Modern house of learning

Silpakorn University has spent the big bucks to give its library a design makeover while maintaining the old architecture

Silpakorn University Central Library is promoting itself as a boundless learning space by offering a virtual tour of its new design.

After pouring 680 million baht into an extensive makeover, Silpakorn University is turning itself into a creative space for students, artists and the general public to express their creativity, exchange knowledge and learn about Rattanakosin Island's history.

Despite the relaxation of disease control measures and lockdown, the Tha Phra campus has gone digital to connect with the outside world. Visitors can admire the new look and experience a virtual tour to prepare for the new semester.

Behind the soaring arched entrance, visitors are greeted by a revamped Central Library, which incorporates modern design and innovative technology to create a boundless learning space. This is one of the masterpieces of assistant professor and architect Nantapon Junngurn, who operates Junnarchitect studio.

An exhibition of drawings and books by Prof Silpa Bhirasri is on view until December.

The Momchao Subhadradis Diskul Library offers a wide collection of rare books.

"This building was originally constructed in 1965 to house a library and the dean's office before being expanded several times. This time, we spent two years renovating it to bring it back to life. The library can now accommodate around 250 people and the important thing is that it enhances its efficiency. It's not just a place to store books, but also a source of inspiration for everyone to keep learning," said Nantapon, who also serves as the library's director.

Spread over 1,785m², this four-storey library is packed with 170,000 books and magazines on a variety of topics ranging from art and design to history as well as artwork and other educational materials. It utilises radio frequency identification technology to provide visitors with a convenient self-service option.

The fundamental structure hasn't changed, but the floor's layout has been redesigned to be more practical and seamless, allowing guests to roam freely and experience every corner.

"Focusing on the coexistence of old and new, this building is a model of modern architecture, so we maintained its framework and designed a new layout to accommodate urban lifestyles. We chose wood since it gives a good sensation," Nantapon said.

The black ceiling in the main reading area contrasts with the white marble-like floor and a collection of wood furniture provides a relaxing environment. Meanwhile, the modern lighting design is eye-friendly and helps the bookcases stand out.

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The floor to ceiling windows provide a panoramic view of the old main trading hub in the early Rattanakosin era, which overlooks the Tha Chang Pier and the towering walls of the Grand Palace. The ancient cement stairway to the basement has been replaced with a giant wood staircase, which doubles as a seating area for reading or hosting other activities.

"The key to the design is that the building is a boundless learning space where people can come to find inspiration, share information and learn. I think designing this building is another lesson in raising people's perceptions and connecting them with the context of where they are. It's about a sense of a place -- Rattanakosin Island and Wang Tha Phra," Nantapon said.

"We're communicating how special this location is. Our design is to open unseen aspects of the arched entrance designed by HRH Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs and the historical buildings around the Tha Chang Pier. This context will influence how people think about this library and its architecture."

The Momchao Subhadradis Diskul Library with a mezzanine offers a wide range of rare books written by its noble namesake as well as photos and film slides of many historical places taken during his travels abroad.

Also on display is a series of 38 Western art books from HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn's private collection. They're about pre-history, Renaissance and Baroque art.

The library has 170,000 books and publications in the arts, design and history. (Photos: Chayaphol Parachart)

Right alongside is the Silpa Bhirasri book collection, which features titles such as A Bare Outline Of History And Styles Of Art, Contemporary Art In Thailand, Theory Of Composition and A Visit To Khao Phra Viharn. Visitors can read this collection of more than 500 e-books by scanning a QR code.

"The Momchao Subhadradis Diskul Library zone features a high ceiling and a row of wooden bookcases, making it a memorial space. Originally, all the shelves were piled with theses, which have been digitised so that students can search for them online. To capture readers' attention, our library will show book covers rather than spines," he said.

The library looks small but is versatile, with its walkway and walls converted into a public space to show the exhibition of rare art and history books as well as drawings by Professor Silpa Bhirasri, regarded as the father of Thai modern and contemporary art.

On view through December are nine out of 10 drawings featured in a book titled A Bare Outline Of History And Styles Of Art and used as educational instructional material for art students in the past.

Visitors can learn how to design a Hindu wood structure and brick vihara with Greek and Roman-style columns. Drawings of wood stupas that could be found in Nepal, capitals with various ornaments, the ancient Erechtheion temple in Greece and Romanesque-style churches are also available.

Visitors can take a virtual tour of the campus and see some of the artwork in Suan Kaew.

"In the past, a library may have seemed silent and unwelcoming to visitors. However, a library in the 21st century has evolved to include not just reading, but also talking, listening and writing as part of the learning process. We became aware of digital transformation and aim to be one of Thailand's greatest art, design and history libraries. We are now offering a virtual tour using modern technology and have added a temporary exhibition to our space," Nantapon added.

"In the future, we're hosting a series of panel discussions and seminars on a variety of topics to improve the learning environment. There will be an exhibition on Wang Tha Phra's tale as well as other antiques recently unearthed here."

The next room is reserved for the Artist Book Collection, which is a partnership between the library and both experienced and young artists. This initiative began in 2017 and 15 of 41 artworks are rotated for display.

For example, National Artist Preecha Thaotong's engraved drawing on polyester depicts the Lop Buri Sri Suvarnabhumi Meditation Center, which is inspired by Mount Meru and the Satta Boriphan Mountains. Face-Book by Thai contemporary artist Thongchai Srisukprasert portrays how humans communicate and express their thoughts and feelings through facial expressions.

Meanwhile, Wutigorn Kongka created a new version of The History Of Art book using paper collage techniques to reimagine one of Michelangelo's sculptures, David. At the same time, Jitsing Somboon released a gold book titled King/Forever, in which he used mixed techniques on canvas and hand-cut polysheet to convey his own feelings.

"We are currently collaborating with new-wave artists to develop a painting library where art collectors can borrow paintings and sculptures to adorn their homes. We received the concept to promote the art business for new generations from Germany. People can enjoy art, while artists get a chance to demonstrate their skills," Nantapon said.

Scrolling up to the 3rd floor, it's home to a mini theatre, two conference rooms, racks of DVDs and vintage phonograph records as well as a computer corner. This will be a new entertainment venue, where university students may enjoy the film and music programmes.

From left: The Silpakorn University Art Center presents ‘Extended Release’ by renowned artist Pratchaya Phinthong; The old throne chamber has been transformed into the Silpakorn University Art Center.

"We have also joined hands with Thailand Creative and Design Center to expand our book collection. In the near future, the general public will be able to sign up for membership and take advantage of our services," he said.

Leaving the library, we continue to the former throne chamber, which was recently renovated to serve as the Silpakorn University Art Center. To reimagine this site's past, it currently presents the "Extended Release" exhibition by artist Pratchaya Phinthong.

The white walls are adorned with a collection of mixed media, including a set of nine "Internal Rhyme" drawings using graphite on tracing paper; seeds made from spherical ground material; a video clip projected on a reused screen to portray the building's restoration; and The Sacred Buddha Image Of Thailand book, which was published in 2004 by Tipakorn Publishing.

Our virtual journey comes to a close with a fresh scene at Suan Kaew. It's been revamped to be a green and shady oasis and common area where people can come to relax, socialise and appreciate a collection of artworks while being embraced by nature.

"Silpakorn University is located just across from the Grand Palace and crowds of tourists are unaware that this is the birthplace of Thailand's contemporary art. It has a historic throne chamber, in which King Rama III once worked, as well as the beautiful arched entrance designed by HRH Prince Narisara Nuvadtivongs and King Narai the Great's residence. This is a significant site in Thailand, so we're building a public space where people can gather to learn and share passions," Nantapon said.

Artwork from the Artist Book Collection in collaboration with veteran and young artists are on display.

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