Towards a Home Grown Architecture
To set Thailand apart from other tourist destinations, the Thai Tourism Authority played up scenes of our temples, palaces, houses along the canal, and our traditional dances. These images evoke what we envision to be our heaven. They became the dominant features in the shaping and branding of our tourism promotion.
After all, who would not like to come to heaven? But the disconnection between these idyllic scenes and the reality of modern Bangkok is stark. Tourists arriving in our capital expecting to see the heavily promoted ‘Thai heaven’ will not have to wait long to be disappointed. Our gateway has come to look like any large Asian city with all its high-rise buildings and traffic jams. Even our rural folk are not immune to such shocks when they arrive in Bangkok for the first time. They, too, are left disoriented, getting lost physically and mentally in their own land. This contrasts with the sense of harmony that prevailed in the olden days, where people used to understand their environment. Architecture then had common meanings understood by their users. Each element had its status and relevance, forming a language that people related to. Architecture then had time to mature and evolve. This architectural environment is still alive in less developed areas of Bangkok and in rural areas. The phenomenon, however, is not exclusively a Thai situation. It is true of most other places, facing similar problems to those of Bangkok.
Globalization has altered our lifestyle and living environment. Tradition has given way to diversity, with high-octane commerce now the main driving force which architects are happy to serve, with international design styles adapted as the favoured option. But tourism demands a style that reflects the local culture and gives a sense of place. And adapting traditional architecture to meet this end has its limits; it could only be applied effectively in less dense surroundings with a strong cultural context. To do so in big cities like Bangkok, with their dense surroundings, is daunting. Consequently, architects are challenged to come up with a home-grown style that fits in with the buzz and density of a big city.
The answer should go beyond the route some have taken – our adapting of international styles, which has its problems. This can be seen quite readily in many buildings where one can sense that there is a gap in taste between the designers and the users. Simply said, the hardware may be modern but the software has yet to catch up.
Comparisons between Thai and Japanese traditional architecture are instructive in this regard. The Japanese style, with its concept of simplicity, flexible spaces, modular system, and natural material usage, has aspects that are compatible with modern trends. Japanese architects therefore seem to have less difficulty adapting to the styles of today.
Thai architects have not given up a similar search. They are working hard to come up with a home grown style. Many have adapted the use of traditional symbols and spaces in abstract form, which will evolve and one day may result in a new and fresh style that we can call our own. The greening of Thai architecture also presents another good direction, where sensitivity to the environment and climate would result in an architecture that is sustainable and location based. Together these may form our home grown style. As Plato stated, ‘The life of a man in every part has a need for harmony and rhythm.’ Can this be achieved in such a fast paced world?