A bitter farewell
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A bitter farewell

As Bangkok's Robot Building gets a makeover, a change in attitudes and laws is in order to preserve cultural landmarks

A bitter farewell
The Robot Building on Sathon Road is under renovation. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

The Robot Building on Sathon Road is a childhood superhero that comes to life. Standing on staggered floors, the chunky android is studded with nuts and bolts. Its head boasts metallic-lidded eyes and two communication antennae and its frontal body is outfitted with black glass and blue stripes like armour. It is ready to fight a monster in the urban jungle.

Unlike other highrises in the grey skyline, the Robot Building is more than my fictive imagination but is a living history of the late modern architecture of the 1980s. The Bank of Asia commissioned Sumet Jumsai Na Ayudhya, an architect and national artist, to execute the design of its headquarters. Inspired by his son's robot toys, he envisioned the progress of the financial institution towards a hi-tech future.

Yet, after serving for nearly four decades, the Robot Building is now under renovation.

Sumet sent a letter to United Overseas Bank (UOB) Thailand, the current owners, on March 29 to express concern that "the original iconic feature will not be retained" and this modernist heritage will "lose its significant cultural status" and "be turned into yet another office building". He urged that the bank preserve the exterior, but adjust whatever is needed for the interior.

Meanwhile, Tan Choon Hin, president and chief executive officer of UOB Thailand, responded in a letter on April 4 that its redesign "prioritises people's wellness and environmental sustainability". It plans to "redesign the exterior, featuring an all-glazed skin to reduce carbon emissions and promote eco-friendliness". It will "allocate a corner of the lobby to exhibit a replica of the [old] building".

Since then, civil society groups have been calling for UOB Thailand to halt the renovation of the exterior. In late April, the We Love Robot Building Group, the Society for the Conservation of National Treasure and Environment (Sconte) and Docomomo Thai launched a petition on Change.org, which has collected over 1,600 signatures. The Bangkok Post reached out to UOB Thailand. It said "the renovation has been carefully planned to balance the need for modernisation with respect for the building's original structure".

It is not the only historic building to fall, and it won't be the last. Many iconic landmarks in the capital have become rubble.

The Robot Building in media, including the Bangkok Post on March 31, 1997, below right. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

"The Robot Building is a historical marker of transition from modernism to post-modernism," said Pongkwan Lassus, chair of Docomomo Thai, which is working to promote the Modern Movement, in an interview. "Its emphasis on function is characteristic of modernism, but its engagement with external appearance indicates a shift to post-modernism. We want to preserve the building for its historical and architectural value."

Beginning in the early 20th century, modernism in architecture rejected ornate decoration and focused on practical needs. It is characterised by geometrical shapes and openings. Following its peak in the 1960-70s, modernism gave way to post-modernism in the 1980s. Examples of Thai buildings following this style include the Chiang Rai Tobacco Office, Pipit Banglamphu, Grand Postal Building, Scala cinema and many others.

In Pongkwan's paper on heritage in danger, the Robot Building marks the economic boom and advent of postmodern architecture in Asia. After watching his son play with robot toys, Sumet was fascinated by "the intimate relationship between man and machine" and incorporated it into his design, which suited the bank's introduction of a new computerised service for the first time in the country.

Pongkwan said the interpretation of the Act of Ancient Monuments, Antiques, Objects of Arts and National Museums is "problematic". The Fine Arts Department bases its definition of ancient sites on age, but the law actually makes room for other criteria, including characteristics of construction and historical or archaeological evidence. Its narrow interpretation makes modern architecture vulnerable to demolition, for example, the Scala and the old Supreme Court.

"Many precious buildings are at risk due to the way in which the law is interpreted, and they are not registered on the list," she said.

The Robot Building in media, including the Bangkok Post on March 31, 1997, below right. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

The Fine Arts Department requested an official letter for an interview.

Pongkwan proposed that the Fine Arts Department halt the demolition of the Robot Building, step up measures for the protection of other internationally recognised architecture, and make an inventory of state- and privately-owned important buildings. In addition, regulations on the management of architectural heritage, especially the transfer of development rights, should be revised in a timely manner.

"Cultural heritage is broader than historic sites, including places that hold special memories for the public," said Yongtanit Pimonsathean, an expert on community-based urban planning and heritage conservation. "However, they have been unsuccessful in campaigning authorities to protect them."

A former university lecturer said existing laws -- for example, the Enhancement and Conservation of the National Environmental Quality Act, the Building Control Act, and the Town and Country Planning Act -- use the word "maintenance", which doesn't make clear that demolition is forbidden and buildings must be kept in pristine condition. The ancient monument law is the only legislation that uses the word "protection".

"But the problem is its emphasis on archaeological and historical sites. Most of them are state-owned and uninhabited. On the other hand, modern buildings are privately-owned and subject to constant use, which explains why owners have the right to demolish them. The official management of cultural heritage is not sufficient for the dynamic nature of modern architecture," he said.

Yongtanit said the transfer of development rights can ease development pressure on buildings that are not registered under the ancient monument law. An owner of a heritage site is forbidden from making architectural adjustments but can sell air rights to a developer in exchange for financial compensation. The developer will in turn be able to build a property of greater height in a designated area.

An old photo of the Robot Building from 1986. (Photo: Bangkok Post)

"However, there are no experts who can assess whether buildings should be classified as heritage. Besides, a database and regular follow-ups are required. For example, staff must monitor to make sure that after selling air rights, a landlord doesn't carry out a demolition. It involves such a huge cost that I'm not sure whether they can cope with it," he said.

Yongtanit said the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration once proposed the transfer of development rights to the national committee on urban zoning, but it was dismissed for insufficient detail. City Hall asked him to study the programme and incorporated it into the draft law, but technical difficulties have delayed adoption. Once enacted, the transfer of development rights will ease the pressure for urban development.

Owned by the Treasury Department, Pipit Banglamphu, the country's first printing school in 1932, is one of the most successful conservations of modern architecture. It was registered with the Fine Arts Department as a national heritage in 2001. It was redeveloped into a museum and community centre in 2013.

"It comes down to the vision of owners. Most of the younger generation regard modern architecture as heritage the same way previous generations treat older buildings. Meanwhile, those with decision-making power may get used to it. In fact, modern architecture can become a resource, not a burden. It can give a unique identity to a neighbourhood."

The Robot Building in 1997. Photos: Bangkok Post Archive

Jarunee Khongswasdi, manager of Siamese Heritage Trust of the Siam Society Under Royal Patronage, said a category of precious building should be introduced to grant protection to other architecture. In addition, the country should learn how to engage private owners in preservation. In Singapore, for example, the government offers incentives like tax reductions rather than enforcing the law only.

"From my experience, private owners are reluctant to deal with the regulation enforcer. In post-war US and Europe, buildings suffered damage, followed by a rush to seek legal protection for remaining properties. But we don't have that, to the extent that we think of cultural heritage as temples and palaces. Even something older than the Robot Building like train stations in Hua Hin, Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan are not protected," she said.

Some questioned whether the conservation of modern architecture, especially the Robot Building, is a matter of personal preference. Jarunee, however, argued that it is "evidence of historical and architectural change" and a "unique landmark in the country's development". While environmental awareness is admirable, she asked whether it is possible to retain the iconic exterior.

"It is the city's memory," she said.

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