LOCAL CONCERNS: Saving National Heritage
A high-profile dispute over the old Supreme Court building has reached a dead end. The Supreme Court staunchly insists it has the right to continue with its plan to replace the ageing structure with a new, much bigger office, citing a cabinet resolution it acquired in 1988, but the Fine Arts Department and a group of conservationists want to keep the old building for a simple reason _ it is national heritage.
An image of a proposed group of colossal buildings, compared to the existing courthouse which is to be torn down. Conservationists argue that the new office will lessen the aesthetic value of the Grand Palace next door.
This week, the conservationists, who are campaigning against the demolition of the Supreme Court, decided to promote the issue to the public, calling on people to sign a petition to save the historical building from demolition.
"Members of the public who want to protect the old courthouse can sign the petition at the ASA Centre on the 5th floor of Siam Discovery every day, from 10am to 9pm," Pongkwan Lassus, president of the Association of Siamese Architects' Committee for the Architectural Art Conservation, said.
The courthouse is recognised for its historical and architectural values.
It was built in 1939 in the era of Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram to mark Thailand's judicial independence.
Its plain characteristics features the so-called "modern architectural style" which was dominant in the 1930s. It is also referred to as the "art of the 1932 period" or the "art of the People's Party period" _ the time when the People's Party took power, switching Thailand from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy.
Like other buildings of this particular period, the courthouse has six main pillars at the front, signifying the People's Party's six principles of the supreme power of the Thai people, national security, economic welfare, equality, people's rights and liberties and public education.
But time is running out for the conservationists to save the old courthouse, which was registered as a historical building in 2009.
Demolition is expected to be completed in a few months to pave the way for the new structure, which is designed in the style of modern Thai architecture.
Last week, court officials in charge of the project insisted the demolition would continue as the plan had already been green-lit by the cabinet in 1988.
They also stressed that the Fine Arts Department, as an authorised state agency, had never previously opposed the project. They also threatened to sue the Fine Arts Department if it pursues legal action.
But Ms Pongkwan urges the judiciary to reconsider its stance.
"In fact, the court is not wrong in saying the Fine Arts Department did not object when the project was approved in 1988. But that was more than 20 years ago and at that time, the building in question had not yet been registered as a historical structure," she said.
"But we would like the judiciary to acknowledge the building is now a historical structure and help protect it.
"In a letter in 2009, the Fine Arts Department made it clear the building must be preserved as a historical site. This is important."
The conservationists' move to draw the public into the issue stems from the Historic Buildings and Historic Artefacts Act, revised in 1992, which recognises the people's right to safeguard national heritage.
Chatri Prakitnonthakan, a lecturer at Silpakorn University's Faculty of Architectural Arts, said the Supreme Court's move for the new office, "while lawful, is not legitimate".
This is because it breaches the building control code which sets a height limit for any new buildings in the inner Rattanakosin area at 16 metres.
"In giving approval to the project, the cabinet had to bypass this building code which has been in use for some 30 years," he said.
An expert in the art of the 1932 period, Mr Chatri claimed the judiciary's move is part of the state's effort to discreetly "erase" political history that involved the People's Party. Only a few of buildings from this era are left and most of them are in a worn-out condition, he said.
He said the judiciary missed the point with its stance that the building's so-called modern Thai architecture _ blending Thai characteristics with western-style buildings _ is more beautiful than the existing structure.
"Beauty is not the point. Righteousness is. It does not matter who approves the blueprint. The project is tainted by the fact that a law had to be passed over to secure the cabinet approval. This is not appropriate," Mr Chatri said.
The Supreme Court should set a good example by abiding by the law, he said.
Mr Chatri is also concerned the new buildings, with a height exceeding the legal limit of 16m, will be an eyesore in an area of historical interest. He supplied the computer generated images published here which compare the building as it looks now with a representation of how the new building will look, based on a blueprint which is in the public domain.
In response to the judiciary's concern that the old, run-down structure is unsafe, he points out that new construction technology makes it possible to keep old buildings such as the courthouse in good and safe condition.
"By keeping the courthouse, it does not mean we will leave it in that condition and will not do anything," he said. "Instead, we should do our best to restore it to its original splendour and match the prestige of the judiciary. New technology allows us to do this."
Mr Chatri cited a study on the courthouse's safety condition by a team of architecture lecturers from Chulalongkorn University. The study, which was commissioned by the court itself, said renovation is more cost-effective than building a new one, which would cost more than 2 billion baht.
The network against the demolition of the Supreme Court has also petitioned the National Human Rights Commission, asking it to help protect the old courthouse. Its next plan is to submit a case to the Administrative Court.
Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor