omnitectural forum

Architecture as "What If?":
Fragments from Thailand's
Built Environment

by Michael R. Allen

I.
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.

II.
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 sites casually.

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.

III.
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.

IV.
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 purpose?

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.

V.
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.

VI.
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.

VII.
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 or Europe.

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 return.

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 ramps.

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.)

VIII.
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 age.

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

IX.
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....?"

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.

X.
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 Palace, etc.

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 Bangkok suggests).

XI.
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 public space.

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 in Thailand.

XII.
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 timid.

XIII.
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 conflict.

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 quietly disaffirmed.

XIV.
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.

XV.
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.

XVI.
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.

XVII.
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 are lacking.

XVIII.
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.)

XIX.
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 entails.

XX.
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 city landscape.

In a city of forms, the towers signify their own victory.

XXI.
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.

XXII.
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.

XXIII.
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.


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