Suvarnabhumi Airport is a great example of contemporary Thai architecture. However, the Association of Siamese Architects (The ASA) originally criticized the design for departing too far from Thai traditional origins (Noobanjong 2013, pp.280-282). Initially, there was a great deal of controversy over the government choosing a foreign architect to design the structure, and the criticism also pointed to a lack of creativity in incorporating modern design features with Thai traditional styling (Horayangkura 2011).
Bangkok Don Muang vs Suvarnabhumi
The establishment of Suvarnabhumi Airport was commissioned in order to replace the visually “outdated” Don Mueang Airport with something more contemporary and practical in order to meet rising passenger demand.
Don Mueang was built in 1914, and its architecture reflected the cultural climate of the period, that of modernism and industrial progress (Noobonjong 2013, p.283). As a result, it was designed with very few ‘Thai’ architectural characteristics. It was standardized and manufactured with extremely limited aesthetic attributes.
The development of Suvarnabhumi Airport represented an important leap forward into the modern world especially because of the large role tourism plays in Thailand (Boland 2012) During its development there was a great deal of pressure to meet international expectations and compete with regional transit hubs like Changi Airport in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia.
However, despite the large investment and ambitious plans, it has hardly achieved the accolades of these other airports in the region. Though, to be fair, most criticisms have arisen internally rather than from international authorities.
Many of the criticisms have been charged by the Association of Siamese Architects (The ASA).
The Major Criticisms of Suvarnabhumi
1. A Lack of Thai Identity
2. Unsuitability to the local climate
3. An inefficient in energy consumption
4. An unproven structural system
5. Difficulties in utility and maintenance procedeures
6. An Overuse of imported materials
7. And its high cost overrun
(Chavalnipla, 2002; General Engineering Consultant, 1995, 1996, ASA, 1997 in Noobangjong 2013
8. Naked looking concrete, paintless columns, walls and structures (Fuller 2006, p.1).
9. Little effort has been taken in harmonizing the Thai decorative elements and the overall modern appearance of the airport. (Noobanjong 2013, p.294)
10. And overcrowding (Fuller 2006, p.2)
The Major Praises of Suvarnabhumi Airport
1. From the outside, it looks splendid with giant curved pieces uniformly arranged in sequence and a lovely cylindrical tower rising up high into the sky.
2. It makes use of high-tech materials i.e laminated glass, aluminum and steel.
3. Spectacular bridge-like superstructures.
4. The Concourses curved roof looks futuristic and modern.
The following are some of the important endorsements made by Architect Jahn Halmut’s (2013):
- An innovative roof trellis (one of the largest in the world) designed to shade the building against intense tropical sun and reduce the cost of air conditioning.
- The components maximize daylight and comfort, yet minimize the use of energy with significant life cycle cost savings.
- The installed cooling power is reduced close to 50% compared to a conventional system.
- The three layer translucent membrane was developed to mediate between the exterior and interior conditions, dealing with heat and noise transmission, while still allowing for natural daylight within the building.
- The building is flooded with controlled daylight in a tropical climate.
Overall Criticisms of Modern Thai Architecture
Leading Architecture Professor at Thammasat University, Vimoldsiddhi Horayangkura, (2011) suggests that many Architectural schools in Thailand have not focussed enough on the practical integration of Thai elements into modern designs. This has resulted in a culture of Architecture in which a sense of ‘Thai’ identity (‘Thainess’ or Khwampenthai) has been lost within the sea of modernity and globalization.
He suggests that modern Thai architecture should respect Buddhist philosophy, social hierarchy, and the Monarchy but remain bold in its ‘Thainess.’ Horayangkura encourages Thai architects to be proud and courageous in the ‘reinvention.’ After all, Thai people are hugely proud of their architectural heritage and it has helped underpin Thailand’s large attraction as a global tourist destination.
Most recently, the national edifices that have been a subject of public and architectural scrutiny have been Suvarnabhumi Airport and the new Parliament Building.
Both buildings are public-funded works and stand as important representations of Thai cultural identity and new additions to the creative economy.
The airport, according to Horayangkura, exhibits a modern vision yet lacks a clear vision in incorporating traditional Thai identity, as he sees it.
On the other hand, the integration of the ‘prang,’ (the tower-like spire) paid little respect to Thai traditional values as it is perceived as a holy emblem reserved strictly for Buddhist practice and royalty.
Horayangkura (2011) champions that Thai architects must take a ‘reinvention’ approach to modern Thai architecture in order to create something that will be a valuable part of cultural heritage for the future.
He encourages Thai architects to refrain from applying traditional Thai elements directly onto modern edifices, especially if such elements have sacred connotations.
He points to the design of the Sukhothai Hotel in Bangkok where Thai style pagodas were installed as decorative features and on a crematorium for commoners which has been topped with palatial spires and a ‘prang’ structure (Horayangkura 2011, p.63-65).
Although foreign onlookers may enjoy this traditional touch to the design of modern Thai buildings there seems to be little regard to the traditional and spiritual beliefs that have guided these styles for centuries. Simply by placing a ‘prang’ or tower-like spire on various elements of a building seems an innocent addition to a modern structure.
However, if we look deeper many Thai nationals may be upset to find such holy elements being used as means to gain commercial success (Noobanjong 2013, p.305).
Horayangkura further laments that the notion of applied Thai architecture has been a widely unfruitful movement though it was championed for decades by Thai governments up until the 1950s as a demonstration of nationalism. Examples of applied architecture include:
The National Theatre Building (Bangkok)
and the Civic Centers of Provincial Cities such as this one in Surat Thani Province.
The criticisms of applied Thai Architecture began when foreign-educated Thai Architects returned home with new concepts in which they were inspired to implement. Such pioneering designs have been chastised and dismissed with labels such as a ‘matchbox topped with a headpiece.’ Many have sensed a limited desire for Thai architects to integrate or reinvent ‘Thainess’ in their designs (Noobanjong 2013, pp.194-200).
The Reinvention of Thai Architecture
In suggesting an eight-point framework for ‘reinvention,’ Horayangkura echoes the voices of his colleagues (Plaichoom 1998; Phongmethakul 1999; Sriphirom 2009 in Horayangkura 2011, p.67-6 8). These are as follows:
1. Existing practices have been inadequate in reflecting present day society.
2. There are cultural limitations (beliefs, values) that need to be respected.
3. Transformation should involve both aesthetics and inherent wisdom.
4. Thai identity needs to be established amidst globalization following Nagashimas (1996 in Horayangkura 2011, p.68) concept of ‘Glocal Architecture’ (ie. Global + local)
5. Architecture reflects the economic social-cultural and technological systems of today.
6. Architecture must encompass concrete and formal aspects.
7. Research and development into modern Thai architecture must be ongoing.
8. There is no instant formula for ‘reinvention.’
Does the airports lack of a sense of place and Thainess (or Khwampenthai)?
Thai people are increasingly aware of the loss of Thainess in the wake of western cultural hegemony. But what has Thainess become… or is it now so ambiguous to even appropriate? In order to create authentic Thai characteristics, must the designers be of Thai decent? It appears foreigners have access to the creation of Thai cultural artifacts and similarly Thais have access to creation of foreign artefacts.
However, if we pay attention to the criticisms listed by the ASA it can be assumed that its implementation has not lived up to the expectations of architectural ingenuity especially in terms of its ‘Thainess’ and ‘sense of place.’ Though, Noobanjong (2013) raises many opposing views regarding this and points out that the ASA’s claim has not been backed by a comprehensive definition of ‘Thainess’. In an attempt to suggest a contemplative inclusion of Thainess the lead Architect in the project, Jahn Halmut (2013) has written on the Airports official website that:
‘In a building with such advanced technical concept and construct it is important to establish a connection to local cultural tradition and art. This is done through the shaded gardens flaking the terminal, which represent Thai landscape in cities and country, a jungle garden between the terminal and concourse, traditional artistic patterns on glazed surfaces and floors and Thai artifacts placed at the airside centers and concourses.’
Perhaps his inclusion of ‘Thai’ Identity appears merely as an afterthought, not a significant factor concerning his design. Furthermore, the gardens and landscape he speaks about are planned areas for expansion so are thus only temporary and expendable spaces within the built environment.
Suvarnabhumi Arcitectual Upgrades
Some Thai architects have sought to redesign elements of the airport in an attempt to make it more ‘Thai.’ Chainimitara Narawat (in Noobanjong 2013, p.290) graphically illustrates roof alterations to suit the tropical climate of Thailand and believes his designs better represent Thai identity.
He proposes to modify the roof from glass and adjustable steel louvers to local materials like terracotta roof tiles. He also changes the shape of the roof from a large flat area to a series of high-pitched gable roofs (figures 10-14).
In addition, a PHD has been written by Seksan Sriphirom (2009) regarding the regeneration of Thai characteristics for Suvarnabhumi Airport. Although his thesis is in Thai, his Abstract concludes the following assumption, ‘That the arrangement in particularly modern style architecture should be focused on a set of integrated designs because the traditional Thai style itself has a very strong character. Hence, cautious adaptation with the concern of context and suitable application to hierarchical status should be an appropriate architectural approach.’
Noobonjoon (2013) argues that Suvarnabhumi has followed in the footsteps of other so called world-class airports in its attempt to display Bangkok as a world-class city. Thus, the need for ultramodern design was appropriated. He notes that ‘millions of dollars have been poured into the construction of those mega airports, and little attention has been paid in creating a sense of place via architectural designs.’
The content of this report has focused on some important aspects of the khwampenthai discourse including historical architectural examples and practical steps for its implementation within the modern context. Suvarnabhumi Airport is an example of modern architecture which has drawn a lot of criticism with regards to upholding traditional Thai identity.
Whilst Horayangkura advocates for Thai Architects to be bold in their ‘reinvention’ of modern Thai architecture, Noobonjong queries the modern definition of Thainess and asks if such a discourse is still relevant.
The airport is certainly an important part of modern infrastructure and clearly demonstrates modern ingenuity and design aspects. Many architects and namely the ASA would have preferred that a sense of ‘Thainess’ be retained or properly respected in the design process. Perhaps, more consultation with such bodies as well as civil society would be a better approach to such large public works projects.
My personal opinion regarding the Airport’s Design Elements are as follows:
- Internally the airport represents a total lack of integration or reinvention. Although, it could be argued that the external roof structure is a reinvention because it emphasizes curvature and connection to the natural environment (ie water). As a foreigner, I would argue it only loosely represent ‘Thainess’ and therefore does not portray a good sense of ‘Thai’ identity in its design.
- In the daytime, the windows look quite nice with all the natural light. However, at night all the supporting beams look quite industrial and unappealing.
- There was not enough seating outside and many people were just sitting on the ground.
- Compared to Kuala Lumpur Airport and Singapore Airport there was nothing particularly appealing that made it memorable for me. In Kuala Lumpur, they had a form of moving art, with consisted of silver “raindrops” moving up and down forming different patterns.
- I didn’t see much Thai Art inside. No bright colors, no intricate designs.
- I didn’t see elements of any Thai jungle and understand the upgrades will be built over the natural surroundings that exist already.
- Some have commented that they found it confusing to know where to go.
How I conducted my research:
For the purposes of this article, I made sure to explore all aspects of the airport myself. I also sourced information from recent journal articles, books on modern Thai architecture as well as relevant websites. I had the privilege of interviewing a prominent professor of Thai Architecture, Professor Vimolsiddhi Horayangkura of Thammasat University which I very much enjoyed.
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PR Newswire 2012 Helmut Jahn, FAIA, receives AIA Chicago lifetime achievement award during Designight Oct. 26, web feed, viewed 15/11/13, (online ProQuest).
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Wikimedia Foundation 2013 Suvarnabhumi Airport, Wikipedia website, viewed 15/11/13, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suvarnabhumi_Airport>.