“Bangkok is fun, energetic, exciting but I cannot say that it is a beautiful city,” a friend of mine has told me, visiting Thailand’s capital a couple of years ago. Of course, Bangkok has its bunch of attractions to visit and enjoy, a vast range of entertainment and shopping facilities. But this is true: the city is quite an urban chaos. Many large cities in Asia recently acquired a contemporary identity through an iconic landmark – Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei 101 in Taipei, Esplanade Theaters in Singapore, Victoria Peak building in Hong Kong. Even Hanoi just published the lucky winner of a tender for city’s highest building, the Lotus Tower -which design evocates in fact more a giant lollypop than a lotus bud! So far Bangkok has not been able to get its masterpiece of contemporary architecture that would get instant recognition all around the world. “I am not really sure that we are looking for this kind of representative building or to create a centre to gather in Bangkok. This is really not on people’s mind,” says Dr. Chalay Kunawong, an architect and vice President of the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA).
The generally poor quality of Bangkok’s contemporary architecture has many reasons for Dr Chalay: “There is a lack of interest and awareness for architecture in the population. We also need a strong government with a determined will to create new urban spaces. Look at Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore, Mahathir in Kuala Lumpur or even François Mitterrand in Paris. Their will to create shape their cities,” he adds. The profession has also been restricted to foreigners. It explains why all the stars of contemporary architecture – from Renzo Piano, Norman Foster to Calatra or Jean Nouvel are missing in Bangkok’s city landscape. “ We seriously discuss the issue of opening Thailand more to international architects. It would certainly emulate us,” said Dr. Chalay.
Bangkok also faces other woes such as a complete lack of proper planning, implementation of laws and corruption that alters projects. “We do not lack good projects and good architects. But projects can be altered easily by their developers, once they get a licence to build. At the end, some of the projects which look fantastic on the paper, will be rather disappointing once constructed”, admits Veerachat Phromsorn, an architect who takes care of public relations at ASA.
Thailand also seems to have difficulties to identify its own architecture. “Typical Thai architecture is the one used for temples and private single-unit houses. We have difficulties to create a style on our own for other structures”, says Dr Chalay.
Some positive trends have emerged over the last five years. ASA has organised many seminars and tours with some help provided to communities to appreciate and preserve their architectural heritage. The City of Bangkok and the Crown Property’s Office- which manages many buildings in the Kingdom- have also started renovation projects to maintain and restore some old buildings, especially in the Yaowarat area (Bangkok Chinatown) and on Rattanakosin Island, around the Grand Palace.
Competition to create Bangkok’s highest tower has recently taken a more concrete shape with the announcement of the construction of the Mahanakhon by the Dutch architecture office OMA and lead by OMA partner Ole Scheeren. US$520 million project will be the tallest building in the city. It will contain apartments but also a hotel in its top floors, a sky bar on its roof as well as restaurants and retail outlets in its public space. The project is due to start by year-end for an expected completion in 2012. The tower will be located behind Silom Road. Will its striking shape finally make it Bangkok’s new contemporary landmark? “I am not so sure,” replies Dr. Chalay. “The building will certainly create awareness and curiosity when it opens. But it lacks a visible access as it will be cut by the skytrain line and various walkways from its environment. It will also lack a ‘central’ function in the city and I think that it is an absolute requisite to make a building a new symbol.” What would be in his opinion an architectural icon for Bangkok? “The uncontrolled development of the city, its chaotic urbanism and the lack of an iconic building give to Bangkok its unmistakable identity”!