Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Train Station Architecture in Thailand

Train stations represent towns and cities. They represent a centre, a hub. Often they demonstrate civic pride. In many cases rail stations are well funded building projects used to set the architectural tone of an area.  Famous architects have built memorable train stations. With this in mind, what do Thailand’s train stations have to tell us about Thai culture?

Hua Lamphong Train Station

Hua Lamphong Station (opened June, 1916) is the most important train station in Thailand. It was designed by Mario Tamagno, an Italian architect and lecturer who won a 25 year contract from King Chulalongkorn. Mario Tamagno was influenced by Italianate or Neo-Renaissance style. He also combined elements of the baroque in his work. While the central arch that runs through the building is very much in the vogue of train stations at the time, he added ornate buildings to the side, along with columns. There is a certain grandeur to the building but the style which harks back to 15th Century Italy might not be the obvious choice for a train station in Bangkok.

Perhaps since steam power was a Western innovation, along with mechanised industrialisation (and indeed train station design) it was felt that the train station should reflect this – a new, grand departure for Thailand.

Mario Tamagno also designed Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, Makkhawan Rangsan Bridge, Nongkhran Samoson Hall in Suan Sunanda Palace, and the Oriental Hotel. He often collaborated with Annibale Rigotti.

Nakhon Lampang Station

In contrast Nakhon Lampang Railway Station (opened circa 1915) displays a mix of Northern Thai and European architecture styles. It is 600 kilometres north of Bangkok Train station. The main train station building has European arches on the ground floor and then a second floor with ornately designed windows and doors more in a Thai style. The roof has two tiers with a gap for ventilation that is also Thai. In 1993 the train station won the Association of Siamese Architects' Architectural Conservation Award.

Hua Hin Train Station

Hua Hin Train Station is often called ‘Thailand's most beautiful train station’. The wooden building was previously a royal pavilion in Sanamchan Palace, Nakhon Pathom Province. It was rebuilt at Hua Hin in 1968.

The main building on the platform is the small wooden pavilion. It is built in classic Thai style. The red and yellow of the pavilion is repeated in the platform awning and columns.

Phitchit Train Station

Phitchit Train Station was also built in the reign of King Chulalongkorn. It is a small square building (not a long one hugging the line) that is in a Neo-Classical style. It is a solid white building with large shuttered windows on the second floor and arches on the bottom floor.

These four buildings are the more eye-catching stations in Thailand. They reveal two themes. One is that there were no restrictions on building style when many stations were built. The other is that train station design was influenced by the King.

The royal connection with train stations in Thailand is obvious. Not only was the King often the driving force for infrastructure improvements to the realm but also his arrival at the city was often a cause for the building of a monumental train station. Other stations that he didn’t visit in a public capacity at the start of the rail age in Thailand didn’t receive the same attention or funding.


Friday, 10 April 2015

Stupa and Chedi

In Thailand the terms stupa and chedi are interchangeable. They refer to the mound shape found in many Buddhist buildings. They are one of the core designs of Thai Buddhist architecture.

A stupa or chedi looks like a cup upside. Indeed there is a story that the original Buddha’s disciples asked their master what sort of monument they should build for his dead body. The Buddha folded a cloth into a square and placed his begging bowl on top to demonstrate what he wanted.

This story is relevant because historians believe that the first stupas in India were originally burial mounds. This aspect of stupas is retained in a sense that a stupa is meant to contain relics from Buddhist saints, although some modern stupas are just symbolic and don’t contain any relics.

Stupas are believed to have derived from burial bounds pre-dating Buddhism. Indeed the word ‘stupa’ derives from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘to pile up’. The stupa was adopted as a key element to Buddhist temple architecture in India. And from India the stupa (along with Buddhism) was exported all over Asia including Thailand.

The symbolism involved in the Buddhist stupa is complex:
  1. The square base is the head of the Buddha
  2. The hemisphere is the Buddha’s body
  3. The top of the spire coming out of the mound is his crown
  4. The base is his throne
  5. The steps below are his legs.
The totality represents the Buddha meditating in lotus position on his lion throne.

Famous Stupa in Thailand

  • Phra Pathommachedi – Nakhon Pathom. Tallest stupa in the world
  • Phra Boromathat Chaiya – Chaiya in Suratthani Province
  • Wat Arun – Bangkok. Also a representation of Mount Meru
  • Wat Yai Chai Mongkon – Ayutthaya. UNESCO site
The image above shows the 8 different styles of stupa. This gives you a clue to the added significance different designs in stupa have. This picture is based on Tibetan sources but could just as well apply to Thai stupas.

Resources: Wikipedia entry about Stupas

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tree Houses in Thailand

It is curious that although Thais frequently build their homes on stilts they rarely build houses or bungalows in trees. The tree house is an imported idea that is slowly gaining traction in Thailand. It is sometimes broadly interpreted as a building among trees or a roof top room exposed to the elements. Here are a few versions of tree houses in Thailand.

Bangkok Tree House

This is a serious attempt at an environmentally friendly hotel in Bangkok. It is next to the river in an area with plenty of trees. The hotel offers various high build rooms including this one with great views and a bed on a viewing platform. It epitomises the indoor / outdoor concept that came to the fore of Thai design in the early 2000s mostly connected to luxury villa and hotel architecture.

Khao Sok Tree House

This is a resort set near the National Park of Khao Sok. It is a staging post for safaris in the park. It gives guests the chance to be in a jungle environment. The rooms are bungalows that are on stilts. They are not built in the cradle of a branch but are surrounded by plenty of trees. The resort does well to combine luxuries such as a swimming pool with a forest situation.

Rabeang Pasak Treehouse Resort

This resort is on the edge of Chiang Mai City. It is in a great sylvan location. Longan House is a well-constructed tree house. The main room is built around a tree trunk at elevation. The structure is extended with steps and a walk way to a smaller room near ground level.

Charm Beach Resort

On the popular party beach of Baan Tai you can find one ‘luxury’ tree house. It is built in a tree on the beach. It has TV, air-con and the resort promises room service. It is a bungalow in a tree essentially. It fits very well into the traditional Koh Phangan style of using natural and locally sourced materials for building.

Sunrise Villa

On the same island is Sunrise Villa. It is a modern 3 bedroom private villa. The hillside location means that there is a large distance between the wrap around balcony and the steep hill below. The panoramic sea views and the height give the impression of being in a tree house.

Koh Phayam

Koh Phayam is a small island off the coast from Ranong on the Andaman coast. It is very under-developed, in many ways like Koh Phangan was 30 years ago. The main beach had a bar with lots of funky seating including this basic tree house. The platform is made from bamboo and the steps are just bits of wood nailed to the tree. It is simplicity itself.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Beach Architecture in Thailand

Two of the main driving forces of construction in Thailand has been tourism and the private residence for foreigners sectors. Thai people tend to stick with the same house and often expand outwards. It is not that they are not house proud, rather it is that the banks are reluctant to lend money for housing projects. Moreover, Thais have a practical attitude to their homes –they are just places to rest your head. In villages people tend to stay on the verandas and porches in the shade but still interact with the world passing by. They love eating outside and being outside. It is not an indoor country in the way that say Sweden is.

There was a boom in the building of private villas in resort areas in Thailand such as Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan in the 1990s and first decade of this century. That all changed with the down turn in the world economy in 2008. There has been a small recovery but political uncertainty has held the market back. Many of these villas are now on the market for a reduced price. The problem is that few people want to buy a second hand villa in Thailand when they can get a new one for little more money – plus also estate agents are actually developers and they push their own products rather than their second hand catalogue.

Villas reflect hotel architecture in many ways in that they focus on outdoor spaces that run into indoor spaces. The focal points tend to be the outdoor pool, Jacuzzi and bedroom with great view. They are selling a lifestyle just as hotels are selling an exotic and pampered experience. The cross-over is complete with many villa rentals offering in-house catering and hotel services. People want their own private luxury but don’t want to clean or cook it seems!

The other end of beach culture is the traditional Thai beach bungalow made with local wood, bamboo and thatched roof. Back in the day these basic wooden bungalows on stilts didn’t even have a bathroom – it was more practical and hygienic to have a communal bathroom block.

Now many beach resorts have abandoned the traditional Thai architecture of the beach hut and built concrete units euphemistically called ‘villas’. They sometimes attempt a nod to Thai architecture with a Thai style steep roof or by using hardwood floors and Thai decoration. These are just superfluous flourishes and the process of upping rental prices is turning Thai beaches into soulless corporate hotel locations that embrace fake modernity, ersatz Thai culture and an insidious monoculture.

Thankfully places such as Koh Chang (off Andaman coast) and obscure beaches such as Mae Haad in Koh Phangan still keep to the traditional Thai beach architecture which is about upcycling, recycling, using local materials and blending into the environment. The point cannot be made strong enough – upgrading makes the beach ugly and does not bring prosperity to the local community.