The real value of city's architectural heritage

The real value of city's architectural heritage

Repurposing old buildings for new uses can be as profitable as the endeavour is noble

A view of Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum in Bangkok Noi district, which was originally an old train station on the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River. It is now a part of Siriraj Hospital. Apichart Jinakul
A view of Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum in Bangkok Noi district, which was originally an old train station on the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River. It is now a part of Siriraj Hospital. Apichart Jinakul

By refurbishing vacant old buildings scattered around the city and transforming them into public amenities, Bangkok now has a way to put abandoned properties to good use, while at the same time saving its historic character from being left to fall into a state of ruin.

Some old areas and historic buildings in Bangkok have lost their functionality, and also much of their investment potential, due to the changing economic circumstances of the past few years.

They remain unattractive to commercial investors. Yet from the seedlings of one or two which were renovated and given inclusive social functions which proved highly successful, a new branch of urban redevelopment has grown.

History museum at station

Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum, a former train station that has been transformed into an education centre for all ages, is one such example, which proves that unused buildings can repurposed to fit contemporary needs.

Located in Bangkok Noi district, the museum is housed in the old building of Thon Buri train station, which began over a century of service as the terminus for the western line from Thon Buri to the southern and western provinces in 1903, Siriraj Museum Unit Educator Chaiyos Charoensuntipong said.

"Later, when the State Railway ended the service, it gave this area with four buildings to Siriraj Hospital in 2003.

"The Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, Mahidol University decided to convert this Victorian train station into an exhibition site for each department to showcase their accomplishments over the years," Mr Chaiyos said.

During the renovation, around 4,000–5,000 archaeological artifacts, dating back to the late Ayutthaya period (around 18th century), were discovered under the grounds. The building itself was registered as a national treasure on Nov 14, 2001 by the Fine Arts Department.

In collaboration with the Faculty of Archaeology at Silpakorn University, the faculty sought the advice of HRH Princess Sirindhorn on what should be done with the site and its buildings. She suggested they should be maintained and looked after.

"So, we decided to develop the site as a museum to tell the rich local history of the area as well as the history of Thailand's medical developments," he said.

"The construction process began in 2007 and the museum welcomed its first visitors in in 2013."

Chaiyos: Museum tells rich local history

Aside from furthering education, he said the renovation works at the Siriraj Bimuksthan Museum project had become a model case study for other building conservation efforts, especially those along the river.

"As this area has strong rainfall and this museum is located by the Chao Phraya River, salt had leaked into the museum foundations and led to corrosion," he said.

"Fortunately, the museum had found a solution to these problems, and many others are using our renovation project as their guide."

Reusing this old historic building as museum not only boosts enthusiasm for local history, but also lets people court new ideas for conserving invaluable historic parts of the city, he said.

Green lung

The creation of Benjakitti Park on a 720,000 m² area in Klong Toei district that was once the site of the Thailand Tobacco Authority's tobacco factory is another success story of the adaptive use of abandoned properties.

The empty plot was right in the heart of Bangkok's CBD and had not been used since the factory closed in 1991.

Chatchanin Sung, a landscape architect at the Asromsilp Community and Environmental Architect Company who has been spearheading the project, said the park had been constructed under the "nature-based solution concept".

"We wanted to create a self-sustaining "eco-park" that responded to environmental concerns and could solve city problems," she said.

The park also was designed to create awareness of the necessity of having a "lung" for the city that was not just space for exercise but responded to everyone's needs to add value to the area, Ms Chatchanin said.

The company worked with state agencies, the private sector and the military to remould the area into an innovative green space. The task has now been completed and the park was opened on Aug 3 last year.

"An additional five thousand trees were planted from sprouts. Currently, they are still young but in the next five years, they will grow strong give beautiful shade," she said.

"Not a single shovel of soil had been taken out or added to the park. The four buildings left after the factory moved were turned to roofless gardens and linked to other areas in the park."

Chatchanin: The city needs a lung

She said this park is also part of a natural urban "city sponge" that can absorb flood water and redistribute it to city trees and reservoirs during the dry season rather than damage people's homes and property.

"We have to understand that the world is not only for humans, but other living things too, so we need to make public space that serves everyone," she added.

Experts want more

Following the success of such projects, Asst Prof Asan Suwanarit, Dean of Architecture and Planning Faculty at Thammasat Design School, said the refurbishment of unused properties into public spaces is still not widespread across the country.

Many social, economic, and legal factors discourage the reuse of old buildings in Thailand, he said.

"Unlike in Western countries, where abandoned buildings remain strong and safe, many old buildings in Thailand are not so solid, so most of the time it is cheaper to dismantle them than put them to other uses," Asst Prof Asan said.

"Some of the buildings also are contaminated with dangerous substances, so it is better to remove them for safety."

However, as Bangkok still has a large homeless population, he added that without proper assistance measures, they may suffer further difficulties if they have to be forcibly evicted for new projects to begin.

Getting consent from property owners is another major problem, he said, as the owners of privately-owned properties are not obliged to sell. It is much easier if those buildings are state-owned, albeit still a challenging task to reach agreement between agencies.

Another concern is that private sector investment is not always forthcoming even if investments that do not require construction from scratch represent better value.

Asan: Law discourages reuse

"Our countries are not so slow to renovate old buildings, but the problem is people do not see value in preserving them or why they should maintain them for other uses like the Scala Movie theatre which has already been demolished.

"Therefore, we need more public education to convince people not only of the beauty but also the value in maintaining our architectural heritage," he added.

This story is the third special report in a series of four stories about urban planning reform and city development.

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