In the serene outskirts of Chiang Mai, the former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, a wondrous, shimmering structure embellishes the view: The Little Shelter Hotel. The city is rich in culture and tradition, and the cityscape is characterized by wood structures with shingle pitched roofs. This project completed in 2019, was an undertaking of a Bangkok-based firm, Department of Architecture Co. The building pays homage to the local architecture but with a little twist of reinterpretation with an asymmetrical form and use of new materials, making it a unique and distinctive blend of the vernacular and the contemporary.
The design is unconventional yet finds its roots in the valuable traditions passed on through time. Ensconced on the banks of river Ping, the façade incorporates wood and polycarbonate shingles, laid out in a way to resemble fish scales. The roof form takes inspiration from traditional hip roofs, and the silhouette of the building blends effortlessly with the surrounding treetop silhouette. The pitched roof is partially carved out on the west side to become a roof deck for guests to enjoy the panoramic river view at sunset.
On the façade, the architects have worked with the predominant traditional shingle system adding uniqueness with the fusion of new materials. When light penetrates through the façade playing with different material grains and translucence, varying interior atmospheres are created at different times of the day with changing amounts of light. And as the night falls, the building cocoon turns into a dazzling lantern with light emanating from within.
Since the structural skin allows light to pass through, fenestration is less necessary except at the entrance, the restaurant, and the guestroom terraces. The interior spaces complement the simple exteriors, using minimal materials to render the space a gallery-like feel that accommodates the 10-meter-high-site-specific installations inspired by the famous Boh–Srang umbrella. The installations interact with light and create dramatic silhouettes expressing contemporary interpretation of the local handicraft.
The guest rooms, which are a highlight of the hotel, provide a place to rediscover Chiang Mai with a new perspective. A set of images – unique to every guest room – of important places and events of Chiang Mai such as its ancient city wall, floating lantern festival, pine forest, Pah-Chor canyon, etc., are arranged on the entire ceiling. All fourteen guest rooms appeal to different emotions: tranquil, warm, cultured, mysterious, energetic, etc., which can be chosen according to the guests’ preference.
Wood shingles were chosen as the main material for the facades for several reasons. One of them being the ties the material has with the culture and local character, and the other, its ability to age gracefully. The wood shingle system has been developed over hundreds of years, composing them together like fish scales to create a watertight architectural plane. But in this case, the architects explored the same age-old system by introducing new materials like polycarbonate sheets.
The wood shingles are used on the roof and side walls while on the river-facing façade, polycarbonate sheets are cut into sizes similar to wood shingles and constructed to form a translucent envelope. On the entrance face, the top portion is composed of wooden shingles which merge into the polycarbonate shingles as they travel down. Instead of conventional wood studs, a standard polycarbonate cap, typically used to join panels of roofing sheets, was adapted to provide horizontal support for the shingles and to maintain the aesthetics of the façade. The uninterrupted translucency in the polycarbonate surface is achieved by a special detail design using translucent studs and special transparent screws during construction.
Rather than blatantly imitating the vernacular practices, the project explored innovative methods to use industrial materials while taking inspiration from traditional techniques. The Little Shelter is a contemporary interpretation of Northern Thai vernacular architecture and its intentions to create an exceptional conversation between the old and new materials are not only intelligible but also a success in context to design.
The hotel has been designed consciously by paying heed to sustainability. This can be seen in the way timber for the wood shingles is sourced. With sustainability and budget in mind, the team sourced teng wood offcuts from a local timber member manufacturer and the shingles were cut from these. The size of the shingles was determined based on the availability of timber along with consideration of the market-size polycarbonate sheets to ensure minimum wastage of materials.
Apart from sustainability in terms of materials, the project displays cultural sustainability. Preserving and carrying forward traditional practices and techniques without mindless aping of the same, the hotel has managed to leave its distinct mark even though it blends with the cityscape in umpteen ways. ‘Most of the hotels in Chiang Mai that want to reflect the city’s long history always simply copy traditional architectural forms or elements, especially hip roofing, wood carving decoration and window details, et cetera,’ remarked Luphaiboon. ‘This is why we wanted to focus on how to create an interesting dialogue between new and old materials, in a very contemporary architectural treatment.’
‘Little Shelter is not only a place to sleep. It is an introduction of the past, the present, and probably the future of Chiang Mai to its visitors.’