As Alliance Français prepares to relocate one more time, we examine the history of one of the oldest European institutions and cultural centres in Thailand
In 2012, the Alliance Française celebrated its 100th anniversary with the inauguration of a new building. It was actually an emotional move: after standing for over 85 years on Sathorn Road, the Alliance was due to move to a brand-new premises: across to Lumpini Park, in the so-called “Embassy Row”. With the imposing structures of both Japanese and Australian diplomatic missions in Thailand, the Alliance Française of Bangkok became the proud flagship of French cultural presence in Bangkok.
If we go back in history, the structure was then the sixth location of the Alliance Française. Going back in time, the Bangkok Times of September 6, 1912 was indeed announcing the establishment of a ‘Comité de l’Alliance Française’ in premises at the Oriental Hotel. The article at that time talked about some 50 members for the Committee occupying three rooms of the hotel, including Bangkok’s only French library. Honorific presidents at that time included two French personalities—French Plenipotentiary Minister M. Lefèvre-Pontalis and Rev. Bishop Perros, and two prestigious members of the Siam Royal family: Prince Chakabongse Buvanath and Prince Charunsakdi Kritakara. However, lacking funds, the association would have to relocate three more times before settling down in April 1926.
The Alliance finally moved to a house which belonged to the government of French Indochina. The charming mansion on stilts was set on an idyllic street linking the river to mango and rice plantations: Sathorn Alley. This is where the Alliance Française would be for the next 89 years. The charming mansion became too small over time and in 1962, the French government, through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provided funds to build a modern looking structure. Inaugurated in 1966, the modern structure had two buildings: one, used as a welcome reception and administration offices and later an auditorium and cafeteria, while the second building looked more like a school, built in tropical modern-style. Over the decades, growing frangipani trees and plants gave a leafy atmosphere to the centre which became a prominent cultural institution in Bangkok.
However, the Alliance once again suffered from congestion and was under pressure to move out of Sathorn, which since the 1990s had become one of the most prestigious –and expensive- addresses in the capital.
The Alliance was due to move by the end of 2012 but it took another year as the new building near Lumpini was not finished. It was finally completed in October 2013 when the centre integrated the structure conceived by French architecture team of ADPI. In Sathorn, the old empty Alliance is still there and visible from outside, waiting for demolition.
“Things are changing fast in Bangkok,” said Pascale Favre, the Alliance Française Director. “My predecessor heard that a major project was taking place where the Alliance was standing. One Bangkok is an extremely ambitious development district with luxury condominiums, a mall, offices, hotels and elegant streets. The One Bangkok real estate company probably started to negotiate with the Alliance for a move. I was not there but I know that the MoU with the Alliance was done in early 2017 for the transfer of the centre.”
Pascale continues, “The offer was generous. One Bangkok promoters were to build a bigger structure, all for free,” she says.
Then, 18 months later, the building was ready to take the administration and welcome its first visitors. The old structure is now closing on July 23 while the first students will be welcomed in the new building on July 27.
“We started to move material and equipment in early June,” says Pascale. “We first dismantled the auditorium, then the library will follow. The offices will be last to move. We are heading for a soft opening in August and a full opening in October. We will then organise an opening festival to celebrate.”
The question is, with so many relocations, will the new Alliance be to the satisfaction of its future users? “The building is beautiful and it will bring more space for people to gather together. We will have a true atrium with a monumentail staircase where people actually will be able to seat and chat around a drink. The library benefits of superb facilities such as the auditorium. It will have 214 seats and a layout reminiscent of the glamourous movie theatres of the 1950s with their high ceilings. The acoustics are marvellous!” says an enthusiastic Pascale. A cafeteria will be available with an open-air terrace.
The current building certainly furthers the history of the Alliance Française. Not for its architectural quality but as the Alliance Française centre with the shortest lifespan: less than five years! “With One Bangkok we will be at the heart of a district with some 40,000 to 50,000 people passing every day. That is a great opportunity,” says Pascale. No regrets then!
By Luc Citrinot