Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Book Excerpt: Classic Thai

Many would argue that the most enduring icon of Thai style and design is the traditional Thai house. With its raised platform on stilts, triangular shape and steep gabled roof descending from an elongated pinnacle into curved, flame-shaped eaves, this sinuous silhouette rising from a tropical landscape is a sublime image.

The structure developed directly from the needs of an agricultural community that had to adapt to a hot, tropical environment subject to seasonal flooding. Rooted in a centuries-old agrarian culture, what is recognized as the classic Thai house today is surprisingly little changed from is original form dating back to the first settlements along the river deltas of old Siam. This tenacity of form can be attributed to the singular principle governing the structure of the Thai house: that form follows function.

Ironically, it was the American architect Louis Henri Sullivan who originated this dictum that went on to inspire a generation of fin-de-si├Ęcle American and European architects in search of modern forms. In the early 20th century, Sullivan advocated that modern architecture should try to integrate ornamentation into the design of the building itself rather than be applied as mere external decoration. He pioneered a new school in western architecture that broke away from historic trappings and the external ornamentation that marked the buildings of his predecessors. A few decades on, in the mid 20th century, Swiss architect Le Corbusier conceived the notion of the home as a ‘machine for living’. His breakthrough recipe for the International Style included, among other features, buildings raised off the ground level on stilts to encourage greater airflow. A free-flowing floor plan, and a roof garden used for social activities― three features that are the defining characteristics of the traditional Thai house.

Thus, if one were to analyze the traditional Thai form within a world view of architectural history, the classic Thai house, though extant for centuries, can be viewed as thoroughly ‘modern’ in its embodiment of the structural theories dictated by two visionaries of early western modernism. From this perspective, it is ironic that the recent decades of Thai economic boom have resulted in the number of traditional Thai houses dwindling; rapid modernization, diminishing timber resources and a hunger for western forms are the main reasons for its demise. Modern Thais are eager to shake off their past as an agricultural society and embrace cement houses and high-rise living as epitomized by the West.

Thai communities were traditionally located along waterways, thus many housed were either built on stilts or actually floating in the water. The floating housed generally consisted of twin houses that served as both a home and a shop. The living quarters were located in the back, while the open-fronted unit in the front was used as a shop where goods were displayed and sold. These floating houses lined the rivers wherever settlements existed, and could be moved around if needed. These days floating houses have vanished from Bangkok’s riverbanks, but can still be found deep in the countryside. Similarly, there are still examples of traditional houses used as residences in the provinces, and some in Bangkok, though the latter are usually preserved as museums and palaces. Less common are Thai-style contemporary residences in Bangkok; the ones that do exist are usually constructed from a number of single-room houses ―transported from another province and reassembled in the city to form a large cluster house.

Houses built in this manner embody the key characteristic of a traditional Thai house - namely transportability. Built entirely of wood, the walls, door, windows and gables consist of separate wood panels which are fitted together using wooden joints held in place by wooden pegs. No mails are used, thus the entire structure can be taken apart and easily reassembled. The word traditionally used in Thai for house building is prung, meaning ‘assemble’. Thus the house can be quickly assembled or dismantled and moved from site to site.

Thai houses differ in the north and south, but the style considered to be the classic one is that of the central plains, where Thailand’s kingdoms of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Bangkok are located and therefore where the Thais reached the height of their culture and power. There are five basic elements of a traditional Thai house: stilts, inward sloping walls, high gables sloping downward into long projecting eaves, a large raised verandah connecting the separate rooms, and extendable rooms. The open space beneath the house serves a number of practical functions, such as providing structural resistance to inclement weather, respite from seasonal flooding, protection from wild animals, ventilation and a shady space to work and store farm tools and the Thai country cart or kwien. During the flood season, the space becomes a place to moor boats. In the southern coastal settlements the houses are built on tall stilts, but the stilts become progressively shorter as one travels northwards and into the mountains.

The distinctive inward sloping walls serve a structural function and are a result of the local environment. In order to cope with seasonal floods, the dwellings had to either float or stand on stilts. Exposure to heavy flooding and strong winds meant that the stilts had to be high and braced, hence the triangulated structure. In the central plains, where there is mild inland flooding, the stilts and structural frames slope inwards, giving the house the stability and structural reinforcement it needs. The high gable extends the height of the room for heat convection, while the long projecting eaves protect the house from heavy monsoon rains. The partially-covered chan-ban verandah is a huge platform on stilts. It connects the bedroom units and provides a communal living area for the inhabitants. The covered parts are used for day-to-day social activities, and the uncovered space is used for ceremonies, feasts, drying food and growing plants. The house breathes through the spaces in its floors, wall panels and gables and, since the bedrooms are separate units, it can obtain ventilation from any direction.

There are many variations of this classic house style, ranging in size from a single-family house to a cluster house. The smaller house consists only of a bedroom and a kitchen, while the cluster house may have up to five or six bedrooms arranged around the chan-ban verandah. In the traditional extended family system in old Siam, additional bedrooms were added as the family size increased; the verandah platform is extendable and some houses became longer as more living units were added on. Traditionally, the groom left his family home to join the bride’s family, so often he would remove his room from his parents’ house and take it with him to add to his new bride’s home.

extract from Classic Thai, written by Chami Jotisalikorn, Phutorn Bhumadhon and Virginia Mc Keen Di Crocco, published by Periplus in 2002.

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