture in Bangkok. I’ve been able to find a handful of essays, not more than few hundred words long. If there is such a guide written in Thai, it seems not to have been translated into English.

Today’s title is a play on the title of the book by Richard Appeley et al. on Australian architecture. Apperley was a student of J.M.Freeland who write a history of architecture in Australia.

In one sense, documenting the architecture of Bangkok is almost superfluous considering its fate in the next generation or two. Sinking at the rate of 5-10cm a year and with sea levels projected to rise by two metres, Bangkok as we know it will have disappeared by the end of the century. Just as Bangkok was an outcome of the former, ancient Siamese capital, Ayutthaya, one can only presume that Bangkok too, before long, will move somewhere else. Moving 16.5 million people won’t be easy, but the consequences of not doing so have, in a sense, already been felt, given the flooding of the Chao Phraya River back in 2010.

Given that Bangkok won’t be round for long, it was a privilege to have visited it and sketched it recently, however briefly. I didn’t go to Bangkok with the specific intention of assessing Bangkok’s architectural history, but the different styles of building I encountered posed more questions than answers.

Here’s the first draft of my own Pictorial Guide to Identifying Bangkok Architecture. Over time, I’ll flesh out these summaries with more information and examples. While Lonely Planet has excised its little chapter on Bangkok architecture from its current City Guide, the current edition does give a lot of chronological information for individual buildings, which I’ve yet to arrange in some sort of timeline.

Royal architecture

History is always written by the victors, the elite 1%, so it’s not surprising that examples of architecture associated with the royal dynasty over the last two hundred years (Bangkok being a little over 200 years old) have been listed and described.

Royal residences have been re-purposed as institutional buildings, as is the case with the National Museum. The key example is the opulent Dusit Palace, built in the European style, following the King’s visit to Europe in the late 19th century.

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European-style royal architecture, Ayutthaya.

Ecclesiastical architecture

Bangkok’s ecclesiastical architecture reflects its multicultural heritage: Buddhist, Chinese, Hindu and Christian buildings are found throughout the city.

Buddhist temples are ubiquitous in Bangkok and, like all aspects of Buddhist art, the designs are generally highly regulated according to time-honoured forms.

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Left: A distinctly Art Deco feel in this small temple within the larger ‘Steel Fence’ Buddhist temple complex. Right: monastery, ‘Steel Fence’ wat.

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I’ve put a sketch up of Bangkok’s oldest Chinese temple first, because Bangkok is basically a ‘Chinese’ city. The Church of Santa Cruz represents Portuguese Christian influences in the city (while Assumption Cathedral represents the French). I found in Bangrak a strong Indian/Hindu presence, typified by the Hindu temple there (like the Christian examples, again, built in the late 19th and early 20th century when Bangkok officially opened itself up to outside influences) and lastly one of many mosques in the city.

Thai Teak Traditional

Scattered among the high-rise of contemporary Bangkok, it’s possible to come across very old examples of traditional houses made from teak, double-storeyed with wide eaves and shuttered windows. The best known tourist landmark is Jim Thompson’s House, itself relocated from Ayutthaya.

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Example of teak house on stilts, Ayutthaya.

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Echoes of the traditional teak house style can be seen in this extremely modest example in Old Kadeejeen (west bank) of a shophouse residence (the shuttered windows), nothwithstanding modern renovations including Besser cement blocks normally associated with factories and warehouses in Bangkok.

Riverside Colonialist Style

“Riverside” here refers to a specific stretch of river frontage, directly on to the main Chao Phraya River. South of Talat Noi, at least two or more miles of the riverside was once given over to such international mercantile enterprises as the East Asiatic Co, Chartered Bank, British Dispensary, Bombay Burmah Trading Co, Banque de l’Indochine, Messrs Howarth Erskine, as wellas the Portuguese, French, Russian, British, American, German and Italian embassies. For the era, the well-financed architecture for this area, known then as today as Bang rak (Bangrak) was Bangkok’s most flamboyant, a mixture of grand neo-classical fronts, shuttered Victorian windows and Beaux Art ornamentation. Some of these old buildings have survived to the present. All have been obscured by more modern structures along Charoen Krung Road, and hence the best way to appreciate them as a group is from the river itself, by boat. Specific examples include the East Asiatic Company building and the former Customs House (now the river fire brigade).

The style, in its commercial applications, is characterised by the large boxy size one would ordinarily associated with warehouses and grand facades symbolizing economic success. The density of such buildings along the river frontage has given rise to the Riverside Architectural Walk.

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Left. An example of the Thai middle classes and aristocracy imitating the grand European ‘colonial’ style. This one faces Lumphini Park in what is now the embassy quarter. Right: a civic building (now government offices) reflecting both European influences and a gabled roof imitating those of the Buddhist temples nearby at Wat Kalayanamitr. 

Ratanakosin

Ratanakosin or Old Bangkok refers to influences from Europe during the late 19th and 20th century. Thais began mixing traditional Thai with European forms in this period, as exemplified by the Vimanmek Teak Mansion (Dusit Palace), the Author’s Wing of the Oriental Hotel, the Chakri Mahaprasat next to Wat Phra Kaew, and any number of older residences and shophouses.

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Unrestored house on the undeveloped western side of Chao Phraya River in the Old Kadeejeen/Portuguese community.

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A mix of Thai and European in the facade of the National Library.

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Shophouse facades. Left: unrestored in Riverside; the window treatment is not dissimilar to those used in Sathorn House, a residence in Sathorn built by Thai aristocrats. Right: restored example.

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Gate reflecting Art Nouveau, Ayutthaya.

Preservation of architectural heritage is very often the concern of the middle classes. This is true in Bangkok as it is in, for example, Sydney, with its National Historic Trust. Thus, in Riverside, for example, one finds the small cluster of residential houses associated with a local middle class family who inhabited them just prior to World War II. Known today as the Bangkokian Museum, they are characterised by shuttered windows, small dark rooms to minimise the heat and maximise any cross-ventilation breezes.

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A modest, unrestored teak house, not dissimilar to the Bangkokian Museum houses and a mere couple of blocks away from that Museum in Riverside.

Thai Art Deco

In the early 20th century, architects left the Victorian era behind, blended European Art Deco with functionalist restraint and created Thai Art Deco. Built just before WW, an early and outstanding example of this style is Hualamphong Railway Station. The station’s vaulted iron roof and neoclassical portico are a testament to state-of-the-art engineering, while the patterned, two-toned skylights exemplify Dutch modernism.

Fully realised examples of Thai Deco from the 1920s and ’30s can be found along Chinatown’s main streets, particularly Th Yaowarat. Whimsical art Deco-style sculptures, the Eiffel Tower, a lion, an elephant, a Moorish dome – surmount vertical towers over doorways. Atop one commercial building on Th Songwat perches a rustling odel of a WWII Japanese Zero warplane. Placed there by the Japanese during their brief occupation of Bangkok in 1941, it coordinates perfectly with the surrounding Thai Deco elements. Other examples are Sala Chalermkrung, the Royal Hotel and Rachadmanoen Boxing Stadium.

A very imposing example of Thai Art Deco, the former General Post Office, is currently being renovated.

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Entrance gates, Lumphini Park. While imitating European war monuments and echoing earlier triumphal arches, note the Thai finials.

 

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Art Deco detailing: Left – a bridge (later surmounted by skyrail) over a klong canal in Baan Krua district. Right: a gate inside the renowned Buddhsit temple, Wat Pho.

Post-war Internationalism

 During most of the post-WWII era, the trend in modern Thai architecture, inspired by the German Bauhaus movement, was towards a boring International Style functionalism, and the average building looked like a giant egg carton turned on its side. The Thai aesthetic, so vibrant in pre-war eras, almost disappeared in this characterless style of architecture.

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Left: Featureless commercial buildings in the Baan Krua district. Now run down, they are almost certainly due for demolition and replacement with commercial/residential high-rise. Right: the ‘giant egg carton turned on its side’ in Th Surawongse, Si Lom.

Contemporary Internationalism

The architecture having the most impact on the city at the moment is the multi-storey high-rise building post-1970. We know, thanks to the Lonely Planet city guide, that the city has been moving skywards almost as quickly as it has expanded outwards. When the Dusit Thai Hotel opened in 1970 it was the capital’s tallest building, and even by the end of that decade fewer than 25 buildings stood taller than six floors.

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The Rose Hotel (Silom) stands at five storeys and dates from around the time of the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s. As you can see from this view from its top floor, it is the tallest building in the immediate vicinity, except for those which were obviously in the 21st century. Note the extensive use of concrete walls and corrugated fibro-cement roofing in the factories behind the Rose Hotel.

By the year 2000, nearly 1000 buildings could claim that distinction, with at least 20 of them towering higher than 45 floors. On Th Sathon Thai is the Bank of Asia headquarters, known locally as the ‘Robot Building’. Thai architect Sumet Jumsai combined nut-and-bolt motifs at various elevations…

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The Buddhist wat influences secretes itself into even the most contemporary of contexts. Left: a re-purposed religious buildings – this traditional Buddhist temple building in one of Silom’s main streets is surrounded by high-rise (Meridien Hotel in background) and sits opposite contemporary commercial high-rise in the financial district. Right: also in Silom’s Surawongse Road, an example of a tiny Buddhist shrine, found outside every hotel and commercial building, no matter how contemporary. 

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This view of the Chao Phraya River near Memorial Bridge shows what Bangkok would have looked like till the 1970s: most buildings at a very ‘human scale’ of five storeys or less.

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This is an example of how public transport systems are creating opportunities for high-density residential development in modern-day Bangkok. I’d posit that this high-rise would not exist on the undeveloped western side of the Chao Phraya River were it not for the fact that the mass transit system/skyrail has been expanding with more subway stops in this direction in recent years. 

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