Friday, December 15, 2006

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.