Architect, painter, author, social critic, and raconteur extraordinaire, Dr. Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya is a Renaissance man and the designing mastermind of Bangkok’s most captivatingly peculiar buildings
Anyone who has ever peaked on hallucinogens (or air pollution) in Bangkok has probably thought, when staring at the skyline from on high, “Wow, that robot must be about 20 stories tall! What’s up with that Cubist structure? And is that a ship or a hotel? Man, this is some good shit…”
But these are not hallucinations—they are the surreal byproducts of Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya’s imagination. Born in 1939, and named a National Artist in 1998, the cornerstone of his bizarre architecture is his long-abiding interest in painting, cubism, and surrealistic art. Looking at photos of his artworks and buildings, it’s easy to draw parallels between them: the pigments of imagination, the serpentine lines, and the techno-geometric forms of The Nation buildings in Bangkok which form the blueprints for his artworks. It’s not surprising then, that his first ambition was to be a painter, not an architect.
“I started drawing and painting from an early age, but my father didn’t want me to be an artist, which meant being a pauper,” said Sumet, sitting on his terrace with a glass of 16-year-old malt whiskey in one hand, and a pipe stuffed with cherry tobacco in the other. “There was no market for modern art in those days. So I decided to compromise and study architecture because it was the nearest thing to art. But as I discovered, architecture—real architecture, is art. It’s a very important form of art, and it’s also a form of poetry in concrete and steel, wood and glass.”
Although he’s been painting for most of his life, he didn’t begin exhibiting his works until his first solo show at the Galerie Atelier Visconti in Paris towards the end of 1999. Judging by the reviews and the lengthy guest list of European aristocrats invited to the vernissage, Sumet’s debut exhibition Guernica, Typewriter, Racing Cars, and Einstein was a major artistic event.
So why did he wait this long to have his first solo show? “I don’t like the idea of selling my paintings, because they’re part of my flesh and blood, so I don’t want to part with them. But there’s no room to keep them in my house now, and my children think they’re hopelessly conventional and outdated,” he said with a cultured British accent echoing his Cambridge education. Even with a guest list like that, Sumet denied getting a case of the pre-exhibition jitters. “Oh no, I’m too old for that,” he laughed.
From a young age, Sumet’s view of architecture and the world was shaped and coloured by painters and sculptors. “Picasso was my great hero when I was a student, and the sculptor, painter and architect Le Corbusier. The two of them went hand in hand for me. They were part of my generation in the early ‘60s, with Vivaldi and modern jazz. And I’m still at it because I come from that generation,” he said.
Picasso’s Cubist period exerted a tremendous influence on Sumet’s design for the two Nation buildings, situated in the southeasterly extremities of Bangkok, alongside the highway to Pattaya.
“On the west side, quite recognizable, is the anthropomorphic: the chief editor sitting at his computer. But as you come around to the east side, the cut out, the shape of the editor becomes more and more abstract, until you come right round the building and he becomes a completely abstract shape permeated by electronic circuitry, which is an image of communications. So that’s Cubism. When you look at a Cubist painting or sculpture you see other sides at the same time. Like when Picasso painted his girlfriend and she’s divided into different sides,” he said with a laugh.
It was 9pm and we were sitting in the garden of the home he designed on Sukhumvit Road, listening to Ornette Coleman’s be-bop jazz, smoking Cuban cigars, and drinking malt whiskey. When he’s sober, Sumet is more of an upper-class Englishman—subdued and composed. When he’s drinking, the Thai side of his character comes out to play and he starts telling a lot more jokes and spinning tales about a spectre he encountered in a Victorian mansion in England.
Whether sober or tipsy, he is a namedropper, forever talking about encounters he’s had with everyone from Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela, to the notorious film director Roman Polanski. Sumet loves to be seen with other celebrities, and was right beside Polanski as he emerged to meet the press and the fans after the Asian premiere of his version of Oliver Twist at the Bangkok World Film Festival in 2005.
Out of the hundreds of actors, musicians, supermodels and titans of industry I’ve profiled over the last two decades, Sumet is the only one who has ever called me up to personally thank me for writing a story about him. Not only that, he had his secretary send a thank-you present. The perfect gift for any wordsmith, it was a poster for his Paris exhibition featuring one of his paintings: a Burroughsesque image of a typewriter with a human face.
Long may the grand old gentleman’s architectural legacy stand.
By Jim Algie