Bangkok Contemporary Architecture: Walking Tour I: Sculpting the sky (1997)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | 30 March 2013
This article was previously published in Sawsdee, May 1997, pp. 36-43 (& cover) with the title "Sculpting the sky: A walking tour of Bangkok’s catwalk architecture".

Bangkok Contemporary Architecture: Walking Tour I

This tour, following the route of Bangkok’s long-awaited Skytrain system, will take you through a mind-boggling architectural landscape: three of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares— Rama I Road, Ploenchit Road and Sukhumvit Road— with a couple of brief detours. Walk along the south side of these roads, as it is easier to cross streets and appreciate the surrounding architecture. Footbridges are helpful since they provide better views above the traffic.

Starting point:
The corner of Henri Dunant Road and Rama I Road.

Estimated time:
From one and a half to two hours. Allow extra time for shopping and breaks. For books on Bangkok’s architecture, try any branch of Asia Books. In particular, Bangkok by design, by Allen Hopkins with text by John Hoskin, is an excellent survey of modern Bangkok’s architecture.

From Rama I Road
The tour begins at the L-shaped footbridge at the intersection of Rama I Road and Henri Dunant Road. Here, on the eastern side of the footbridge, looking northeast, we see Wat Patum with its stupa and buildings with sloped roofs and decorative elements. Use this as a visual reminder of more traditional Thai architecture.

Turning around and looking south down Henri Dunant Road, in the distance is the Thaniya Building. Set in the business district of Silom, this building has a strong focal point at the top of its left side: a bright Thai temple set in a block of dark, reflective glass.

Turning around and looking past the temple to the left, Baiyoke II, which is approaching completion, is set to become the tallest building in the world, surpassing I.M. Pei’s Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur by 12 meters. At 465m, the building will include the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, Baiyoke Communication Center and an observation platform with its own glass-covered lift.

Crossing the footbridge on the south side of Rama I Road toward Ratchadamri, you’ll catch a glimpse of Baiyoke I, just in front of Baiyoke II. Designed by Plan Architect and completed in 1987, it was the tallest building in Thailand for 10 years. Baiyoke I houses a Best Western all-suites hotel and is remarkable for its colorful vertical rainbow and pointed "roof". According to its owner, Paulert Baiyoke, this was added to allay the fear of Thais over the height of the building. However, if you look around you’ll notice this fear has quickly been overcome in a big way, with so many new buildings now jostling for space against the skyline.

From the southwestern corner of Rajadamri and Rama I Road, look across the street at the modern-day landmark Grand Hyatt Erawan, designed by Thai architect Rangsan Torsuwan. Completed in 1991, his intention was to achieve a "high-class environment" to compete with the Oriental and Siam Intercontinental hotels. Rangsan’s concept was to create a visually fluid garden leading from the lobby to the garden on top of the atrium area. On the exterior, monumental columns which lift and separate the space are graced by capitals derived from traditional Thai architecture. Atop the lobby and shopping space is the hotel tower and a roof garden.

The hotel surrounds the Erawan Shrine on three sides. The shrine was erected to honor the four-headed Hindu god Brahma, known in Thai as Tan Thao Mahaprom. In honor of the revered shrine, two six-foot-high, three-headed bronze elephants guard the hotel’s entrance.

From Ploenchit Road
Walking down Ploenchit on the south side of the street, our next building is the neoclassical Amarin Plaza and Tower. Completed in 1984, its large Graeco-Roman temple-like façade interspersed with glass creates a striking contrast to the glass office tower it supports. This thriving shopping center was the stylistic prototype for shopping centers all over Thailand.

Further down, on the corner of Soi Lang Suan and Ploenchit Road, stands One Place, designed by Palmer and Turner (Thailand). Still under construction, it will feature upscale boutiques set behind elegant windows reminiscent of Stalinist architecture.

Turning right down Soi Lang Suan, past two buildings on the left, look up and you can see the penthouse of Ongard Architects’ romantic dream, Charimart Apartment. The white-washed, Graeco-Roman influenced penthouse with its playful observation tower, sits atop a postmodern residential condominium composed of black reflective glass.

Looking further down Soi Lang Suan, the 60-story Thai Wah Tower II, currently the tallest building in Thailand, can be seen. With its giant Palladian window at the top, which has a Sky Lounge with great views, it looks like it’s been transplanted from Miami’s waterfront.

Returning to the southern side of Ploenchit Road and walking east, Ploenchit Tower, adjacent to One Place, contrasts horizontal ribbons of glass and concrete at its base, with vertical ribbons leading upward.

Another view of Ploenchit Tower can be had from the footbridge in front of the building. On the northern side of the footbridge, looking northwest, you can make out the top of the Vanissa Building, a postmodern office building with playful geometric shapes along its base and top. It’s crowned by an aquamarine glass pyramid.

Looking further down, at the corner of Wireless Road and the junction of Ploenchit and Sukhumvit roads, stands Wave Place with its pitched roof set on a granite-covered office tower and retail complex.

From Sukhumvit Road
At the intersection of Wireless Road and the junction of Ploenchit and Sukhumvit Roads, walk up the footbridge. From its southern side, look out over tree-lined Wireless Road. To the left, the five buildings of All Seasons Place dominate the landscape. Two of the buildings are shaped differently but share similar spires.

On the eastern side of the bridge, look north at the 42-story building with the number "3" at the top. This is the Vanit 2 Building, completed in early 1995. It appears to be two intersecting buildings, one with aquamarine, aqua-blue and cool blue horizontal bands of glass, the other of cool blue reflective glass. Near the top, setbacks give way to an octagon.

Looking northwest, the Somkid Garden Condominium, with its stepped ziggurat-like roof and black glass, contrasts with its neighbor to the left, One House, which resembles a postmodern pyramid, covered with concrete, chopped off and accentuated by its geometric glass roof.

Turning around, and looking down Sukhumvit Road past the elevated expressway, the Amari Boulevard Hotel dominates the thoroughfare with its contrast of white horizontal bands with red highlights, and a tall spire.

To the northeast, off in the distance, appears the CMIC Building. Capped by a monumental, dish-shaped helicopter pad, it certainly offers one solution to Bangkok’s traffic jams!

Just beyond the expressway, to the north-northeast, the Hampton Inn at Extel Centre is a colorful variation on Ongard’s design for Charimart Apartment. Instead of a neoclassical penthouse, the building is topped with a stairway that leads to the hotel’s waterjet jacuzzi.

Just past the expressway, on the right, Ploenchit Center I and II appear like two ships out of water, and that’s exactly what the esteemed architecture firm SJA + 3D intended. Designed in 1991, with phase one recently completed and phase two slated to open this year, SJA + 3D presents a unique design in contrast to the more box-like structures in the area. Here, the design team proposed "two big white commercial flagships that cruise along the most famous shopping street in Bangkok."

Meanwhile, across the street, through a gate flanked by signboards advertising a new high-rise, one of the last remaining traditional houses on Sukhumvit Road provides an image of what existed before the race to sculpt the sky. How long can it survive on this prime real estate?

Further down Sukhumvit Road, you approach Two Pacific Place, first visible from the gas station at Sukhumvit Soi 4. At first, a sliver of clearly defined vertical sections of glass and concrete appears, rising up to the shape of a traditional roof. Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that the design permits sunlight to pass through to the opposite side of the street.

From the footbridge in front of Two Pacific Place, you get another interesting view. Here, the strong vertical emphasis of the front elevation becomes apparent. You may recall looking at the Amari Boulevard Hotel with its dominant spire, from the L-shaped footbridge at Wireless Road. Looking across the street from Two Pacific Place, you can see the Amari once again, this time from the side. This view clearly shows the contrast between its sloped form and the front view.

Leaving the footbridge, on the southern side of Sukhumvit Road, another SJA + 3D contribution, the Delta Grand Pacific Hotel, comes into view. Like Ploenchit Center, it adopts the concept of a sea vessel. Here, a blue triangular shape suggests the sail of a boat, and serves as a visual introduction to Sukhumvit Road from as far away as Silom Road.

From the footbridge in front of the hotel, the more playful nature of this design becomes apparent. The stream-lined, curved shape of the hotel is set atop a podium. Trees around the entrance separate the hotel from the street. Inside the lower lobby, two pools of water flank the entrance, visually extending the lobby beyond its glass wall.

Across the street, the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, which opened in March 1996, is bisected by a column of reflective glass. At the base of the building, a rotunda provides an elegant space which is further accentuated by brown canopies that extend into the street like radiating chapels.

Walking down to the southwest corner of Ratchadaphisek and Sukhumvit roads, look north up Soi Asoke. There, gothic points accentuate PS Tower. The points are made of reflective glass, obviously a popular material in Bangkok.

On this tour, you have only encountered a small fraction of the more than 1,000 architectural statements, wonders and obscurities to be found in and around Bangkok. Other areas await your investigation as the competition to create the "right" pose to sculpt the sky continues.

Click to see Bangkok Contemporary Architecture: Walking Tour II (1998).