Lifestyle

A City Full of Contradictions


Silpathorn architect Chatpong Chuenrudeemol turns street vernacular into vibrant spaces

“We love Bangkok…. It is beautiful and ugly. It is kind and it is mean. It is authentic and it is fake. It is neither historic nor modern. It is Buddhist, and it is full of sin. It struggles to maintain its own identity while trying to please others.  Our work aims to be a part of this city full of contradictions.” 

Born in Thailand but moved to the US at 7 years old, Chatpong majored in architecture at UC Berkeley and then worked for 3 years. He studied for his masters at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and came back to Thailand in the year 2000 after having been away for over 20 years. “I felt that work in Thailand or Asia at that point was more interesting and exciting than the US,” Chatpong added. 

The founder of Chat Architects, his own studio and his collection of research and designs, where he documents what he calls “Bangkok Bastards” which is basically local architecture that people see all the time but overlook, that’s why he calls it Bastards, they’re basically the things that people look down on like slums, shanty towns, illegal markets, food carts - very everyday things in which he finds extremely interesting, unique and full of creativity. 

“We study and record Bangkok Bastards… the street vernacular that is the embodiment of the city’s contradictions.  These homegrown concoctions are hybrid, cheap, scavenged, improvisational, and full of life. Our work aims to be a part of these Bastards.” 

During his free time, he loves reading graphic novels, especially from author Chris Ware which explores themes of social isolation, death, betrayal which are contradicting as they are reflected through cute, comic book panels.  Chatpong continues, “It’s interesting, the contrast of these very vibrant, colorful, happy graphics with serious themes, this extends into movies as well, I love Wes Anderson films. They’re very beautifully composed, each shot is beautifully crafted, it almost looks like a stage set, there’s an artificial, colorful, vibrant, kind of a cute character to them but the movies are pretty adult-like, murder, betrayal and drama.”

He has a unique approach when it comes to his design identity. He explains, “To look for something that’s authentic in our local context and to bring it out in your work.” He finds inspiration within the local, authentic street life of Thailand.

Chatpong doesn’t prefer to search for what’s trending in the world; he believes it’s better to set own goals as Thai architects. Chatpong reveals, “The contrast is interesting, it’s the way I view life, it’s not just black and white, there are a lot of contrasts and conflicts that happen in life. It’s like Bangkok, it’s full of contradictions. An obvious contradiction in life is the theme I enjoy, that’s sad and happy, tragic and wonderful.” 

The recent designs Chatpong has been working on are two of his favourite designs which are both hotels but are very distinct. He added, “Both really draw upon the research that we do on Bangkok Bastards but in very different ways. All of our designs share the same DNA as the local, vernacular that we study.”

 

The Hotel Labaris Khao Yai is a commentary on the European language of hotels. Chatpong added, “We take it very seriously, we do a twist and create it into a kind of local fairytale about this new kingdom of Labaris which is derived from the word labyrinth. Based on a maze, you have to go through all these mazes in order to get to your destination; it’s a twist of the maze as well as combining European and Thai buildings.” 

The Samsen Street Hotel creates a new type of street friendly hotel which draws upon local sites like food carts, street food and a recycling of an old curtain sex motel to a new type of street hotel. “We try to flip the old curtain sex motel inside out, what used to be very dark, mysterious, a shady place for human activity has turned inside out and it’s now very extroverted, vibrant and a street friendly hotel,” Chatpong explained. 

With such a deep connotation within his work, it’s no wonder Chatpong has won significant awards. Not only was he the first Thai architect to be invited to showcase his work at Tokyo’s renowned Toto Gallery Ma for its 30th anniversary but he also won the gold medal for Thailand’s Emerging Architect in 2017 and the Silapathorn 2020 Award. He points out, “It was based on a single family residence, a house, so it wasn’t a body of work. It was based on hundreds of submissions. The jury actually went through all the houses to look at them, to be in them which was great because it’s not just judging from a photograph. It meant they really understood the house itself and that was particularly meaningful to me.”

An award given to various sections of Art and Design is the Silapathorn 2020 Award. Artists are honored in 7 fields which include visual arts, literature, music, film, performing arts, design and architecture. “It’s an award for the national arts which is a big deal to me, it’s not just an architecture award, the judging process is really vigorous, you have to go through a pretty intense selection process in order to get to the final 3,” Chatpong described. 

Today, Chatpong also teaches at MIT School of Architecture and Planning, he believes that architecture school has changed a great deal. Before, architecture was pretty much self-referencing meaning that people talked about architecture and design where only architects and designers could understand. Now, the world has changed so much in the past 20 years, because of the internet and social media, people have become more knowledgeable in all aspects of life including design. “You can’t be an elitist in schools anymore; you can’t just teach design and reach out to designers. When you teach, you should touch upon many aspects of life that are not design related, but are, as an impact whether it’s social activism, sustainability, even branding or business models. Kids are much more knowledgeable and savvy these days compared to ten years ago because knowledge is more accessible. Architects will have to become more comprehensive and more life-ranging, more accessible to normal non-designer people.”

To Chatpong, architecture is basically “life” itself. It should be general and accessible. It has to support and reflect real, authentic life.