A tribute to 1970s creativity, and to prefab architecture
Active since the 1970s, Sumet Jumsai Na Ayudhya is one of the best known contemporary architects in Thailand. Jumsai has given Bangkok some of its most unusual structures, among them is the Science Museum (1976), the “Robot Building” (1986), and the latest addition to Siriraj Hospital (2009), with its shade of rainbow colours on the façade.
However, back in the early 70s a US-inspired Jumsai was in charge of constructing a new home for the blind in the heart of Bangkok. It was built between 1971 and 1973, and was considered a provocative structure during its time. The building is an attempt to give a charitable educational institution a modern twist—one that reflected a city that was emerging as a new economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. At the same time, Western-trained Jumsai used the materials in trend during that period, with concrete replacing traditional bricks and wood, while minimalist geometric lines replaced the traditional curves and ornaments generally seen on typical Thai houses.
The Bangkok School for the Blind is one of the few examples of a structure made out of prefabricated concrete sections. The use of prefab was, at that time, rather unusual as it was more expensive to produce than asking local workers to build directly with mortar and concrete. Nevertheless, passersby were surprised to see workers carrying the large pieces of the school as if they were part of a giant Lego construction toy.
To be sure that the workers would not confuse the pieces, the architect gave a different colour code corresponding to individual floors and building wings. The result is a school which looks a bit like a warehouse, with pylons of concrete giving the shape to the property.
“It was a wonderful structure and I was so amazed by its modern aspect,” recalls Mrs. Suchitra Tigwattananon, one of the senior teachers (she arrived at the school 39 years ago). “Back then, in 1976, I felt very proud to work in such a contemporary modern environment.
“The colours were blue, white, and dark green and there was a large open space, divided by columns and beams of concrete. To be sure that children would not hit their heads against the pillars, each was surrounded by large pins to signal their presence. Air circulated through openings in the walls, while shutters protected children from the sun.
“However, it is more difficult now to envision the open space of that time,” she goes on to say. “Over the years additional classrooms were added in the open space areas, while a recent building has been added in front of the original school, essentially hiding the building.”
The school is still a sleek structure with its central tower with stairs dominating two wings stretching on both sides. It’s a unique and rare remnant of 1970s architecture in Bangkok, and a testament to the creativity of Thai architects of that time—especially considering it’s an educational institution.
It is possible to visit the school as long as you get permission from the school director. However, if authorization is granted, taking photos of the students is not allowed. The school currently serves the needs of 190 children, and remains a major institution for vision-impaired kids in Thailand. It will celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2019.
VISITOR INFO: The Bangkok School for the Blind is located at 420 Ratchawithi Rd (hidden behind a flyover on the corner of Ratchawithi and Sri Ayutthaya Boulevards). The building faces (almost) the Phaya Thai Palace near BTS Victory Monument.
Tel: 02 354 8365
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot