Austria, Italy and Thailand: celebrate together a legendary architect
Who better to have incarnated the Cosmopolitan Bangkok at the end of the 19th century/early 20th century than the architect Joachim Grassi, a personality shaped by his mix of cultures from Central Europe, Italy and France. Today, the Grassi legacy lives on, visible in some of Bangkok’s most iconic buildings.
Grassi perfectly incarnates what Europe used to be 150 years ago: a mix of cultures which sometimes opposed each other but often blended.
Grassi was born in 1837 in the city of Capodistria/Gafers/Koper. Three names in three different languages (Italian, German and Slovenian) but all referring to one place. The city was a reflection of multi-cultural Europe at the time. Italian by heart, Capodistria was, during Grassi’s time, Austrian, and next to the sizeable Port city of Trieste. Koper was the Slovenian name, given after the most significant minority living there. Koper/Capodistria had a tumultuous history, passing from the Venetian Republic to the rule of the Habsburg Emperors of Austria.
With the influences of those civilisations, the blend of cultures that Grassi encountered in his childhood varied, and his first years of studies would be applied to his architectural work when he eventually moved to Bangkok. He would spend 23 years in Siam, arriving two years after the coronation of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1868, just a year before the signature of a commercial treaty between Siam and Austria-Hungary in 1869.
The presence of Grassi in Bangkok coincided with the King’s plans to modernise Bangkok into a modern metropolis, inspired mainly by the urban model of Europe. With Grassi in the city, he was given the title of the ‘pioneer of European architecture’ by the King.
According to specialists, some 30 structures were constructed by Grassi and his architecture cabinet, Grassi Brothers & Co, in 1883. The cabinet was registered at the consulate of Austria-Hungary. Many of these structures however sadly disappeared in the 1950s and 1960s such as Burapha Phirom Palace built in 1875 for Prince Bhanurangsi Savangwongse, demolished to give way to a market. And, the first Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank establisments in 1874 for Assumption College on the Chao Praya River were destroyed in the 1920s.
Grassi’s designs are impregnated with classical architecture, however, adapted to Bangkok’s humid and hot weather conditions. In contrary to his Italian contemporaries Mario Tamagno or Annibale Rigotti who mixed various European styles, Grassi remained committed to his simple classical style, similar to the ‘Neo-Palladian’ villas of Northern Italy.
Classical columns, large pediment over a front porch, vast halls with columns, were all signatures of Joachim Grassi. His style is reflected in one of his first works in Ayutthaya. King Rama V commissioned him to transform a summer palace residence in Bang Pa-In. Built in the 17th century, the reconstructed Palace turned into a succession of European-style pavilions surrounded by gardens reminiscent of the Grand Trianon Palace, Versailles.
There are still many examples of Grassi’s distinctive style in the city. The current Ministry of Defence, located between the Grand Palace and the City Shrine on Sanam Luang. Constructed in 1884, remains the largest European-style structure in Bangkok.
At the Customs House, built in 1888, the very large pediment which crowns the main façade is the focal point of this imposing structure, which used to see King Rama V’s vessel returning from his European trips. The structure, which has been left derelict for many years, but will soon be renovated into a hotel, confirmed in May by U- City real estate. The company announced it would invest one billion Baht to turn the magnificent structure into a luxury boutique-style hotel.
The monument to Queen Sunanda in Saranrom Park, the one to Henry Alabaster in the European Protestant Cemetery, the Immaculate Conception Church, Wat Niwet Thammaprawat across Bang Pa In and St Joseph Church in Ayutthaya, are all Grassi designs. He also blended styles in the “Windsor Palace” (also called Wang Klang Thung). Built as the residence of Crown Prince Maha Vajirunhis, the Palace was a strange mix of neo-Palladian and gothic style. When the Prince died of typhoid in 1895, the Palace was vacated and became part of Chulalongkorn University. It was finally demolished to give way to the National Stadium, but some statues are still visible in the stadium compound.
Joachim Grassi remained in Siam until 1893 and then returned to Trieste where he died in 1904. His architecture remains a beautiful testimony of King Rama V’s willingness to stage Bangkok as a modern cosmopolitan metropolis, some 120 years ago.