If it was up to you to decide, to what purpose would you put a 400-rai plot of land in a prime location in the heart of Bangkok? A giant entertainment and shopping complex would definitely maximise one's financial return, but building a museum or heritage centre or opening a public park or botanical garden there would definitely cater more to the needs of the average Bangkokian.
An aerial view of the old train junkyard in Makkasan.
The land in question is owned by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) and has been the site of shunting yards and train-repair workshops since 1910. Situated between Makkasan and Phaya Thai train stations, it has such great development potential that the SRT plans to relocate the rail depot to the Saraburi district of Kaeng Khoi and put this large plot to other uses.
Last weekend the International Council on Monuments and Sites Thailand Association (ICOMOS) held a seminar at Bangkok's National Museum to discuss possible future uses for the land. It was attended by academics from various faculties of architecture, individuals interested in urban planning and local railway enthusiasts.
Back in 2005 the SRT publicised an ambitious master plan to spend something in the region of 200 billion baht transforming the Makkasan complex into the new Bangkok downtown. There would be high-rise buildings containing shops and offices, a convention and exhibition centre, serviced apartments, condominiums and a hotel. But some city dwellers have questioned whether Bangkok really needs another shopping mall; they would prefer to see this large swathe of land being turned into an open space to act as a lung for the capital. Others have suggested that a museum or heritage centre be built on a portion of the plot.
At the recent seminar, Assoc Prof Khaisri Paksukcharoen from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Architecture commented that it would be both irrational and probably impossible from an economic point of view to use a site with such a high revenue potential just for a park and museum. "Do we go to parks to have afternoon tea and eat sticky rice?" she asked, saying she doubted whether parks and museums were even part of Thai culture. The area in which the rail depot is located has been designated by the city planning authority as a commercial zone. The plot is estimated to have a floor area ratio (FAR) of 10:1, making it one of the most potentially valuable sites in the country. FAR is defined as the ratio of a building's total floor area to the size of the parcel of land upon which it is built.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Pongkwan Lassus, vice-president of Association of Siamese Architecture, suggested that the land could be put to a mixture of cultural and commercial uses in order to maximise its value. She pointed out that the red-brick building which has been in use since 1922 as a maintenance plant (one of five existing structures on the property), was given an award by the ASA back in 2006 in recognition of its architectural merit. She said this large building is definitely worth conserving and could be turned into a museum focusing on Thailand's industrial heritage.
Pongkwan has drawn up a plan in which the 400 rai would be split into four sections, with each being redeveloped for a different purpose. The sub-division on the left-hand side, close to Pratunam, could be redeveloped as a museum and convention centre, she said. Another section, in the middle, boasts lots of big mature trees and this, she thinks, should be retained as a green open space. The old wooden houses still standing in the third portion of land could be converted into a boutique hotel and retail space, while the fourth plot, on the right-hand side, could be the site for some sort of commercial complex, she suggested. Assoc Prof Khaisri agreed with the idea of going for a creative mix of uses. She reiterated her point about large green spaces not fitting in with the local lifestyle and noted that Thais prefer small parks with little restaurants here and there. "Thais love chitchat and eating." For this reason, she said, a number of small parks would be a better idea; the roofs of new buildings could also be made into green spaces and underground parking facilities constructed to make optimum use of all available space. Although the speakers at the seminar agreed that it would be best to go for a variety of uses, the resulting debate did not reach any firm conclusions.
Pongkwan, who is also a member of a local civic network, said she plans to share her ideas with the SRT's upper management.
"We are helping them search for their own historical values. Why wouldn't they continue with this?" Pongkwan said.
_ Sirinya Wattanasukchai