Out with the old

Conservationists continue to fight uphill battles against the demolition of Thailand's historic architecture

This year was a tough one for conservationists who have been vehemently fighting to preserve national heritage under threat in the name of "development".

Hotel construction has been suspended, but not before the development project attracted criticism for ruining the cultural heritage of old-town Amphawa.

Sharing the same doomed fate are state buildings such as the Supreme Court, which is now being dismantled for a new, bigger structure, and private property such as vintage shophouses in Chinatown. Also grabbing public attention is the case of the Amphawa community, which is being forced to welcome a hotel project that will potentially undermine its cultural identity.

While there is hope that certain cases may unfold favourably, as embattled parties are trying to reach some sort of agreement, some cases will drag on in a long fight.

SUPREME COURT

A real tough case: Conservationists are not fighting with rich investors, as in most cases, but with the judiciary.

In the final weeks of this year, the Supreme Court made headlines when it started to demolish an old building in its compound, ignoring a series of petitions by conservationists who want to preserve the historical structure which was constructed in 1939 by the Pibulsonggram government in commemoration of the return of Thailand's judiciary power.

The building _ a modernist architecture popular in the 1930s _ was registered as a historic building in 2009, the same year the Fine Arts Department registered the structure under its heritage protection law by the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA).

The new height of the building, at 32m, breached the law that sets a height limit of 16m for any structure in the inner part of the Rattanakosin area. The inappropriate height of the new offices will certainly overshadow the Grand Palace on the other side of Sanam Luang.

The court claimed cabinet approval in 1988 and the current construction plan was finalised two years ago.

Conservationists from the Association of Siamese Architects and the Society for the Conservation of National Treasure and Environment (Sconte) have turned to concerned agencies, including the Fine Arts Department and the National Human Rights Commission, asking them to intervene and block the Supreme Court's demolition plan.

The controversy is based on concerns the country is about to erase its historical architecture, and the court's move would set a precedent for other agencies wishing to construct tall buildings in the area.

A petition has been carried out under the name of the network of conservationists. People can sign up at the ASA office at Siam Discovery.

Sconte also plans to submit a petition to the Administrative Court seeking to block the demolition.

AMPHAWA

Jewellery trader-turned-developer Chuchai Chairittilert boasted that his European-style luxury hotel would become a new landmark in the peaceful town of Amphawa, but conservationists and locals thought otherwise.

They think the Chuchai Buri Sri Amphawa project emerging in the middle of two-storey wooden houses and orchards is pollution _ environmentally and visually. The nearly 4 rai construction site took away trees and generated noise and dust; the out-of-context structure generated "landscape contamination".

The locals initially put up with the pollution, but the 500 million baht project eventually sparked public outcry when parts of wooden shophouses, representing the charms of the peaceful canal-side town, were torn down to make way for the construction.

People had always been curious about the transparency of the Amphawa municipality's approval, but an investigation took place only after Khon Rak Mae Klong community group and some academics submitted complaints to four House and Senate committees.

The approval for the project that was originally set to be a hotel was dubious _ it was given the go-ahead even though no public hearing took place.

The hotel project stands opposite Wat Pak Ngam, across the Amphawa canal, although the Hotel Act prohibits a hotel to be located within 100m of a temple. The project featuring almost 10,000m2 of utility space in the five buildings didn't need an environmental impact assessment (EIA) report. By law, an EIA report is mandatory for a building or a project with more than 4,000m2 of utility space or a project with 80 rooms.

After an investigation, the Senate committee on natural resources and environment suggested the municipality halt the construction, and Chuchai to either reduce the project scale or conduct an EIA report. The advice was followed.

The construction has now been halted after the municipality issued a letter ordering the project management to stop until the submission of an EIA report or a revised construction plan.

Chuchai has agreed to drop the original plan to build a hotel. His team is also working on a new construction plan to reduce the utility space to avoid an EIA report.

YAOWARAT

Hidden in a small soi off Charoen Krung Road in Chainatown, the Charoen Chai community has been known as a retail/wholesale market for Chinese joss paper.

The people sensed an uncertain future five years ago when the landlord, the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation, refused to extend the lease on the old-style low-rise shophouses five years ago. For others, having the mass transit station nearby is a boon, but for the Charoen Chai locals, it is a nightmare as eviction is imminent. The mass transit system will turn this old community into prime investment area. Part of the area, which is designated as an exit for an MRT station, has now been bulldozed.

The community has every right to feel insecure.

The new town plan has allowed a building as high as 37m, approximately 12 storeys high, to be built within a 500m radius from the subway exits. It was tempting enough for the landlord to turn the plot into a large-scale shopping and residential complex, or a hotel with up to 80 rooms.

The tenants knew they would soon be booted out if they didn't fight. This is more than the loss of a living place _ it is the loss of traditional lifestyle of the Chinese descendants whose ancestors moved to Bangkok in the early Rattanakosin era.

The locals formed the Charoen Chai conservation group in 2010. They revived their Moon Festival ceremony and opened up a museum, Baan Kao Lao Rueng, to show what the community and their traditional businesses mean to Chinatown and that they are worth preservation. Then they moved on to renovate the exteriors of the century-old residential buildings to show their willingness to cooperate with the landlord to maintain the old quarters.

There was only one solution, the group agreed, to avoid any mega-project in the vintage neighbourhood _ the revision of the third draft of the city plan, changing the area from a commercial zone to a conservation zone to preserve the historical buildings and lifestyle. The effort, somehow, failed.

Despite the uncertain future, the group refuses to give up. To be fair with the landlord, it plans to propose higher, more reasonable lease fees in every contract renewal and to help the landlords to maintain and improve the buildings and environs.

Another community facing a similar fate is Woeng Nakhon Kasem, which dwells on a 14 rai plot of land on the other end of Chinatown.

The community of Chinese descendants began the fight by bidding for the land upon hearing the owner was seeking new investors for the plot.

Although they lost the bid to TCC Capital Land, they still fight on. To keep the "spirit" of the 300-year-old community for the next generation, the tenants moved on to negotiate with the new landlord, pushing forward a development proposal which is to gradually increase the lease fees to meet the market price, and part of the community is to be developed into parking space.

It remains to be seen if their proposal will get the nod from the landlord. But the landlord has, at least, promised to listen.

Low-rise wooden houses, and orchards were bulldozed to pave way for the colossal  Chuchai Buri Sri Amphawa project in Amphawa.

Woeng Nakhon Kasem is a museum of items Bangkok residents of an earlier era used.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai
Position: Reporter