Bangkok and a problem of architecture

Date of Release: 
Sep 19 2016

A few weeks ago, Thais gaped in awe at MahaNakhon, that new ultramodern high-rise on bustling Sathon.

Now our collective attention is being diverted to Wiman Phra-in, or Abode of Indra, a much-talked about architectural design intended as a landmark in the Chao Phraya riverside promenade project. The name suggests a feature with a pointed spiral structure that offers nothing less than paradise.

Unfortunately, the debate is not about the purity of the design. It's more about allegations of shameful plagiarism of those involved in the project. The issue drew public attention after celebrity architect Duangrit Bunnag accused the design team under King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL) of copying the design of "Crystal Island", a planned structure to fill public space in Moscow by renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster.

KMITL was commissioned by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) under a 120 million baht deal to design the so-called Chao Phraya promenade, featuring a seven-kilometre walkway and bicycle lane on both sides of the country's main river, running from the Rama VII to Pin Klao bridges which is to cost 14 billion baht. But the accusation of plagiarism has transformed a Phra-in paradise into a Paradise Lost. While KMITL defended the design team's professional integrity, it has abandoned Wimarn Phra-in.

But the criticism of Wiman Phra-in went beyond the accusations of plagiarism. There are suggestions the KMITL team allowed a commercial architectural firm to take part in the design work, which may have violated the terms of reference which restrict membership to academics. This is not the first time KMITL has encountered trouble with this controversial project, which it has named "Chao Phraya for All", perhaps in the hope of garnering wider support. Early this year, the university's alumnus sent a letter asking the institute to withdraw from the project which is facing increasing opposition not just from architects and academics, but experts in other fields.

Many may wonder whether those people are in their right minds by protesting against a project that really sounds quite good. Needless to say, the Chao Phraya banks need development, and regulating. Indisputably, the public needs more access to the riverside. But development requires more than just civil works or the construction of walkways and and bicycle lanes along the banks.

"In countries with good town planning systems like France and Singapore, a project like this would be handled by a special agency that integrates various experts. The project would probably be led by a town planning agency. It must include multi-disciplinary experts, historians, anthropologists, lawyers, economists, environmental scientists, given the magnitude of effects and numbers of stakeholders," said Assoc Prof Ariya Arunin, who teaches landscape design at Chulalongkorn University's Department of Architecture.

But this has not been the case of the costly 14-billion-baht Chao Phraya Promenade project which has its origins in a riverside highway project proposed in the 1980s by Winai Somphong, the former Democrat Party member. The original proposal also faced strong criticism. The 14 billion baht would come from a budget of 350 billion baht for a water management scheme that is part of the plan to build flood retention systems along 140km of the Chao Phraya River. It is not just a promenade, nor a stairway to heaven for Phra-in, or a haven for cyclists. It is part of a mega construction project for the river, which many regard as a national vein.

For those who dislike the old, dilapidated houses along the banks, there will be a 3.7-metre high flood wall running alongside the promenade. The wall is meant to prevent flooding from the river. But the concrete structure is one of the most worrisome aspects because it is feared that it will worsen, not lessen flood problems. This is because the planned concrete wall will block the river's flow, especially to and from canals that zigzag through Bangkok.

There are worries that the concrete structure will create more river turbulence, causing it to rise higher and become more powerful, disrupting boat transportation and leading to erosion. Some news outlets have run reports of concrete embankments along the river causing problems. Then there is the environmental impact. The BMA thinks an environmental impact assessment study is not necessary for the promenade because the project is categorised as a bicycle lane.

Paradise Lost indeed.

Source URL: Bangkok Post

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