Ban Plainern saga shows city never learns

Ban Plainern saga shows city never learns

Art enthusiasts are looking forward to next Monday, when they will have the chance to tour Ban Plainern, the former residence of Prince Naris, the master artist of Rattanakosin.

The tour is a part of Prince Naris Day activities, a once-a-year chance. And this year may be the last year that visitors will be able to see the house in all its magnificence.

I heard that this year's tour programme is fully booked. Am I thrilled about that? Not really. I think many people are scrambling to get a glimpse of the residence, simply because they fear that this might be the last time they will be able to see the house -- referred by some as phra tamnak -- without the scourge of visual pollution.

For those who have not followed the news, Ban Plainern, where the prince spent his last days, is about to get an unwelcome neighbour -- a colossal 32-storey condominium that may compromise the residence's beauty and cultural value forever.

The Chitrabongs family, the prince's direct descendants, aren't happy with the project's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, questioning its transparency. In despair, they took the case to the Administrative Court. The decision was a challenge to bureaucrats who handled the case, and it reflects a lack of confidence in their judgement and practices.

Indeed, the Ban Plainern saga speaks volumes about how state officials responsible for conserving the country's cultural heritage can just pay lip service to the task.

The outrageous case reminds me of the artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit's house in Ekamai that occupied much media attention a decade ago.

The saga shares so many similar elements. A developer purchased the land adjacent to Chakrabhand's house to build a the towering structure without the faintest idea that the plot was too close to the national artist's home. At that time, Ajahn Chakrabhand had just started his Talengphai puppet project.

His residence -- a humble, light-green house where he painted numerous masterpieces -- might have not attracted much attention, but it is a heritage site in itself.

Because of the artworks and memorabilia in it, the house should be categorised as a "living museum". But such an idea does not exist among Thailand's obsolete laws.

The artist then rolled up his sleeves and went on to fight the developers, and won.

If you think the state played a role in saving the Ekamai house, you are wrong.

Watthana district bureaucrats, who have jurisdiction over the area, and those at the Culture Ministry, with its many art experts whose job is to take care of cultural heritage -- both tangible and intangible -- just stood by helplessly. The laws were not on the national artist's side, as the land developer had obtained the land legally.

The flaw-ridden town planning law, without a clause on efficient buffer zones, cannot protect any cultural heritage sites -- whether registered or not -- from uncharted development. And we are talking about Ekamai and Rama IV, where a single square metre of land costs millions. Those who have enough money to purchase it must have more say on the issues of heritage and conservation.

Chakrabhand's Ekamai house was saved by an appreciation of the arts and the moral fibre of the Singapore-based developer, who voluntarily dropped the project. Besides, it gave the Chakrabhand Posayakrit Foundation some time to raise the funds needed to purchase the land as a buffer from any future projects. The rest is history.

The developer must have known the state has no wisdom when it comes to heritage conservation. Otherwise, Ban Plainern would have never have become an issue.

A recent comment by a senior city official offers us no hope either. Chatree Wattanakachorn, the head of the city's environment department, defended the agency's approval of the project, dismissing concerns about the impact on Ban Plainern during or after the construction.

He insisted the condominium project must observe the building code, which requires a mere six-metre gap between the project and other properties. The project is 54 metres from the traditional Thai house and 23.5m from the so-called tamnak tuek, where the prince worked and spent his last days. Mr Chatree said the impact should be nil. He is truly optimistic. I am not.

In the interview, he did not say a word about Ban Plainern's historical value. We know several laws, among them the building code, are obsolete, while our law enforcement is, more often than not, a farce.

We don't know if there will be another twist in the saga. But for the time being, those who successfully booked the tour of Ban Plainern should realise how lucky they are. They should take a lot of photos and try to keep their good memories. It might be their last chance to see the elegant house in all its glory.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Former editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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