Unseen Bangkok reveals a vernacular urban landscape

Real Estate March 28, 2014 00:00

By Wimonrart Issarathumnoon

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A cursory look might show Bangkok as a metropolis defined by major streets and large-scale buildings, but closer scrutiny reveals that fine-grained historic neighbourhoods of gorgeous wooden houses nestle secretively behind and between the modern building

Since paved roads occupy only 8.1 per cent of the city, the village-like textures folded inside the hard shells of blocks are hardly seen from major roads. 
One good example of the “soft core” inside the block is the area of Ban Phan Thom, an old yan (spatial community of shared functions and history) located to the north of Khlong Rob Krung – Bangkok’s original city moat built by King Rama I in 1782 and now a historic conservation district.
Through observations and conversation with the residents of Ban Phan Thom, we discover major changes occurred in the area in the 1960s, when new roads replaced the ancient network of canals. Many traditional Thai-style wooden houses and colonial-style houses were torn down and exchanged for modern wooden and brick houses in simpler forms. 
Despite this, the vernacular of wooden houses and narrow lanes still persists, reflecting Bangkok’s older patterns of living. 
Ban Phan Thom, one of Bangkok’s suburban districts in the late 19th century, exemplifies the traces of former lanes (trok) and waterways (khu khlong). 
A variety of housing types exhibit the urban history and social development of Bangkok over the past two centuries, such as can be found in multi-generational housing associated with local temples, noble residences and government offices. 
Some housing for government workers and rental houses, which can be claimed as one of the original housing estates in Bangkok, still remain. In addition, we can observe a cohesive sense of community existing both informally and formally, as associations supporting local public works.
The ordinary houses (ban) of Ban Phan Thom show a composition of living spaces that support day-to-day living. Some houses show good connections between private spaces, semi-private outdoor spaces (rabieng or chan) and informal shared spaces on the narrow lanes or in the canal-side areas.
Houses of various architectural styles show the layers of urban history, their details and forms gesturing to the circumstances of colonialism, modernisation and the post-war period. 
In addition, this hodgepodge of buildings showcases construction techniques and materials appropriately adapted to Bangkok’s tropical climate. 
Even though Ban Phan Thom is a historic conservation area, its traditional houses and urban landscapes are threatened by physical and environmental degradation. 
Stressing this further is a serious migration problem: a considerable number of locals have moved out and new settlers, most of whom are migrant workers, have no historical or social connections to the existing system.
In order to safeguard Bangkok’s unseen urban landscapes, we must encourage local residents to appreciate the value of their neighbourhoods. Simultaneously, these areas should work harder to attract younger generations, perhaps organising into a living heritage site for the exploration of Bangkok’s history. 
Wimonrart Issarathumnoon is a lecturer at the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University.
This article is part of a research project entitled “Conservation Plan for Urban Communities and the Areas nearby Historical Canals in Rattanakosin Area,” presented  by the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s Urban Planning Department.