Friday, December 15, 2006

Bangkok 5 - Elevated Voyage


Khlong Suan Luang lies between the heritage area of Rattakosin and the popular shopping area of Siam. It is fed by the Klong Saen Sab, the heavily used east-west canal connecting to the suburbs, and runs almost a mile until running underground and connecting to the Khlong Chong Nonsi in Silom. It runs parallel to the busy Banthat Thong Street, built in the early 1900’s only 60 feet to the east. The western bank has perpendicular alleys roughly every 100 feet. The edges are formed with sloped concrete, leading to water which is infrequently dredged. The base of the canal is permeable soil, allowing some water to leech back into the aquifer. Ad-hoc bridges are built every 50 feet or so. The Bangkok Department of Drainage and Sewerage which oversees the canals has done an admirable job of improving water quality, but they simply don’t have the resources to keep up with a rapidly growing, industrialized city that still often dumps waste directly into the water; Khlong Suan Luang has a powerful stench and unnaturally dark water with trash floating slowly by. Notably, the shop-houses lining the khlong were built in response to the roadway, and present their backs to the water. The strip between the canal and the building is used for cleaning, storage, and trash.


Bangkok is navigated on many overlapping levels. At the lowest point, the subway snakes 50 feet below grade; canals channel water just below the streets; most roadways are laid at grade; pedestrian walkovers are often the only means of crossing intense traffic; vehicle flyovers at busy intersections rise just enough to let traffic through; the Skytrain runs at the 4th floor of many apartments beside it; and new expressways arc over 100 feet in the air. Additionally, many of the malls around the shopping areas of Silom and Siam have elevated quasi-public plazas that abut the Skytrain or parking garages. It is the built manifestation of Ludwig Hilberseimer’s City Plan of 1927.

These elevated worlds are perhaps fortuitous as the city sinks several inches every year and the nearby ocean rises, increasing the possibility that Bangkok will again be a truly water-based settlement. Some day soon the current street level might lie abandoned, good only for exploring with scuba gear. Buildings and lobbies everywhere in Bangkok would begin on floor 2, causing confusion to visitors. A modern day Atlantis, the sunken world would disappear as the new city rises in layers over the tidal waters.


I propose an elevated canal over Khlong Suan Luang, a new level of infrastructure that acts as a demonstrative cleaning project and relaxed voyage through the city. It would follow the existing air-rights of the canal through several distinct parts of the city. The new canal would be a recreational experience for tourists and citizens, tapping into the desire for quiet, leisurely urban movement, an almost unheard-of phenomenon. It would signal a renewal of the characteristics that nostalgia seeks from village life, but updated for a modernizing and growing city. There are moments that approach this ideal, up on the pedestrian walkovers and Skytrain platforms where you can get up into the city and see it removed from the volume of traffic below. But even these are shared with the massive flow of people on their way to someplace else. A new viaduct would capture these moments but extrude them into paths. Thin boats would glide quietly on a fixed path and allow for hopping on and off. It would be an infrastructure that adapts the captured flow of a theme park ride and places it in one of the great environments in the world. Riders would literally drift through the city, experiencing it from a new perspective. The viaduct itself would be a machine for cleaning the water. Taking water from the canal terminus and returning it against the drainage flow to the source, the water would be cleansed in stages that would be linked with the stations: Sedimentation, Aeration, Biofiltration, Polishing and Integration.

Thus the canal would respond both to the surrounding urban context and the specific requirements of cleansing. The cleaner water would give the original Khlong Suan Luang new life below. The elevated canal would also effect the transformation of the built fabric above by giving the upper stories access to the viaduct. Currently, the shop-houses are appropriately aligned with the canal, but turn their backs to it in seeking to draw business from the roadway. The new elevated canal would tap into these blank facades for access and advertising potential. They would become 2-way shop-houses; the ground floor would service the roadway, and the third floor would service the elevated canal. Discrete bridges would reach out to passers-by and give local residents an opportunity to take advantage of the flow of riders. These bridges would act like old Thai canal entrance pavilions, allowing the boaters to choose whether to stop or not, rather than the street stalls that force pedestrians through a gauntlet on the sidewalk. The elevated canal would bring some of the comforts of driving a car (refuge and personal space), but would fold it into a new means of moving through the city. Future networks of elevated canals could traverse other neighborhoods in the city, ultimately linking up in a quiet network of water scrubbing machines.

Bangkok 4 - Accelerated Ruins


An abandoned ghost-scraper is located along Patchaburi Street, about 5 kilometers from the river in the Ekkamai area. Patchaburi is a busy road that saw a number of new towers erected in the 1990’s. This tower was planned at 22 stories, likely as commercial space. The building got as far as hanging the ductwork before halting. At this point it has been lying fallow for nine years.

In some respects, there is little to say about the site of an abandoned skyscraper: the building and location are fairly standardized. This spot was at one time considered a good risk to locate a building, but now lacks the conditions to continue. It is obviously big, larger than the surrounding context, but also in sheer quantity of material. The 12,000 tons of reinforced concrete cannot really be recycled, and the chances of it being re-used are diminished every day due to economic and liabilty issues. Is there a way to take advantage of this mountain of stuff without taking it down?


Ruins are the rarest heritage to be found in Bangkok. To see them you have to go an hour north to Ayutthaya, the seat of the Siam Empire from 1350 until 1867. It is now a quiet UNESCO heritage site of decaying temples that are fastidiously maintained to prevent the tropics from taking over. Actually, what is so remarkable about these ruins is their presence in a nation otherwise cultivating an ethos of renewal. Historic temples elseware in Thailand might be 5 or 250 years old, it is hard to tell; often they have been rebuilt numerous times. In each case, the materials and details have been altered to reflect contemporary techniques, but the overwhelming result is one of familiarity. In some ways there is more continuity with the past, since the styles are clearly living and evolving today, not codified into history or charged with post-modern baggage.

All buildings have a life-cycle and typically buildings built today are in the 50 year range, assuming regular maintenance. After this the building may be considered uninhabitable, but the ruins stand for many more years. At a certain point the building is subject to small structural failures depending on the materials and methods used to put it together; Albert Speer famously attempted to build in techniques that would last a thousand years. In contrast to Speer’s vision, most standardized reinforced concrete floors will begin to crack with the failure of the rebar. The most likely scenario is the acidification of the alkaline concrete over time by carbon in the air. Cracks and fissures caused by the freeze/thaw cycle and plant life accelerate the process by introducing air deeper into the material. The rebar corrodes and no longer resists the failure of the concrete in tension. This will happen unevenly as the structure begins to crumble. It won’t fail catastrophically, but deform in time like an eroding cliff. Like a leisurely wrecking ball, the elements distress the building until it sags into rubble.

On one end of the spectrum of forces that conspire to ruin a building are catastrophic events like implosions and earthquakes, while on the other is the much slower and more insideous neglect of abandonment. In between is a rogue’s gallery of problems from mold to pigeons that must be battled by regular upkeep. The effects of these parasites were sought out by romantic theorists like Ruskin who desired the “additional complexity” to be found in cultivated aging:

This sublimity, belonging in a parasitical manner to the building, renders it, in the usual sense of the word, ‘picturesque.’ (Ruskin)

North of Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, there is a provocative system of accelerating a building’s ruin. At the Wat Chedi Leung a system of pulleys allows visitors to water the Buddha’s relics located on the top of the wat structure. For a small donation, water can be hoisted up and overturned on the ancient crumbling structure. While the water may cleanse the relics, the by-product is that the destructive plants on top of the building are kept well nurtured.


I propose an accelerated ruins project that introduces an urban wilderness to the city. By repositioning the structure away from traditional building values and toward a vision of natural decaying matter, the project would respond to the loss of primal space that is so evident in an international metropolis, while slowly eroding (and paradoxically preserving) a legacy of late 20th century globalism. It would take several generations before the building became too dangerous to use, and in the meantime it would foster a vertical jungle for urban explorers. Like any hiking trail, it would need a certain amount of maintenance and oversight (i.e. use passes and permits), but mostly it would be left to nature. In order to accelerate the process, the floors would need to be sprayed down with a mixture of the most destructive weeds. It would be the world’s first Chia-building. A system of irrigation tubes would run from a cistern “crown” at the top of the tower. Bundled with these tubes would be LED lighting to give the ghost life at night, and allow nighttime camping and hiking for the after-work crowd.

The leftover site area would be given relief, allowing for additional FAR to be added to the site in trade-off for loss of “highest and best” value of the existing ghost tower floor plates. A visitor and interpretive center would meet the street, offering retail and restaurants the advantage of a memorable location. From here, an explorer could hike up a light superstructure to whichever floor they haven’t yet visited. This snaking circulation addition would be made of steel and recycled construction netting and cantilevered from the existing structure. Assuming a 22 story building, the height is similar to the famous Golden Mount in Bangkok, a popular destination that takes 318 steps to reach the top. It provides one of the only publicly accessible panoramas in the city and is usually filled with people taking advantage of the vista. The viewing platform at the Golden Mount is some 200 feet above grade, while the ghost tower reaches around 230 feet. The circulation structure for the ghost tower would draw out the walk at a 1:2 incline, with one side along the building and the other providing views of the city. It would be about a half mile round trip to the top. A pretty good walk, but manageable as a day hike.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Bangkok 3 - Canals


Canals are perhaps the most degraded aspect of historic Bangkok, increasingly walled in and covered over by new forms of infrastructure. The city was founded on the khlong (canal) system and is even today called the “Venice of the East,” but considering its relationship to the surrounding polder agriculture, a more fair comparison would be to an unplanned version of Holland. At the fringes of the city, the morphology of rural canal land ownership is still evident, but the closer to the center and the more agglomerated the urbanization, the less obvious this history. Canals aren’t very useful to most flows of goods in modern Bangkok and the putrid miasma that surrounds them hardly makes them an amenity. At this point they are more used as convenient dumping grounds for waste; while the government has recently attempted to enforce waste water treatment, most homes and businesses still dump directly into the khlongs.

The stench of the water is less distressing, however, than the larger environmental issues at stake. As the city built up over marshland, the canals provided an important runoff system for the heavy monsoon rains and replenishment for the fresh water aquifers. Fewer canals combined with less permeable surface area leads to heavy flooding that doesn’t infiltrate back into the ground. Today the city sinks at a rate of two to three inches per year due to the depletion of the aquifer. Anything built on deep pilings hovers in place while the ground slips away; ad hoc steps and ramps negotiate the difference. The government recently announced that Bangkok will be threatened by tidal flooding within 15 years unless a complex levy system similar to Holland’s is built. In the meantime, a more or less permanent arrangement of wooden planks and sandbags allow access to waterfront activities.

The original site for Bangkok was created when the existing minor canals were connected and fortified to provide a protective barrier around the new royal city in 1782. As the city grew, a third ring canal was added in the 1850’s to expand the city limits. In the second half of the 19th century, major transportation and irrigation projects were undertaken in response to the increasing international demand for sugarcane and other Thai natural resources. The canal era culminated in the 1890 Rangsit project, adding over 500,000 acres of cultivated land to the system of canals and irrigation. By 1900, however, road construction became the priority of the government. After the turn of the century, very few new canals were excavated, and none after 1915. Today, some dredging occurs on the few remaining communicating khlongs, but they are largely surviving on their own. Life has continued along the canals, but they have been supplanted as the infrastructure of choice. The emphasis on roads and transit infrastructure has allowed the canals to remain in unimproved stasis. In many cases, however, modern infrastructure trumps the canals, and they are filled in for road widening or transit improvements. In this sense they are like the old boulevards of Europe, the most likely places to put a new road without upsetting the populace.

There is a range of canal sizes depending on the need, from 70 feet wide for barges to just a few feet for slender personal boats. In most cases, houses are built on stilts out over the water, with a family pavilion that marks the interface with traffic. This pavilion is something like a water porch, with built-in seating and tables for lounging and watching the world float by. The raised houses often have partially usable space below for cooking and toilets, abandoned during flooding and reclaimed in the dry season. The house itself tends to fall into two categories: the thin, steep-roofed Ayutthaya style, and the low, wide, shallow-roofed vernacular. Often it is a combination of the two, assembled over time, compound style. Rarely is there more than one story of living space, typically an open arrangement with mutable screens and walls. They are traditionally wood, but with the scarcity of teak today are increasingly made of concrete or composite materials. With the canals acting as a lifeline, the housing is packed in tightly along the waterfront; rarely is there a break in the line of buildings. Of course, the houses can range from carefully restored antiques to slum shacks depending on the neighborhood. Roughly speaking, the closer to the heart of the city, the poorer the housing stock along the canals. Outside the city, antique teakwood houses are a sign of status, while in the center shanties occupy most of the frontage. In the fringes, the canals can handle the usage and renew themselves, but inside the city they stagnate into cesspools. Depending on their proximity to downtown, they are either desirable addresses or places to avoid.

In spite of their neglect, the image of the khlong is still strong in the myth of the city. Every tourist book outlines visits to the intact canals, mostly located on the less developed left bank in Thonburi. These tours are popular and expensive, tapping into the desire to see the living museum of historic existence. As one tourist service puts it: "Bangkok is changing fast, but if you want a close up perspective of traditional Thai life then spend some time exploring the city’s charming waterways…en route you’ll discover the remnants of an old way of life, one that leaves the modern face of Bangkok behind." (

One of the key driving concepts in tourism, of course, is the idea of a journey to explore the authentic. This drive toward authenticity, as indicated in the descriptions of the canal tours, brings up an interesting perception vis-à-vis city form. The canal might represent the authenticity that people are willing to spend their money in search of, but is also an inefficient method of building a modern city. This dilemma can best be understood in contrasting the canal with the road; each represents competing forces of rural and urban, respectively. The road is fast, modern, progress, growth, greed, and superficiality. The canal is slow, historic, regressive, moderation, and authenticity. Each is vilified or praised depending on the context; each is an obstacle or an amenity depending on the situation.

Bangkok 2 - Ghost-scrapers


In 1997 the “Asian Miracle” came to an abrupt end. Up until then, the 1990’s had been synonymous with economic growth, a period of international investment and globalization. In Bangkok, as in other Southeast Asian cities, this was most easily seen in the rapidly changing skyline; at the time of the crisis there were hundreds of buildings under construction in and around the city. However, the money to build was overextended, lent on shaky grounds. When the Thai bhat was devalued, the banking sector shut down almost overnight. Many lending institutions, including the largest in Thailand, collapsed in a short span.

The stepchildren of this crisis were hundreds of empty, partially completed tower buildings littered throughout the city: ghost-scrapers. In 1998 there were 508 total building projects lying fallow. Compounding the lack of funds to build were legal issues; clarifying liability in transferring the ownership of abandoned skyscrapers is a new field for the courts. Over the past two years, however, the story has tentatively shifted back to growth. The Finance Ministry is attempting to speed up the development of the abandoned sites, promising various incentives to recapture the potential revenue. Numerous buildings have found owners and many more are in negotiations. Citizens are investing again, albeit cautiously, and rarely for unbuilt units. Projects near amenities like the Chao Praya River or Skytrain have found the most new life, often as luxury hotels for the rapidly growing tourism economy, or condominiums for business and foreigner demographics. Today there are 281 abandoned buildings of varying heights totaling 68 million square feet, a far cry from the original numbers, but still daunting. Of these, about two dozen are towers.

Construction of towers in Bangkok favors cast-in-place concrete since labor is inexpensive relative to material. Sitting on deep pilings to resist the sinking Bangkok marsh, the column spacing and floor to floor heights are economical rather than extravagant. They are testament to the happy marriage of standardized methods and socially acceptable conformity. The relatively thin floor plates allow views through the structure to the sky on the other side; they appear purer and more sculptural than completed buildings that have taken on the telltale signs of human inhabitation. They stand out against the rest of the white and taupe skyline, unadulterated Maison Dom-Ino’s not yet ready to join their finished siblings. They are grey skeletons, incomplete and idle, waiting for the skin and guts that never came. In many cases they were interrupted mid-construction and sport prickly rebar bundles reaching out for the next layer of concrete. They may be structurally compromised due to years of unprotected exposure to the environment. Up closer, the structures bear the obvious markings of neglect: graffiti, tall weeds, rusting rebar, and miscellaneous construction detritus. Most ghost-scrapers have security, often a person who has set up an impromptu house on site. They live in modest shacks underneath 300,000 square feet of failed real estate.

Most Bangkokers hate the ghost-scrapers. They will tell you they are ugly, and for a population that is so universally well appointed, perhaps this is true. For one, they are covered with blemishes, warts of exposed fittings and weld plates. And considering the robust sale of skin-lightening cosmetics in Thailand, it is hard not to infer a connection to the creamy white skyline. The stained and aging concrete stands in contrast to the generally smooth off-white buildings around it. Without any residents to claim the space, they possess an aloof and sterile quality. The repetition of the bays is more evident without a human touch; the sheer bulk is more powerful. Drying laundry fluttering on balconies, uneven curtains, lights at twilight, and myriad satellite dishes...all soften the effects of scale. The ghost-scrapers are stripped bare of standard inhabitation and empty bigness is all that is left.

Most importantly to anyone who knows Bangkok, they exist as brutal and obvious reminders of a painful era. They are failures that are too tall to ignore, white elephants that remind locals of a too-recent hubris. More than visually ugly, they are mementos of hardship and fragility. As in any global city that prides itself on growth and progress, material signs of failure are like tumors that need excising. Current economic developments are still contextualized against the 1997 crisis, and the ghost towers represent the vanishing physical traces of those events. They are memories that are clearly present in the minds of locals, but are actively sought for physical erasure, or at least whitening.

Since they are ugly and painful they bring up a challenging question about heritage: how is it determined? Loosely defined, heritage is something passed down from one generation to the next, a kinship gift. If gifts are often unasked for and unappreciated, ghost-scrapers are the equivalent of fruitcake. They are monuments to hubris and reminders of folly. Maybe these are even more precious than the victories, a physical heritage to avoid repeating. After all, success has many parents, but who will care for the ghost towers? Stripped of their loaded symbolic meanings, they are strange, rude black holes in the city. While around them the world seeks growth and progress, they deteriorate quietly, readymade ruins in the city of the future.

Bangkok 1 - Introduction


Bangkok sprawls like a spider, consuming the rice paddies that lie along roads and canals. With no natural barriers to contain the city, it simply grows were the strategic land is located, following the corridors of trade and utilities. From the ground it looks ad hoc, but from above the polder structure is clearly intact and structuring the growth. In contrast to the auspiciously planned and controlled royal city center, Rattokosin, the city grows in dense commercial ribbons along the few major routes, and everything in between settles into a thick landscape of private compounds. Taken as a whole, Bangkok has a relative evenness to its density, with outer districts almost as heavily settled as the core. The real difference is seen taking a slice through one of the major avenues. Activity and density is clustered next to the road, while spacious residential compounds fill out the inner block. The rare connecting soi (side-street), inevitably jogs mid-block, and often turns into one-way traffic discouraging driving through. The combination of limited connecting roads and dense, even settlement results in one of Bangkok’s most notable features, the almost constant gridlock. At all hours of the day the streets are packed full of waiting cars. Thankfully, the Buddhist ethos means that almost no one honks; the cars just patiently move up a car length at a time, spewing more exhaust into the thick yellow haze.

The popular new Skytrain follows already established avenues, offering a substitute to the crawling traffic below. It is an efficient commerce machine, providing an air conditioned and captive audience with equal parts efficiency and marketing. Modern train cars host closed circuit televisions broadcasting music videos and advertisements until you reach one of the many shopping malls conveniently linked by a second floor pedestrian flyover directly to the station. No need to ever set foot on the street below. It is an environmentally controlled system that feeds on the ciy, an encapsulated and sanitized alternative to the hawker-filled humid streets outside. And it is filled. Clearly shopping is taken seriously, though it is a patent lawyer’s nightmare. Within sight of each other you can buy the real Louis Vuitton bag from the mall store, a grey market bag on the street, a knock-off next to that, or a Joe Louis look-alike next to that. Consumption of readily available foreign brands is tempered, however, by a striking culture of conformity and hierarchy. Fashion in Bangkok can loosely be expressed as variation on the uniform, with appearance obsessed youth giving studied personality to their communal outfits. Even the ubiquitous yellow royal insignia polo shirts (worn especially on Mondays to honor the king) are available in a variety of shapes and styles.

This uniformity can be extracted to the skyline, a generally prosaic collection of buildings that are guileless in their forms. They follow fairly straightforward aesthetic rules according to their typology (apartment tower, office, shop-house, mall, etc.), with certain elements that can be described as “flair”; gates, balconies, and signage act as ties, cufflinks and handkerchiefs. Built responses to the environment give the city a uniform scale: deep eave overhangs, ventilation block walls, pilotis, and fenestration eyebrows are lasting techniques used in contemporary construction. Over this basic urban fabric, however, is added a further accessory. Signage and advertising, supposedly temporary embellishment to the buildings, are hung like outrageous masks on the restrained facades. At busy intersections it is ordinary to see entire apartment facades shuttered with multi-story graphics; the streetscape of Bangkok is a dance of demure uniforms and crass costumes.

Contrasting with the profane world, sacred buildings exhibit a marked divergence in layout and decoration. Wats and palaces might resemble classic Ayutthaya houses in form, but they are blown up to super-human enormity and covered with dazzling ornamental gaudiness. Seemingly every architectural element reaches for the sky and glitters in the sun with some variety of precious appliqué. Not confined to serving the roads or canals, the compounds are ordered and spacious, with courtyards and ceremonial plazas allowing for generous views of the oversized spiritual architecture. The effect is one of peace and kitsch, repose and extravagance.

The primacy of Bangkok lays in its role as the royal city. It is the literal and figurative head of the nation, and the only true city. As the home of the king, it is merged with his image as a sort of timeless myth of Thailand. The adoration of Thais for their royal family and the present king, Bhumibol, is thus at least partly reflected in the inability of the national government to grow secondary cities like Chang Mai. Modeled directly on the previous Thai royal city of Ayutthaya, Krung Thep (the abbreviated version of the official 164 letter name, translated as “City of Angels”) grew out of the ashes of the former after it was sacked by the Burmese. The continuity began in finding a similar crook in the Chao Praya River, and platting a similar defensive layout. Additionally, many buildings were either transported or recreated.

The new location had strategic trading advantages that Ayutthaya never did, especially in being located closer to the sea for burgeoning international trade. Thailand shrewdly grew as a center for open trade and avoided colonization (the only nation in Southeast Asia to do so) by playing neighboring colonies of England, France and Portugal against each other. In order to further prevent dependency on Europe, the royal family decided to out-modernize the Europeans. Beginning in the 19th century they instituted a policy of progress and openness that made Bangkok one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities. Without a single overseas master the city took in competing foreign ideas, resulting in the collage of styles found today.

Building typology in Bangkok is linked closely to its adjacent transportation method. Older canals beget stilt houses, newer roads beget shop houses, and modern transit corridors beget towers. Each type is a layer that is laid over the previous as the city is continuously upgraded. Originally all traffic was canal based and floating houses evolved into stilt houses to avoid flooding and tropical fauna. As roads became the infrastructure of choice in the 19th century, stilt houses gave way to multiple story shophouses, with generic retail and industry at grade and apartment housing above. In the latter half of the 20th century, as roads were overlaid with thoroughfares and rapid transit, the tower block emerged from the shop-house. Towers sport parking garages as tall as the shop-houses around them and reach 20-50 stories. Since they sit back from the infrastructure around them, they are also the first typology to eschew a front and back face. All exist side by side in the metropolis, often on top of each other. It is one of the pleasures of wandering Bangkok that at these overlapping moments you are simultaneously in a 19th, 20th, and 21st century city.

This study will focus on built remnants from two divergent eras: the canals that were responsible for Bangkok’s growth, and the abandoned skyscrapers that recall the uncontrolled hubris and resulting financial collapse of 1997. Each, in their own way, presents the tension between growth and preservation. Canals are viewed as central to the historic myth of Bangkok, but appear increasingly incompatible with the growth of the city. The ghost-skyscrapers, on the other hand, are an unwelcome souvenir from a painful era, but nonetheless present issues about the role and criteria of built heritage.