Fragments from Thailand's
by Michael R. Allen
He arrived in Bangkok, Thailand on April 2, 2004. His travels only encompassed
Bangkok, Nakom Pathom and Hua Hin, but nonetheless inspired
his observant tendency. Although he noted many structural
similarities between Thailand and his native United States,
he detected great distinctions on the level of details and
undertook to inscribe these details.
Thailand is fluid. Every part of the built environment
here suggests transition, expansion, change. My Western
viewpoint wants to react against (although not revolt) the
environment by calling it "incomplete". This
would be quite a damning statement if made in the United
States about some American city's latest redevelopment
project. In Thailand, however, the connotation of "incomplete"
is lost in the praxis of travel, and is finally restored
to some other suggestion: never-ending adaptation.
Here I am excited by the normative incompletion of buildings,
gardens, roadways and such. Upon arriving in Bangkok on
Friday night, we take a taxi to our hotel and passed though
a kinetic nighttime city, also known as Bangkok. Everything
is bright and in motion at 1:00 a.m. I see a jumble of shiny
new buildings, gas stations, car dealerships, dirty stucco
apartment houses, billboards and an unfinished highway overpass
(just the stately support columns exist). Once off of the
highway and onto the street, I see the streets from the
ground--humid, lively and undefined. Cars, tuk-tuks
and pedestrians all converge to create the street by choosing
specific paths. Stores are still open, and vendors are selling
food and clothing on some sidewalks.
I am amazed at the intense heterogeneousness of the streetscape
buildings, which show only disregard from their neighbors.
Awnings, vendors and fences intrude on what would seem to
be a conventional sidewalk. In a famously non-confrontational
country, the architecture of Thailand is inherently confrontational.
Every part of the city forces a visual or spatial interaction
with another part or with the whole. The pedestrian is jarred
by buildings and by fellow pedestrians, not to mention the
ever-present vehicles and smells. Everything is already
in disarray when the pedestrian leaves any building to go
to any other place. This mess makes Bangkok sensually thrilling;
the pedestrian is the bonded subject of the city while walking
down a city street.
Here, the urban is a definite mode and scale of constructing
settlement, but is otherwise an interpretative concept.
The urban is definitely not a set of formal design characteristics.
The plan? Build! Use is the primary consideration in construction,
and form appears highly spontaneous. Aside from the monumental
older government and religious buildings, and a smattering
of newer towers, Bangkok's buildings adapt to their
The buildings are almost liminal (doors-within-doors-within-doors...)--the
"front door" may lead to stairs going to a second
floor or to an indoor arcade through which one can enter
a legitimate massage parlor. In one shop with a particularly
high ceiling, I can see the second floor shop's advertisement
in a winfdow overlooking the first floor. “Come upstairs...”
beckoned the ad. Space in Thailand tends to be practical
and hectic, just like this arrangement. There are only basic
rules to ordering space, but I do not know these yet.
The buildings will not yield these rules, and the people
are baffled at my interest. To most people anywhere, architecture
seems too natural to study, when in fact it embodies all
of the contradictions of social codes. One must start to
decode a society with its architecture.
To pass time at various moments, such as when I wait for
a boat that will take me up and down Mae Nam Chao Phraya,
I day dream. At some moment, the opportunities for noticing
new elements in the abundance of detail dwindle, and I turn
inward until the boat arrives at the dock.
Daydreaming is more cinematic than architectural. The daydream,
after all, is a projection. With music or background sound,
the daydream is almost an imagining of a film rather than
a proper dream. In daydreams, I see myself as an actor in
daydreams, following the code of the screen rather than
the binding norms of the audience. I am, of course, still
defying the opposition by being both viewer and viewed.
I realize a paradoxical unity that architectural experience
makes impossible due to its imposition of the inanimate.
Waking dreams are where architecture lies--although
the architecture of dreams is always screened.
The same five or six songs play endlessly on loop in the
Euro Bakery in the southern beach city of Hua Hin. The songs
are bad, grandly-emotional pop music sung in English. I
am amused, but disheartened. How far am I from home? Why
did I choose this cafe?
I seem to desire comfort for my morning coffee, yet end
up confronted with something else: the appearance of comfort.
I note that this desire and its result makes me hurt and
ashamed. Why do I need morning coffee, which is itself a
coded appearance of ritual that suggests productivity and
Perhaps morning coffee seems innocuous in Thailand, where
it is not a common native ritual. Here, I feel justified
because it is odd instead of common. Yet I still feel embarrassed
because I know that it is not odd within the context of
my regular habits, and most Thais understand that a farang
who takes coffee in the morning is clinging to his own native
ritual, or at least its comforting appearance. Morning coffee
is totally demystified here, and seems like an empty sign
that differentiates me. The sign almost alienates me from
Thailand, but I recover from my shame and finish the coffee.
On our first night in Bangkok, we stay at an inn on the
infamous Thanon Khao San, which resembles a two-block-long
urban Thai Branson. Khao San is a long tourist-oriented
street that is nevertheless refreshingly energetic. I am
amazed; we arrive at nearly 2:00 a.m., get out of the taxi
at the head of Thanon Khao San and proceed to walk the two
blocks to the other end where our inn sits. The street is
officially closed to vehicular traffic most of the day,
because it is almost always filled with vendors selling
from carts, kiosks, rugs and the street itself. Masses of
people--many European and American, almost all younger
than 35--also crowd the street here. Although the vendors'
goods do not appeal to me, I am enthralled by the seemingly
perpetual energy and enthusiasm.
On Khao San, the city really unsettles the newcomer, tugs
on her sleeve and blocks her way. Bangkok offers an exaggerated
and concentrated street theater that takes the codes of
everyday commercial life as its subject. All of the signs
of commerce are magnified, and all of the appeals to tourism
are magnified. Yet the tourists are participants here, and
their participation encourages the Thais in their theatrical
pandering. The traveler who does not wish to play tourist
must find a way to keep walking and to exude a purpose not
recognized by the theater of Khao San. This purpose is difficult
to define because nearly everyone will be tempted by the
sensual delights of this street: food, CDs, clothes, drinks,
people. No one walks through here; rather, the intrepid
walker must walk against Thanon Khao San.
This is not even the best street in Bangkok--only
its most obscenely-proportioned one. Yet it offers great
sensations even to the most determined, aloof observer.
Thanon Khao San posesses genuine charm, perhaps due to the
scale of its modest buildings and its passageways to dark
and homely parallel sois. This street suggest that Bangkok
can be concentrated in two blocks, and yet it also points
out--through the connections to the sois--that
this is all a ruse. The bulk of Bangkok lies elsewhere,
and Thanon Khao San is just the most densely packed, deliberately
(read: inauthentic) coded street in the city.
Still, Khao San surpasses the best American city street
in its vitality and sensual distractions. It is literally
overwrought, and not in the gaudy way of some Las Vegas
strip segment. This is a Thai street, and is thus both modest
(Thai architecture does not allow for excess in detail or
signage) and restrained (pleasure lies in the pursuit of
the necessary, not the desired). The crowd here is more
diverse than that found on any American pedestrian-oriented
street. Khao San is refreshing, unpretentious--just
commercial and heavily coded. Khao San offers Bangkok for
the beginner, or for the Thai who is weary of the mundane
parts of the city. Still, Khao San avoids the obvious hyperreality
of the Branson-type attraction; the street is filled with
many quality inns, restaurants (including one very, very
good Indian restaurant) and cafes.
Our inn turns out to be very calm amid all of the late-night
foot traffic. Our room is cold with the standard "air
con" but lacks a window. Thus we retire to a space
that excludes the Khao San energy from us as we rest, dress
and bathe. We are isolated, but in a way that seems distinctly
in keeping with Khao San's exaggerated codes. No inn
elsewhere in Bangkok could offer rooms so boldly removed
as this one in the heart of this commercial strip. The code
of this strip exaggerates comfort, and thus our room cannot
allow any noise to disturb us. Even the door to the balcony
opens onto a view of a quiet courtyard area, with a spire
of Wat Pho barely evident in the distance. This is Bangkok
as Khao San allows us to purchase it.
The rest of the city offers no such commodity. The rest
of Bangkok is almost overwhelming in its inconsistent massing:
beyond the government district near Khao San, there is no
visually distinct core. All feels peripheral to the visitor
until one realizes that all is actually central and that
getting lost is part of moving around.
On Thanon Khao San, however, one can cling to notions of
city centers and feel a bit secure until one tires of the
two blocks and ventures elsewhere. Then, one wanders and
inevitably finds security in the feeling of centrality that
every spot in Bangkok offers. The one wonders just why Khao
San seems interesting at all; it seems like a diversion--however
pleasant--from Bangkok as city.
While sitting alone at a cafe, I listen to two waitresses
talking to each other in Thai and yearn for a way to overhear
them. I can only hear their talking, but I don't understand
many words. I still know only three Thai phrases, all related
to commercial necessity and not learned for the purpose
of cultural understanding.
I love language, but have limited practical aptitude. I
listen to Thai as it is spoken, look at its characters and
compare it to other languages that I know slightly. Often,
I note etymology when I pay attention to the spoken language.
Only later do I think about grammar and even later still,
vocabulary. Grammar emerges through structures that I can
memorize. Vocabulary always poses the difficulty in that
I do not really want to learn. I am seduced by the form
of language, and in Thailand the form transfixes me.
To leave for Bangkok from Hua Hin, we must take an air-conditioned
van up the sprawling southern highway, Petchkasem Road.
We could take the more scenic train route, but the vans
are cheaper and easier to use. As in the United States,
motor vehicles are always the most convenient form of transportation
in Thailand, and the roads are crowded with the many newer
cars and trucks that people own for transportation. Mass
transit is not celebrated, and in fact carries the same
middling status that it does in the United States: the train
is great for sightseers and poor people. This is not Japan
Strangely, though, the van depot in Hua Hin is the most
interesting building in town due to its naked dilapidation.
This structure appears to be a building undergoing demolition.
It sits about a half-block off of Petchkasem Road on a cul-de-sac
of sorts (more of an unfinished street that has been built
upon). I did not notice this building at first, because
its strangeness is hardly iconic. When I finally saw the
building for what it was, I still had no idea that I would
return to it and that I would be using the building upon
This three-story building demonstrates that abandonment
is a floating category at best, and is hardly viable in
Thailand. This is a building that has been abandoned but
restored to a very simple use. The van depot is not simply
composed of a set of storefronts still in use with empty
upper floors, as is the American norm. This is a wreck of
a building being leeched of its last possible use value.
There are no windows, much graffiti and only the barest
interior, which looks gutted. Parts of the facade lay on
the street next to the building while an exposed rebar grid
holds up precariously-perched fragments of cast concrete.
All along I have been impressed by the mutability of the
architectural form here, but have not seen anything comparable
to this spectacular wreck. I have seen abandoned gas stations
used as veritable depots for Thailand's many motorbikes-for-hire
(I have yet to use one), and have also seen the lobby of
an unfinished office building in Bangkok used for an open-air
clothing shop. Yet I have seen nothing as openly dilapidated
as the van depot still being utilized. The depot fails every
standard for safety that exists in Western engineering,
but that does not deter the van drivers and their employers--or
the passengers, who mostly don't pay much attention
to their surroundings.
We walk up the steps onto the ground floor and into the
crumbling, concrete confines. Children are sitting behind
a table selling water, soda and snacks. A man and a woman
hover around the desk, figuring out how much space is available
on each van. Vans pull in and out on makeshift gravel-and-debris
I am excited by this perplexing place, which animates many
of the notions about abandonment that I have offered in
Ecology of Absence. Here, utility works with decay, and
even profits from it--the building would require modifications
to be renovated properly to its current use. With the building's
dereliction, all the proprietor has needed to do to make
it into a van depot is to have cleared the space and to
have built ramps. (There is no electricity, nor any plumbing.)
Bangkok is a city where form is the basic architectural
unit. Style is rather neglected in design, especially in
modern buildings. The shape and size of a building provide
most of its distinguishing features--the range of windows,
stucco finish, colors of paint is limited to instances of
widely-occurring types. Detailed ornamentation is rare,
even on expensive structures such as large and opulently-furnished
condominium and bank towers.
Yet the royal residences, wats and some government buildings
are lavish in the delicacy of their detail. In this theocratic
monarchy, architecture is still the field in which one sees
the latent Thai hesitation to offend traditional codes.
No architect would dare to design a building in Bangkok
more opulent than the ugliest government building, it seems.
Such a gesture would be to openly portray the contradiction
between the internationally-connected Thai market economy
and its supposedly stable traditional government, if it
was even possible. A building that is real estate obviously
carries greater market value than one that is owned by the
state, and yet it cannot appear to make that statement in
its design. Thus, the average Thai buildings are functional
but bland, and the newer buildings subvert their own compliance
with the traditional code through their tall heights (Bangkok's
buildings are very tall) and excess of shiny surfaces.
Since the state and religious buildings do not aim to adopt
the forms of real estate, they project an historic dignity
of form that mocks the newer boxes and their common ancestors.
Yet the Bangkok towers seem to outnumber and overshadow
even Wat Arun, and even their lack of ornament points out
the indelicacy of their size. The old code may exist at
the street level, but any higher and one notices the towers
first. Thus the towers suggest that the code of real estate
is the dominant code of building identification in Bangkok.
By obeying the restraints of the old code, the commercial
buildings create a new one, in which the mass of form measures
a building's sophistication and worth--and its
Such a code develops easily in Bangkok, with its vast and
uneven city landscape of many low-rise apartment or armament-style
concrete structures dotted by high-rises from the last 30
years and the occasional wat or
One notices a few drivers of tuk-tuks, bicycles and motorbikes
in Bangkok wearing small white surgical-style masks. These
masks ostensibly protect the drivers' respiratory
systems from the intense pollution of the city, which is
heaviest in the space of the street. Yet they seem to indicate
something else, something more imaginative: the desire to
live as if the city streets did not smell like leaded gasoline
and were not asphalt heat-traps. Their is something carefree
about the mask-wearers; they are visually separated, and
perhaps spatially separated in some way. Their city is the
Bangkok that exists in the questions that take the form
What if people could enjoy protection from pollution? What
if there was no pollution in the city? What if Bangkok wasn't
covered in haze from morning to night every day during the
hot season? What if people didn't have to buy or sell
anything to live in the city?
The mask seems to offer skimpy protection, but affords
the wearer the chance to live in another Bangkok.
The view of Bangkok from the Skytrain suggests that one
may very well be in an urban fishbowl: one can only see
a continuous vista of low and uniform structures punctuated
by big and bland high-rises. This vista is uninterrupted
and continuous, much like the one seen from a few points
in Chicago. There is no evident "downtown" or
other core. The centers that emerge from my travels on the
Skytrain suggest that centers are wholly practical ones:
shopping around MBK and Siam Centers, some entertainment
near Victory Monument, museums and such around the Grand
Otherwise, the city is an endless plain of built environment
that gives no articulation to the street plan, which is
so casual that it cannot be articulated. Even if the street
plan could be easily ascertained from the Skytrain, it would
reveal no plan more potentially orienting than the one suggested
by the arrangement of building rooftops.
Yet the buildings do not suggest any chaos, but rather
a very different way of arranging an urban landscape. I
learn to navigate Bangkok by memory of what I have seen
up close, instead of what I have seen from the Skytrain
or what I have seen represented on a map. Direct memory
best aids navigation in this fishbowl, while representation
becomes useless (although highly aesthetic, as any map of
One can safely ascertain that the market structure of Bangkok
is similar to that of an American city: the commodity is
a unit of the most basic interaction here. In Bangkok, the
average person's choices are almost always economic
ones; leaving one's residence entails the necessity
of passing vendors, drivers and the like, and could lead
to perhaps purchasing a ride somewhere or being offered
an item that is difficult to turn down (purchase). One is
confronted with economic choices in Bangkok, since all public
space is practically "the market" as well as
Thailand thus simultaneously exaggerates market capitalism
by pushing it to its extreme, confrontational mode and restores
it to a democratic mode by connecting it to the rules of
the public sphere. In the American city, market space and
public space are strictly separated, and most economic choices
are made in private spaces (free from the sense of obligation
or the moral restraint imposed by purchasing in front of
one's community). Americans are slightly repulsed
by economic activity in their public space, even as they
are highly suspicious of public space in general (usually
seeing it as wasteful or the setting for crime), and relegate
its use to occasions. The public space in America is typically
underused by design; people seem to need its distinction
from the regimented private sphere so that not everything
is visually privatized and undemocratic.
In Thailand, such distinctions are laughable. The only
restricted spaces in Bangkok are the royal properties and
some of the wats--although most wats embrace their
status as tourist attractions and open themselves to the
public for a fee. The economy and the society are openly
coextensive, and there is no pretense that economic activity
is somehow immune from the morality of society. Yet that
does not produce much restraint in economic growth or any
desire to offer the poor the opportunities that other people
can purchase. Since society and economy are coextensive,
economic activity shares with society severe stratification
along the age-old lines of religion, gender and wealth.
This is a conservative, theocratic monarchy, after all.
Just like in the United States, of course, but without
the pretense that society and economy are separate spheres.
Just like in the United States, socialism seems impossible
He realizes the limitations of any attempt to re-build
Bangkok through writing. Thus, he turns to descriptive fragments.
Since he is neither an expert on Thai culture nor a Thai,
his fragments are necessarily modest, perhaps even a bit
While moving through Bangkok, I often forget that the bustling
market-driven workaday world here occurs within the confines
of a fairly conservative, theocratic monarchy. Reverence
for the King and Queen has become frustrating to me amid
my observation of how much work the average Thai seems to
engage in. The people constantly use their bodies for a
lot of economic activity: selling goods, driving people
around, serving food, selling sex and such. Under the Western
garments that proliferate on the streets of Bangkok, people's
bodies appear to be primarily units of economic signification
in the public sphere. While few bodies admit poverty, many
show signs of weariness and depletion.
Tourism seems to provide some economic stability, especially
to a city like Hua Hin, but it also encourages the stratification
of Thai society. When I see the many huge billboards bearing
the youthful image of the now-aged King Rama, I wonder what
would happen if Bangkok became deeply touched by political
conflict, such as the failed coup of 1991. Would the many
busy workers of Thailand--most of the population--afford
the King so much popularity if their daily lives were disrupted?
Currently, only Muslims and Burmese in Thailand feel the
threat of disruption on a daily basis, and that threat comes
through unilateral, authoritarian acts by the Thai government.
I barely learn much about the situation along the Burmese
border, or the persecution of Thai Muslims, until later.
In Bangkok, everything is economically efficient, and that
means that dialogic politics are veiled. There are problems,
there are disgruntled poor people and there are efforts
to assert the civil rights of Muslims here--but the
Bangkok Post and The Nation only hint at what must be sad
lives, and the streets that I see really don't host
Thus, the streets that I see safely host the economic exploitation
of bodies for various purposes that is not widely recognized
as such. Instead, it appears to be mere "life"
to visitors, and is certainly a necessary condition for
survival in the economy here. The nation has recovered from
the 1997 currency collapse, but the value of the baht has
significantly degraded, and the people must work very hard
to earn what would be a decent Western wage. Yet they are
materially rewarded by an array of consumer items that seems
almost most abundant than what is available in the United
States, perhaps because it is offered in the midst of the
disrepair and exploitation that characterize Bangkok and
much of southern Thailand.
Thailand seems, however falsely, too calm for any mass
political activity. Perhaps this demonstrates that the combined
inhibitions of political and religious obedience endemic
to Thai tradition and economic individualism wrought by
recent economic activity thwart the emergence of anything
close to robust mass politics. Yet a survey of other parts
of Thailand could prove me wrong and show that Bangkok and
the south enjoy a sort of immunity from the contentiousness
that may be building in Thailand.
Yet I am examining signification in Thailand and I find
no signs of organized dissent, or of anything approaching
a democratic political discourse (one in which dialogue
is an embraced norm, and no one party "owns"
the discourse). I am pleased at the glimpses of political
imagination that I see at Wat Songdhammakalyani, the Buddhist
women's center in Nakom Pathom, and in the press's
depiction of the small civil rights movement growing in
response to the repression of Muslims in Thailand. Yet I
leave Bangkok unconvinced that it is a capital city where
politics exists as discourse, not as royal monologue only
The Bangkok Skytrain, opened in 1998, is an elevated light
rail system that connects various places in the central-western,
newer part of Bangkok. The Skytrain supposedly allows one
to travel between its extremities in sixteen minutes while
the same trip by automobile is reputed to take over one
hour. This does not have to be factually precise in order
to suggest that the Skytrain is wonderfully efficient and
useful. The supernatural suggestion of its name perfectly
suits the Skytrain, which is a beacon of cleanliness in
the midst of polluted Bangkok.
The Skytrain largely follows existing city streets, so
it does not impose yet another traffic plan on the city.
Instead, it cleanses existing streets by "ghosting"
them--passing overhead, faster, cheaper and
cleaners than walking and driving below.
On the banks of the Chao Phrya, I spot a small Roman Catholic
Church amid the city's buildings. The tour guide on
the boat informs me that Portuguese missionaries built the
church, and that locals refer to it and another Catholic
church as wats just like Buddhist temples. This church stand
out, no matter what the locals call it; it is bright yellow
and very well-maintained. Yet it only accentuates the fact
that Christianity has barely reached Thailand; Christianity
has almost no presence in the country.
Is it unsettling for the Western intellectual to find Christianity
marginalized in a thriving city that is definitely capitalist,
patriarchal and conservative? Not really, unless the Western
intellectual is too obsessed with his own situation to examine
the globalized structures of capital and patriarchy.
Drivers-for-hire in Bangkok must know the many languages
that are used to direct them:
1. Thai place names in Thai script;
2. Thai place names in English phonetic script;
3. Spoken Thai;
4. Spoken English.
Often, travelers present to them direction that rely on
some combination of these languages for expression. Supplementing
these languages is the semiotic system of the streets themselves,
or their representation on maps. I find that drivers often
do not care for maps, due to the fact that their calm lines
do not help drivers recall the memorized physical details
of places. Still, they must at least know how to speak "over"
the map, to dispense with it in order to elicit more helpful
directions from their customers.
When their customers are newly-arrived and map-dependent,
the amount of translation that the drivers must accomplish
is extensive and creates an interesting feedback loop. I
rest assured, however, that the drivers almost always are
capable translators who know how to translate directions
into arrival at the destination.
The haphazard streets of Bangkok provide a challenge, but
nothing prohibitive--even for the newly-arrived traveler.
By the way, advertising is ubiquitous throughout Thailand,
especially on the highways which are decorated with billboards
that can rightly be called structures given their size and
stability. (They please the eye by offering an aura of deliberate
complexity, unlike their American counterparts.) Around
Siam Center in Bangkok, advertising is inherent to the newer
buildings, and provides nuanced details that the facades
Throughout Bangkok, there are great and sudden ruins: the
unfinished high-rises of the pre-1997 boom. Some are only
half-started, short little masses of concrete. One is a
near-finished condominium tower that only reveals its state
as one gets within a few blocks of it. These ruins perhaps
will follow the few that have been completed since economic
recovery has been achieved, but in the meantime they provoke
the landscape with the remnants of economic collapse. As
long as they stand (as long as they are not dealt with),
the remind Thais that collapse could recur and the potential
for economic turmoil is latent.
Yet Thais seem to tolerate derelict buildings, and there
are some notable ruins around the city that are not unfinished
buildings but simply abandoned buildings. Apparently, people
in Bangkok have no great desire to demolish any of these
buildings in the absence of a purpose. Thus, they sit and
hold the place of future towers, or they collapse slowly
while most people ignore them. (All of the unfinished and
abandoned buildings serve as tablets for the colorful global
sign-system of abandonment: graffiti.)
Walking in Bangkok offers endless chances to get lost,
become engrained in the city fabric. If one can dodge traffic
and tolerate the intense ground-level heat and pollution
(the air reeks of leaded gasoline), and I try, one finds
that this monster city is quite gentle on the street, and
full of wonders. Of course, I do not experience Bangkok
as a user and can think of many reasons the city's
users are no doubt frustrated with the practical deficiencies
of daily life in the city. Walking around Bangkok is inspirational
for the poet, but probably draining on the resident.
Yet the city seems to at least offer both resident and
poet the chance to locate whatever that person is seeking.
The negotiation occurs on the inconvenience of travel. The
peripatetic poet has no problem just ambling about, letting
the streets carry him; the resident who seeks to get somewhere
will be frustrated by the time and physical toll such travel
Bangkok demonstrates that the architecture of contemporary
capitalism is inherently conservative and untransformative.
These new blocks of glass and aluminum do not liberate anything,
even themselves, from a morass of uncertain moral traditionalism
married to postmodern economic efficiency. This architecture
attempts to introduce into the visually disparate architectural
landscape of Bangkok solitary items. No buildings in Bangkok
have ever been complete without establishing visual relationships
to other buildings, and these newer high-rises slyly try
to evade Bangkok's demands without opposing them.
Such a feat is impossible, and the towers unfavorably contrast
with the older buildings: their decadent boring, unitary
appearance accentuates all of the wonder of the dirty concrete
and stucco edifices of Thai modernism while also inspiring
nostalgic admiration for the old buildings around the Grand
Palace and Wat Pho.
Bangkok is not transformed by these towers as much as it
is interrupted and pierced by them. They pay no heed to
tradition but do not suggest any tradition of their own.
One finds worthier--although less striking--contemporary
architecture in Cincinnati, Ohio. Yet the towers of Bangkok
signify that capitalism has found a way to coexist with
otherwise restrictive tradition, and in fact visually overpowers
the architectural articulations of that tradition on the
In a city of forms, the towers signify their own victory.
Bargaining is socially acceptable during most transactions
outside of Western-style shops and nearly all restaurants.
Vendors get to assume a theatrical guise as they bargain
with consumers, and perhaps take some pleasure in their
performance. Bargaining brings some performance, and thus
an aesthetic, to the commercial life of Thailand.
A short note about Thai sexuality, a topic too vast to
be explained in this essay or by this writer: For a city
in which architectural experience is very sensual--due
to the disruption of surfaces and constant confrontation
of the body--sexuality is largely confined to interiors
space in Bangkok, aside from obvious districts. The old
social taboo against open display of sexuality prevails,
even though sexuality is as commercially viable a form of
employment as the many acceptable forms of vending. The
erotics of Thai architecture suggest sexual openness on
the street but this is only a dangerous suggestion. The
conflict that emerges from this unanswered suggestion leads
to the blossoming of a very commercial, spectacular and
nearly-private sex industry and the stifling of truly erotic
street space. If any facet of sex is not being offered as
a consumer good, it is completely hidden from the public.
Yet the scents, sounds and appearances of the city beckon
to my desires. I want to love here, but feel that expressions
of sensuality are forbidden to anyone here.
A second note: As is not uncommon in the west, the confusion
over sexuality that gives rise to a vibrant and largely-hidden
sex trade leads to cultural repression of feminist ideas.
Sensuality and feminism are painfully deferred here.
At least, architecture in Thailand does not attempt to
contradict the particular social circumstance of its construction.
Thai architecture is almost devoid of pretentious illusion,
but nonetheless becomes the space for a thousand little
wonders through its use.
ecology of absence