Modernity is closing in on Bangkok’s old architectural heritage from all sides. Pongkwan Lassus, head of the Association of Siamese Architects, is on a mission to stop it. She explains how and why.
Her life is not just about a passion for architecture but also the fight for it. Architect and interior designer Pongkwan Lassus is also the head of the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA). Her job: to make people understand that architecture is a part of Thailand’s cultural legacy and should be saved for future generations.
Bangkok has a complex heritage stemming from its various functions and the various ethnicities that have come to live here over the centuries. But, according to Lassus, this is all under threat: “Unfortunately, the old wisdom that Bangkok’s canals should disperse the waters to the delta and provide natural spaces has been jeopardised by modern life,” she says. “We’ve managed to turn a city that used to live harmoniously with water into a city that’s prone to flooding and pollution. But despite the woes that we now face, destruction of our old continues unabated,” she laments.
The job of the ASA, in coordination with Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts, is not only to raise awareness about this but also to actively protect and classify buildings of historical value all over the country. “But unfortunately,” she says, “registering a building as a national heritage is an extremely time-consuming exercise. Due to the lack of funds from the Ministry of Culture, the Department of Fine Arts lists on average only twenty buildings a year. So far, 2,000 buildings have been recorded as being of importance to national heritage. But we estimate the total at being around 8,000 buildings. This means that the Department will probably need another 300 years to complete its task!”
There is also a problem of education, she explains. “For most Thais, especially officials in the administration, architecture does not mean anything. Yes, they understand the notion of ‘building construction’, but they lack knowledge and education in urban preservation. Given this, it’s no wonder that aesthetics and environment protection are rarely taken into account.”
The battle to convince authorities not to demolish structures of historical value can sometimes get nasty. Lassus and the ASA are currently fighting a few cases in Bangkok, the most sensitive and public one being the demolition of the Supreme Court Building along Sanam Luang.
In contrast to the golden spires and multicoloured roof tiles of the nearby Grand Palace, it looks fairly bland, it must be said. But it is significant to Thailand’s history, Lassus believes. Built during the era of Prime Minister Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsonggram, the courthouse was completed in 1939 and inspired by the ideology that held sway following the change from absolute to constitutional monarchy. It’s most symbolic aspect is a front façade divided by six pillars, each one representing one of the six principles of the ruling People’s Party.
“Lots of people in Thailand feel that this architecture does not truly reflect our nation. But this is really a piece of our history and we shouldn’t eradicate it, especially as it has been recognized of historical value,” she says, adding “replacing the structure by an average-quality structure that supposedly better reflects “our Thainess” is a complete nonsense.”
ASA gave a conservation award to the Supreme Court back in 2009 while Thailand’s Department of Fine Arts declared the building of historical value. Since news of the plan to demolish it broke, Pongkwan Lassus and the ASA have launched a public petition to block the project. The ASA in conjunction with the Society for the Conservation of National Treasures and Environment (Sconte) have also called for state agencies – including the Fine Arts Department and the National Human Rights Commission – to intervene and block the Supreme Court’s demolition plan, even if it means going to court.
And this is not Lassus’ only fight. “We are also concerned about plans to redevelop an old rail depot at Makkasan Station,” she says. “It is a remarkable industrial building and it should not be converted into a shopping mall with offices”. Other cases the ASA are fighting include Chinatown’s Charoen Chai, a community of early 20th century shophouses that are due to be demolished to make way for a new MRT underground station.
Have there been any success? The odd one. At Wat Suan Phlu, an old temple across from the Shangri La Hotel, the ASA recently managed to save four of six old wooden pavilions dating back to the late 18th century. “It is hard to believe but abbots in temples are some of the strongest opponents to preservation. We had to fight hard to make monks understand that they should keep historical buildings as part of the temple’s heritage. And sometimes this is not easy, as expanding a temple by building a larger structure can be a way of showing the monk’s influence,” she says.
If so much has been lost, where is her kind of Bangkok? “The city of my childhood has mostly disappeared, except along the canals of Thonburi. Life there is still more relaxed, more authentic and simpler. For example, I like going to the Klong Baan Luang community. Here all the religions in Bangkok live together. I’m also a fan of the artist Chumphon Akhpantanond: he restored an old house here and turned it into an artist’s community that’s open to visitors. Activities include puppeteers from Joe Louis Theater, who perform free every day and educate kids. It’s wonderful.”
“I also love walking around Yaowarat, or Chinatown,” she says. “It’s a living, breathing heritage area full of activities. The joss stick sellers, market vendors, food – it’s very lively and in the moment and yet, at the same time, very traditional.”
PONGKWAN LASSUS’ CITY PICKS
“Khlong Baan Luang: an old canalside community with all religions represented. Its biggest draw, Baan Sinlapin, is an artist centre in an old traditional house that also offers traditional puppet shows.”
“Yaowarat (Chinatown) for its authentic character and its traditional activities”.
“The Bangkokian Museum. I love the idea of having preserved all the elements of daily life from old days in an old house owned by various generations of the same family.”
“On weekends I love exploring Chatuchak Market, admiring the incredible creativity of young designers”.
“I still like to go to places offering an old Bangkok atmosphere such as Harmonique near the French Embassy or Cafe de Laos, near Silom. I like also Café Norasingha at Phaya Thai Palace with its art nouveau elements.”