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.
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.
European-style royal architecture, Ayutthaya.
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.
Left: A distinctly Art Deco feel in this small temple within the larger ‘Steel Fence’ Buddhist temple complex. Right: monastery, ‘Steel Fence’ wat.
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.
Example of teak house on stilts, Ayutthaya.
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.
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 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.
Unrestored house on the undeveloped western side of Chao Phraya River in the Old Kadeejeen/Portuguese community.
A mix of Thai and European in the facade of the National Library.
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.
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.
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.
Entrance gates, Lumphini Park. While imitating European war monuments and echoing earlier triumphal arches, note the Thai finials.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
March 19, 2013
A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, graphite pencil
I have a long-standing habit of emphasising contrast in my on-location urban sketching, most often a contrast between the “current timeframe” (what I observe when I’m drawing) and the ‘timeframe’ when the building was first built, an “idealised” or “sanitised” version of the building and street. Generic or idealistic views are reminiscent of book illustration or architectural drawing; anything extraneous or denoting a specific timeframe is removed. I situate a building or streetscape in “present” time; I tend not to delete power lines and other aspects of contemporary life which traditional artists delete in the name of “neat” composition. I “adjust” very little on the page compred to what I am looking at. It is of course risky and brave; Art is supposed to lift our spirits rather than represent exactly what we see. But some artists have painted scenes exactly as they have seen them; Rembrandt sketched windmills, for example, as innovative and new then as windfarms are now.
Here I abandoned the idea of using watercolour for the various traditional orange/white/red/green tile patterning of the roof and instead made it interesting by the inclusion of the cars in the public sala or courtyard. In a lot of Bangkok wat, these public areas are open areas with seating, often with examples of bodhi trees (Wat Pho’s dates from Ayutthaya times). These days, small or large sections of public area are set aside for car-parking. I’ve not seen (yet) any photographs of wat sala before cars came along. I imagine that after the next Oil Crisis, we’ll return to a time when cars won’t be parked in these areas to the same extent they are now. I’ve certainly “dated” my sketch to the early 21st century, before Bangkok got Really Serious about environmental issues and climate change.
Wat Kalaya is prominent because of its unusual height; it stands out on the western, “undeveloped” side of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. You can see that from this view taken of the western riverfront while crossing the Memorial Bridge. At far left, the “Steel Fence” wat, then to the right, a prominent red-roofed government building; further to the right, the Old Kadeejeen community facing on to the river, then the very Western Church of Santa Cruz, finishing with the Wat Kalaya. I guess it’s probably possible to walk this entire distance in half an hour (walking quickly and without stopping!).
This is the last of my Bangkok sketches. I took some additional photos of things and scenes which are sketchable and/or because the surrounding environment made them impossible to sketch on-site.
My three separate sketchbooks (one done from photos before travelling; a small one for thumbmails and an A4 for long poses) are all half-full. I’ll continue to add to them over time because there are so many aspects of the city to continue to research. I have come away from Bangkok with more questions about what I was sketching than answers; this is one of the key problems to travel, but the idea of “journey” continues independent of actually being in the city.
March 18, 2013
A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook; graphite pencil and watercolours.
Wat Kalayanamitr stands majestically overlooking the Chao Phraya River. Its height alone makes it stand out on the skyline of the western, undeveloped side of the river.
This alley runs away from the Wat Kalayanamitr, along its eastern boundary, away from the riverside to the Wat Kalaya ‘land-side’ residential area. The alley ends at the main highway, with something resembling an Ancient Roman triumphal arch. The alley has small shopfronts but is not at all as earnestly commercial as those on the eastern side of the river. There is a distinctly rural feel; it’s not out to prove itself, though its inhabitants are certainly quietly struggling. It could have been the high street of an “old-time” village anywhere in SE Asia – I scarcely felt I was in Thailand specifically.
This includes all my routine favourite themes in urban sketching: ways in which buildings can dominate their environments, plus clash between the traditional and the contemporary
March 17, 2013
A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, graphite pencil and watercolour
First of all the house. This large, stand-alone, run-down teak wood house faces on to the Chao Phraya River, separated by a swathe of grass and the footway/bikeway at the water’s edge. It’s special because of its size, higher than the houses in the Old Kadeejeen Portuguese community.
Secondly, the grassy area in front of the house. This is really quite unusual in Bangkok. Having moved around the city for more than a week, the number of vacant blocks or areas of vacant land in the city I saw could be counted on one hand. I saw a large area of forest surrounded by some high-rise buildings in Krung Thonburi and another in Baan Krua, a former weaving suburb, among some houses. The contrast is quite stark.
I can’t say whether this house once faced directly on to the river and some land reclamation has occurred, or whether it was part of an estate or whether the buildings in front of it were at some later date cleared. I liked the disjunct so much between the house and the land that I couldn’t help stress it in the composition.
The house is occupied. Its appearance contrasts strongly with a recently completely refurbished colonial house over on the other side of the river near Sathon Tower. In that case, land surrounding an old house has been sold off and is now occupied by 50-storey towers. The colonial house stands in splendid isolation, especially so since there is no landscaping around it at present.
My sketching colleagues on the 2013 Chao Phraya event also found the house worth sketching. The vantage point is the riverside footway/bikeway.
March 17, 2013
A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, graphite pencil and W&N watercolours
Compared to the Chinese shrines in the local area, this Portuguese church (known as Kuti Jiin) in Old Portuguese Kaleedjeen district is much larger and grander, with quite a relatively large public square between its own ferry pier and the church building. It’s not as large as two other large Christian churches in Bangkok, but is a very strong presence among the one- and two-storeyed houses and shophouses round about. The perspective is a bit whacky here, but is half-deliberate because I wanted to show how the church dominates its environment.
The only relief in terms of Nature are the potted fir trees round the outside, which look comparatively odd compared to the eccentric-looking manicured topiary characteristic of Buddhist wat and the Chinese shrines. They don’t seem to relieve the vast areas of stucco and masonry. But this is a much more modern building than its peers, built exactly a hundred years ago this year.
Despite being surrounded by dozens of international sketchers, I seemed to tune them out – the public square is hot, exposed and barren, somewhat desolate especially when compared to the busy-commercial sala or public square outside nearby Wat Kalayanamitr, the next stop on our journey towards the Klongsan end of Old Kaleedjeen. The church too is only open on Sundays, whereas the Buddhist wat are pretty much 24/7 busy. As elsewhere in Bangkok, Buddhist yellow flags alternate with the red, white and blue Thai one.
Across the Chao Phraya River is the Assumption Cathedral, emblematic of the French missionary influence during the reign of Rama II (r 1809-1824) and it’s worthwhile comparing Santa Cruz with it.
March 17, 2013
A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook; graphite pencil B and 8B and Winsor & Newton watercolor
Fronting directly onto the main river of Bangkok are two Christian churches, the Church of the Assumption (Riverside) and on the other side, but not too far distant, Santa Cruz (Kadeejeen). I like the pavilion at the Santa Cruz ferry pier, dating from early last century, if only because it reminds me of similar early-2oth century public structures in Sydney. I drew over the heads of the dozens of sketchers participating in the 2013 Sketchwalk Chaophraya.
And here’s a coloured pencil sketch from a photograph, done prior to visiting Bangkok, of the pavilion and the square giving on to the church proper:
March 17, 2013
A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, graphite pencil and W&N watercolour
Bangkok’s oldest Chinese shrine (over 200 years’ old) adjacent to the Old Portuguese-Kadeejeen district, the focus of attention by 100 sketchers on the morning of Day 2 of the 2013 Chao Phraya international urban sketching event.
From the viewpoint of the footpath-bikeway on the riverfront of the Chao Phraya River, I aimed to put this tiny shrine (as if bent over and shrivelled by age) in its modern context: buildings with tv aerials, the recently-refurbished green-and-gold light poles of the district and this year’s Chinese New Year festivities. The Kuan Yin shrine has a tiny, open public courtyard with clipped trees.