Save our fading modern architecture
published : 30 Mar 2023 at 04:00
updated: 31 Mar 2023 at 13:23
newspaper section: Oped
writer: Weerapon Singnoi
If you are reading this, you probably hope that we will start taking better care of our historic architecture here in Thailand. But you might not immediately think of our modern buildings constructed during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Most people consider this type of concrete building to be outdated, run-down and just ordinary. It might be a hotel, bank branch, office building, stadium or house. It might even be well designed, perhaps beautiful. But it will probably be demolished in the next 10 to 20 years, like many before, because most of us overlook the value of this kind of architecture.
Yet these buildings are an important part of our living history. Collectively, they form one of the three main layers of our cities and towns nationwide, along with traditional and contemporary architecture. As these structures disappear, it creates a gap, like a missing front tooth, reducing the rich diversity of our urban areas. Homogeneous new construction fills the gap.
This doesn't just degrade how our places look. It erases our own history. The 1960s and 1970s were pivotal decades, and these buildings housed institutions, businesses and people that helped modernise and internationalise our post-war economy and society.
Modernist architecture, with its emphasis on volume, efficiency and purpose, served businesses' growing needs for large buildings and the state's need to accommodate the expansion of bureaucracy. Thai architects educated abroad brought home modernism's system of universal design principals and forms to create these projects.
The postwar transformation helped tens of millions of Thais to attend university, build careers, live better and enjoy greater freedom and security. Of course, the Cold War decades were often difficult and sometimes dark. But architectural modernism expressed faith in progress, which is why it now inspires nostalgia. These buildings remind us how we got where we are today. Many of them should be kept, so that they can continue to benefit our society and economy.
That's why I started to photograph this architecture 10 years ago. Photos helped me take a closer look and think. I learned about each building's history and architect. Documenting all this became more urgent in 2017, when Sathon Road's Australian Embassy Building was demolished. Designed by the late Ken Wolley and completed in 1978, it was an outstanding example of modernist architecture adapted to the tropical climate. That sad loss prompted me to start sharing my photos on a website and Facebook Page called Foto Momo.
So far, I have photographed at least 1,000 modern buildings across Thailand, including about 150 of special architectural or historic importance. People often message me to suggest I come take pictures when some hidden architectural gem is about to be demolished. Dozens have met the wrecking ball since I began the Foto Momo project.
Among the most important were the National Parliament Building on Uthong Nai Road, designed by Pol Julsawek, completed in 1969 and destroyed in 2019. Another was the Dusit Thani Hotel, designed by Yozo Shibata and completed in 1970. For many years, it was Thailand's tallest building, the first with a flagship restaurant on top. You could see all the way to the river from there. An iconic destination for travellers, it hosted countless VIPs and celebrities, performances and beauty pageants. It met its end in 2019.
The saddest case was Scala Cinema, considered to be the most beautiful standalone movie theatre in Southeast Asia. It was designed by Chira Silpakanok and built in 1969. Everyone loved its charming interior design: floors, staircase, columns, ceilings, chandeliers, ticket office. It had very high potential to be conserved because it was owned by a public institution in a popular area.
It could easily have played a starring role within a new development, continuing to serve Bangkok as a site for film festivals, live performances and public events. The Thai Film Archives, the Association of Siamese Architects and thousands of concerned citizens called for it to be saved. Their voices went unheard.
Next on the endangered species list is the famous Robot Building on Sathon Road, designed by Sumet Jumsai for the Bank of Asia and completed in 1986. Inspired by his son's toy robot, this award-winning office tower was named one of the 20th century's 50 most important buildings by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. It will not be demolished, but it appears that its facade will be altered beyond recognition, stripping our city of one of its icons.
It's worth noting that Mr Sumet is not only a modernist but also a pioneering conservationist. He didn't just "recommend" preservation. Decades ago, he led actual protests in the streets that helped save some important Thai architecture.
As in Mr Sumet's youthful years, today we need strong policies, laws, regulations, funding and programmes to save our valuable cultural resources, including our modern architectural heritage. We need leadership.
The good news is that a few institutions and businesses have completed some successful conservation projects. The Creative Economy Agency transformed Bangkok's central post office into the Thailand Creative and Design Center, TCDC, a world-renowned library and exhibition space serving our entrepreneurs, design professionals and students. It acts as a hub for the hugely popular Bangkok Design Week.
Similarly, some of the former warehouses of the Tobacco Monopoly, built in the 1960s, will become museums and sports facilities in the splendid new Benjakitti Forest Park. The Treasury Department played a pivotal role in this achievement.
The Treasury Museum Khon Kaen is a success in Isan. Formerly the northeastern regional office of the Bank of Thailand, the Treasury Department a few years ago converted the building to exhibit a collection of coins and banknotes. Completed in 1967, the building was designed by Chira Silpakanok, architect of Scala Cinema.
In the coming national elections, let's hope that at least one candidate demonstrates new leadership by promising a strong policy on heritage. Let our "outdated" modernist buildings become opportunities to create public goods like museums, galleries, recreation centres, libraries, and other facilities that will improve our quality of life for decades to come.
Weerapon Singnoi is an architectural photographer and initiator of 'Foto_momo: Fotograph of the Modern Movement'. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to advocate sustaining the architectural, cultural and natural heritage of Thailand and the region.
- HERITAGE MATTERS