Friday, December 01, 2006

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.