Friday, December 01, 2006

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.