If there is something we can learn from the demolition of the Supreme Court's old office - an ongoing dispute that has attracted much attention from historians, conservationists as well as legal experts - it is that the value of most buildings erected in the same era are underrated and are at risk of being torn down.
Modern architecture represented by the torn-down Supreme Court buildings are masterpieces built during the administration of Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram, a key figure of the People's Party (Khana Ratsadon) that staged a revolution that replaced absolute monarchy with constitutional monarchy in 1932.
In Thai history and politics, Plaek has been made the "bad guy" because of his leadership in the revolution that ended centuries of absolute monarchy. Linked to the People's Party, "the art and architecture is therefore seen as the 'bad guy' in art history as well", said Chatri Prakitnonthakarn, lecturer at Silpakorn University's Faculty of Architecture and an expert on Thailand's modern architecture.
"It was a black hole in Thai history," added Chatri. The architecture during the time was rejected in the textbooks and the Thai collective memory.
Often insulted by royalists as bad-taste art, the modern style was once referred by MR Kukrit Pramoj, former prime minister, as "cheap art" that Plaek picked up from cafes along Champs-Elysee while he was studying in Paris.
The art and architecture of Plaek's time rejected all conventional art and architecture of the absolute monarchy year. The geometric, straightforward style - instead of the Siamese flourishes - was to signify equality of the people.
This new style was then named by academics as "Khana Ratsadon's art" and seen as a propaganda tool by the People's Party, which came to power in 1932.
Adopted from European modern art from the post-industrial revolution, the style lacks elaborate details and the architecture often ended up as simple square buildings. The form-follows-function design was too simple for Thais who had always praised the adorned beauty of the art and architecture in the absolute monarchy style.
''It's too simple for Thais to love,'' said Chatri.
Chatri looked into the history and found an intention to ''erase'' such design from the period. Many of the buildings from the era have been demolished with a hidden agenda. Sala Chalerm Thai was torn down in 1989 because it was agreed that the plot had to be cleared to create a better landscape for Wat Ratchanatda and Loha Prasat.
The expert cited the different fate of two theatres that shared similar architecture - Sala Chalermkrung and the bygone Sala Chalerm Thai. The former was built during the reign of King Rama VII as the country's first large-scale theatre and the latter during the administration of Plaek as the national theatre.
''If the history of the two theatres swapped, would Sala Chalerm Thai be demolished?'' asked Chatri.
Buildings in Bangkok featuring modern architecture from the era of the People's Party include Mahidol Bamphen at Siriraj Hospital, Thailand Post Office headquarters, commercial buildings along Ratchadamnoen Avenue and Supachalasai Stadium.
However, more buildings featuring modern architecture are well preserved in Lop Buri province, which was once planned by Plaek to become the new capital. These buildings stand a better chance of being saved for the next generation to learn from.
Hidden in the military zone, quite a few modern buildings from the time of Field Marshal Plaek have been preserved. There is the plain three-storey Baan Pibulsonggram that once served as the residence of Plaek, and the chateau that was once used as Plaek's safe house and the military headquarters for the Khao Nam Jone mission.
''Plaek is seen as a hero in the military,'' said Chatri. His work has been well kept and turned into military zone tourist attractions. However, those buildings outside the military zone in Lop Buri, mostly owned by the Treasury Department, are still at risk, including Taharn Bok Cinema - rows of shophouses behind the theatre have already been torn down to make way for contemporary style buildings.
However, Chatri doesn't see the current demolition of the Supreme Court as a direct political effort to eliminate the art from history. Indeed, the demolition resulted from the ignorance of a society that hasn't been educated about the time of the People's Party.
While many structures have been demolished and more are at risk, quite a few buildings in Bangkok have managed to escape the jackhammer. For example, the Kurusapa building on Phra Athit Road, the Thailand Post Office headquarters and Democracy Monument.
''However, none of them was saved because of their artistic value,'' pointed out Chatri.
Khurusapa Printing House on Phra Athit Road was saved by the local community who had a deep bond with the old structure in their neighbourhood. The Thailand Post Office headquarters are now safe because of the employees who have occupied the building for decades. And the history of the Democracy Monument is tied with the student uprising in 1973.
Whether the Supreme Court buildings can be saved or not, Chatri, who expected a negative outcome, said that Thai society and the Fine Arts Department (FAD) will learn from the case. At the very least, society will become more alert to its national heritage.
The FAD will also have to work on new standards to conserve the modern art and architecture that has been missing from history. The modern buildings were made from ferroconcrete, which needs a different knowledge of conservation.
The FAD only knows how to assess the beauty of traditional Thai art featuring elaborate details, pointed out Chatri. The department only has one set of conservation knowledge that could be used with traditional Thai art and architecture such as wood or stucco. Therefore, buildings featuring modern architecture in Bangkok are still at risk, he said. Supachalasai Stadium is a concern, thanks to its prime location putting it at risk of being replaced by high-rises.
''Thai society should wake up and be mature. Let's learn the way of thinking of the people from the 20th Century,'' concluded Chatri.
BACK IN POWER
Photo by Sithikorn Wongwudthianun
The outgoing Supreme Court buildings are not simple old constructions. They were built to commemorate regaining Thailand’s absolute jurisdiction.
During the reign of King Rama IV, extraterritorial jurisdiction was granted to the British in 1885 after the Bowring Treaty.
After that, many other Western countries followed suit and were guaranteed full extraterritorial powers. However, the People’s Party finally regained the country’s absolute jurisdiction in 1938 and the Ministry of Justice buildings were built and became a symbol of the regain.
Construction of the buildings started in 1941, but the Supreme Court Building erected in 1959 was completed only in 1963.
TASTE OF FASCISM HERE TO STAY
The Chateau, which once served as Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsonggram’s safe house and military headquarters for Khao Nam Jone mission, is still well kept in Lop Buri’s military zone. Photo by Yingyong Un-anongrak
While modern architecture built during the period of former prime minister Plaek Pibulsonggram has been described as ‘‘tasteless’’ and ‘‘ugly’’, it is a resemblance to Italian Fascist art that has often led to their demolition. The statues and monuments from the same era have had a different fate and most have managed to avoid the bulldozers.
A major reason for monuments and statues surviving is that most of them were the works of well-respected artist and art master Silpa Bhirasri, the founder of Thailand’s first art school in 1934, which was upgraded to Silpakorn University in 1943.
The university has been a breeding ground for artists and art scholars over the past seven decades.
Born Corrado Feroci in 1892, the Florence native was commissioned to be a sculptor and an art teacher in Thailand in 1923.
He later opted for Thai citizenship and was named as Silpa Bhirasri in 1942. Silpa made a great contribution to the arts in this era as his works are still seen today.
But Silpa has never been linked directly to the former prime minister, said Chatri Prakitnonthakarn. Thanavi Chotpradit, PhD candidate at the University of London’s Department of History of Art and Screen Media at Birkbeck, explained the ‘‘pasteurisation process’’ that transformed Silpa from an ordinary person into a holy figure who devoted himself to art, through many articles and journals by his students.
His students later became successful artists and art instructors. Thanavi is working on a thesis titled Reassessing Silapa Khana Ratsadon: The Neglected Movement In Thai Art History, Nationalism And Collective Memory, a study of Thai art after the 1932 revolution.
‘‘Silpa was made untouchable like a saint, but accessible like a father for his students,’’ said Thanavi.
Knowledge of Thailand’s modern art is scarce, and therefore based largely on the biography of Silpa.
As he is considered the father of modern Thai art, stories about him seem to be only positive.
The style of the statues and monuments from the era largely resemble Fascist art, Thanavi said. For example, the nudity and the anatomy of strong human bodies (which are larger than the average Thai forms), have clearly been adopted from European Fascist art.
The style could have be adopted following Silpa’s two trips home in 1930 and 1938 when the fascist government ordered more statues and monuments to be built in Italy.
Thanavi divided the arts from the Khana Ratsadon era into three categories: heroworshiping monuments such as the Thao Suranaree Monument, King Vajiravudh Monument and the Victory Monument; traditional/religious statues such as the Ganesha statue at the College of Dramatic Arts and Garuda statues at the Thailand Post Office headquarters; and constitution related monuments including the Khana Ratsadon Plague, the Constitution Defence Monument and the Democracy Monument.
The PhD candidate said only those that deal with the political transformation continue to be at risk.
About the author
- Writer: Sirinya Wattanasukchai