Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is located at the edge of the Chao Phraya River. In the early 17th century, when Bangkok—then known as Ayutthaya—was merely a cluster of ramshackle huts in a mushy delta. Consequently, when foreign trade began to grow, Bangkok became an important junction for ships to drop off their cargo. Thereby the rapid capital development began which led to Bangkok being the commercial hub for headquarters of all of the major banks and financial institutions of Thailand today. (Asian Architecture., n.d.)
The river and a network of interconnected canals served as the major transportation network of the city. However, with time, rapid development, and western influence, the floating houses anchored on the riverfront turned into houses on stilts and the riverfront decreased to pavements and vehicular networks. Progressively, the 20th century witnessed the construction of typologies such as temples, schools, libraries, hospitals, etc., while the 21st century brought luxury condos, offices, shopping malls, and significant restoration projects of traditional structures. (Duran, 2021)
Economic factors involving the prosperity of foreign trades from the Ayutthaya to the Rattanakosin periods brought about significant changes in the development of the city. Furthermore, traditions changed under the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, due to the capitalist economic system which expanded its influence over urban planning, tourism, and economic revitalization.
While Bangkok’s urban planning policies date back to the “Litchfield Plan” in 1960, the districts don’t always represent the functional divisions of the land usage it was intended to be. Unfortunately, the plan was not implemented fully till 1992, which resulted in the city growing organically throughout its rapid expansion—horizontally and vertically—from its original center along the river into a sprawling metropolis yet it still has a large number of agricultural areas and forest areas within the city.
Architecture in Bangkok has broadly three categories: Traditional wooden or bamboo houses; the ceremonial architecture of lavishly ornamented temples and palaces that have influences of India, Ceylon, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, China, and the West; and lastly immigrant, foreign, and modern architectures in both pure as well as hybrid forms. (Millet, n.d.)
Thailand housing has a very distinct type of architecture with houses on stilts since they are built along the riverbanks and canals which are prone to flooding during the monsoon. The area beneath the house is typically used for storage, to keep farm animals like chickens, for relaxing during summer during the day, and the upper level is used for sleeping. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
The traditional house is an ideal adaptation of its climate and geography. The open high-pitched roof allows for air circulation during the harsh summers, the open windows and walls with a large central terrace as well as the area below the stilts provide for relief during peak summer and humidity. Moreover, the wide overhangs protect the house from sun and rain, and the steep roof allows for rainwater to run off easily and fall through the permeable terrace and flooring. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
The construction of the dwelling involves superstition as an important aspect of design. They include taboos ranging from which plants can be placed on the terrace, to the direction of the sleeping areas. Largely, there are three ancient principles that houses accord with to build: material preparation, construction, and dwelling. Material preparation refers to trees used in the construction, the soil on which it is built, and the conditions and preparations of the site. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
Construction entails rituals to be performed before the first column is placed in the ground during a carefully selected auspicious time and date. Dwelling refers to the behavior of the occupants once the house is completed. There are certain beliefs and practices to be followed like being unable to rearrange a house once it’s been built. While these rules are not followed as strictly and widely as they were earlier, these ideals of making domestic dwellings sacred are being altered to suit modern lifestyles and beliefs. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
The abundant use of wood and bamboo reflects the availability of these materials through a harmonious understanding of the agricultural society, forests, and the built environment. Unfortunately, the uncontrolled and unplanned development of Bangkok has led to vanishing forests, a traffic-choked city, and environmental degradation. The negative impacts of the rapid economic development have been made evident by the concrete shops, the monotonous apartment blocks, and the canals filled with road networks. (Asian Architecture., n.d.)
Religious and Royal Structures
Bangkok’s architecture is a reflection of its geographical and cultural crossovers which is evident through its religious and royal structures through the concept of layering- which has a capacity for accretion of forms and influences over time. The layering is a form that expresses the world view as postulated by a 13th century Siamese treatise on cosmology called the Traiphum or The Three Worlds. (Millet, n.d.)
This explains the Hindu-Buddhist hierarchy for living beings. The Traiphum diagrams the universe as a mandala of concentric circles depicting mountains and seas enveloping a sacred inner circle that is considered the god’s abode. These symbols are reflected in royal and temple architecture forms and details in terms of walls, columns, stupas, and roof spires. (Millet, n.d.)
The 400-year period from 1351 to 1767 is considered to be a golden age of Thai architecture. Ayutthaya grew rich and powerful due to its military might, its export of rice, and its role in Europe’s trade with Japan and China. Ayutthaya displaced the Khmer rulers in Siam in 1352, subdued Angkor, and annexed Sukhothai, and thereby became an empire that led to imperial grandeur with glittering temples and palaces. The architecture was regarded as one of the peak achievements of grace and expression of Siam’s power and culture. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
From the 13th to 15th century, Chinese culture had a strong influence on the architecture of Bangkok. They imported the Chinese motifs, ceramics, kilned ceramic roof tiles in their shapes, and used Chinese ornamentation techniques such as lacquer painting and pearl inlay. From the 16th century, trade and ties with Europe introduced Western concepts and forms to Bangkok which led to the incorporation of Acanthus leaf designs in lai thai motifs. Foreign influence peaked during the 17th-century reign of King Narai which kickstarted the cosmopolitanism that took place for further development in Siamese culture and architecture for the following centuries. (Millet, n.d.)
Temple halls were built with golden thick walls, massive columns, and narrow slits for windows. The memorial towers- chedi and prang– evolved to become taller and thinner, and were no longer featured as a central element like in the Khmer dynasty. The edge of the temple columns was shaped into lotus buds which symbolized the purity of Buddha’s thoughts with eight stones laid around the hall to keep away the evil spirits. Roof peaks were adorned with a curling, pointed extension known as a chofa. (Millet, n.d.)
The temple ruins visible in Bangkok today usually include a bot– an ordination hall, a viharn– sermon hall, and a dome-shaped chedi– where holy relics were placed and worshipped. It is usually a temple complex with a pavilion and residential quarters for the monks to reside in. An example of a typical Khmer-influenced temple is Wat Arun in Bangkok. (Millet, n.d.)
The royal palaces also include many of these same symbolic motifs and elements. A prime example is the Grand Palace which was built by successive royals over a span of 200 years. While it has traditional elements, it also has western styles and influences reflecting the influence of each subsequent ruler. It was laid out in a manner that divided the plot into a series of courts, walls, gates, and forts. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat, built in the 19th century, illustrates the influence of the European styles and the preferences of King Rama V and the foreign architects he employed. (Build Abroad. n.d.)
While Bangkok is known for its grand temples and palaces, it is also the home to numerous buildings of various styles from neoclassical to modernist to postmodernist. Modernism architecture started coming up after the Second World War when Thai architects started returning home after education in the States. (Time Out Bangkok. 2020)
The rapid economic development at that time provided these architects with opportunities to create iconic buildings such as the Elephant building, the robot building, the state tower, etc. While these may have been questionable choices of design, it created a movement in Bangkok that led to some grand high-rises in the city. Some examples of such postmodernist architecture include the Central Embassy, Rosewood Bangkok, and King Power Mahanakhon. (Time Out Bangkok. 2020)
The architecture of Bangkok is created by a combination of the old and the new, showing influences from modern trends, technology, and traditional architecture. Bangkok manages to use the past to project the future and embraces its legacy to create new forms that respect and enhance the architecture.
Sightseeing modern buildings right around heritage sites and monuments create the interesting contrast that makes up the cityscape and life of Bangkok.
Duran, V., 2021. 23 Contemporary Buildings You Shouldn’t Miss in Bangkok. [online] Virginia Duran. Available at: <https://virginia-duran.com/2019/10/22/23-contemporary-buildings-you-shouldnt-miss-in-bangkok/> [Accessed 1 May 2021].
Asian Architecture. n.d. Houses in Thailand: Traditional and Historical Design. [online] Available at: <https://www.orientalarchitecture.com/sid/640/thailand/other-statewide/thai-houses> [Accessed 29 April 2021].
Build Abroad. n.d. An Introduction to Thai Architecture | Build Abroad. [online] Available at: <https://buildabroad.org/2017/05/19/thai-architecture/> [Accessed 29 April 2021].
Millet, E., n.d. Architecture of Thailand: A guide to traditional and comtemporary forms. [online] Issuu. Available at: <https://issuu.com/edmbooks/docs/architecture_of_thailand> [Accessed 30 April 2021].
Time Out Bangkok. 2020. The most iconic buildings in Bangkok. [online] Available at: <https://www.timeout.com/bangkok/attractions/the-most-iconic-buildings-in-bangkok> [Accessed 28 April 2021].