Report from Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
Chulalongkorn University occupies an enviable site in Bangkok, spacious tree-lined avenues lead to large parks providing some tranquillity from the city beyond. The University was established in 1917 and the earliest buildings were designed by British architect, Edward Healey in a fusion of Beaux-Arts with Siamese decoration.
Nat Phothiprasat (alumni of Liverpool School of Architecture, BArch in 1929), established the Architecture Faculty in 1930. It relocated to its current location in 1940 and was designed by Lucien Coppé and Siwawong Kunchon na Ayudhya in 1940. Next door to the School of Architecture is the Chemistry Building (now Arts and Cultural Centre), designed c. late 1930s. The architect, Saroj Sukkhayang, (also studied at Liverpool, Dip. Architecture and Civic Design, 1920) had recently returned from a trip to Europe and was eager to implement in Thailand some of the designs he had experienced. Solar shades project above window openings, geometric symmetrical arrangements and the recessed curved entrance void give the building its distinctive character. It is astonishing to see another building designed by the same architect at exactly the same time – but in a completely contrasting style. The Arts Auditorium was an attempt to re-invent Thai architecture using modern materials and techniques, taking familiar motifs and ornamental designs but casting them in concrete rather than carving them in wood. It was also a collaborative design undertaken with master-builder U Laphanon. The rationale for using the concrete ornamentation was to create a more durable building that wouldn’t require the continuous renewal demanded by timber structures. The process of casting however demands that the formwork can be released from the cast and subsequently the ornament appears somewhat flat, and lacking the intricacy associated with timber carving. Concrete also permits longer spans than timber and the result is a larger single form, appearing as if extruded from the gable rather than as a series of hipped roofs and interlocking forms associated with more traditional forms of construction.
The student club house was also designed by Saroj Sukkhayang and Chuea Patthamachinda. Recently renovated and losing its shutters in the process, the building is now sealed and air-conditioned.
A more recent addition to the campus is the Student Union Building designed by Vodhyakarn Varavan and Lert Urasayananda in 1966. A large assembly space with smaller recessed annexes is formed by the spikey louvred gables. Robin Ward describes it unfairly as an ‘Elvis-era resort in Hawaii’ style building – but it is surely more than this. It is a response to the Wat structures coupled with innovative structural and climatic devices, as well as attempting to find a new lexicon for an optimistic university campus.
Close by to the campus at Siam Square is the exquisite Scala Cinema (1967) and well worth visiting, as is the former British Council Building.
Leaving the campus, heading through China Town and over the River we visited the Phra Borommathat Maha Chedi stupa. Built from 1828AD there is a blend of Palladian and local motifs. The temple has been sensitively repaired following a major structural failure and collapse. Just a short walk away is the Santa Cruz church and a small Catholic community that resides in the area. The narrow lanes prevent any motor traffic and the shading of the trees shelter the calm labyrinthine streets below. The community can trace its origins to Portuguese traders and they still bake Portuguese style cakes today. A wonderful museum [Bahn Kudichin Museum] is being created to celebrate this heritage. There are some excellent pencil-rendered measured drawings on display depicting the timber houses from the area (produced by students on the Thai Architecture Programme at Chulalongkorn University). The narrow streets betray the open spaces and gardens that lie within this exciting complex.
This side of the river contains the factories, go-downs and sheds associated with a burgeoning city – and like in many other cities, these frequently dilapidated yet enticing structures attract artists, architects and ‘creatives’. One such development is particularly of note – the Jam Factory. Designed and developed by architect Duangrit Bunnag. Duangrit was kind enough to give us a tour around the Factory which houses two of his restaurants, café, book shop, gallery and design studios.
I made a quick visit to Mahidol University campus too, to see the former Students Union Building and the cosmic brutalist lecture hall designed by Amon Sriwong in 1965.
A few other of my highlights include the Brutalist buildings along the Suriwongse Road, as well as the Neilson Hays Library designed by Mario Tamagno in 1921 and the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, a Dravidian temple used by the south Indian residents of Bangkok from the 19thC onwards.
Many thanks to Professors Pinraj Khanjanusthiti, Saranya Siangarom and Chomchon Fusinpaiboon of Chulalongkorn University for all their generosity and help during my stay in Bangkok.