January 1, 2024 | Reflections
Recent controversies around the translation and political appropriation of the term soft power in Thailand had prompted a number of scholars to reexamine the issue of cultural capital, including representations of the Thai national and cultural identity—known as khwampenthai or Thainess—via architecture and urban space, notably public and civic structures. While current attention has largely dwelled on the Airport Authority of Thailand’s plans for future expansions of Suvarnabhumi international Airport near Bangkok (Fig. 1), few people have realized that the ultra-modern appearance of its passenger terminal building (Fig. 2) was once a hotly debated topic among architectural academics and professionals in terms of: (1) a gateway linking the country with the globalizing force of the inter-connecting world (placeless-ness); versus (2) a symbolic expression of the Thai identity (place-ness) and the lack thereof.
Not only do aforementioned readings reveal the paradoxical characteristics of the Thai identity through complexity, incongruity, and contradiction, but they also expose some fundamental problems in the discourse of Thainess, centering on the following questions. For instance, was the design of the passenger terminal at Suvarnabhumi a modern way of manifesting the Thai identity or was it a Thai way of engaging globalization, global culture, and modernity? Neither? Both? What did the contradictions in architectural signification of this aviation facility mean for Thai culture and society in the present day?
Critiques on the passenger terminal at Suvarnabhumi have surfaced since its design won the competition—a design devised by an architectural consortium led by a famous American-based architect Helmut Jahn (MJTA). Leading the charge was the Association of Siamese Architects Under Royal Patronage (ASA) for the terminal’s lack of a sense of place and khwampenthai . In effect, ASA’s view on MJTA’s design exemplified the dilemma that the Thais faced for expressing their national and cultural identity during the age of globalization. Sharing similar conservative attitude represented by ASA, several leading Thai architects and academics perceived Thai culture and its identity in terms of fixation, something intrinsic and unchangeable in spite of differences in time. Consequently, without a clear historical reference to Thai architecture, MJTA’s proposal (Fig. 1&2) was considered as anything but Thai, therefore unacceptable for a building performing as gateway to the country .
Even though presenting a compelling argument, ASA’s criticism exposed the incongruity of their discourse on place-ness (Thainess) as well, as shown by the dualistic identifications of khwampenthai. On the one hand, positively, it advocated the innate quality of Thainess through the binary criterion of: nature/history; stability/change; authentic/fake; identity/difference; dominant/docile; and orientation/ disorientation. Yet, these characteristics had never been well defined. To cite an obvious example, in one of the steering committees of the Airport Authority of Thailand, an ASA representative told MJTA that it was not their job to define khwampenthai. Instead, the firm and local partners were solely responsible for coming up with the true meaning of Thainess themselves, before applying it to the passenger terminal building. On the other hand, the panel had no trouble in utilizing the negative identification, pointing out in great detail what they saw as “what is not Thai” in MJTA’s scheme .
Taken as a whole, the abovementioned comments on MJTA’s proposal epitomized the unfixed, ambiguous, and self-contradictory nature of the discourse of place-ness. These paradoxical attributes of khwampenthai exhibited that the national characteristics in Thai cultural artifacts—generating the characteristics of place-ness—were artificial, continually being constructed, carved, inscribed, and in many cases manipulated to serve specific purposes. This was, perhaps, why expressions of the identity of place could sometimes be quite unreasonable and inexplicable. In fact, it was even more puzzling when realizing that the passenger terminal as a building type itself was indeed a modern, Western invention.
Unlike ASA, many leading politicians, government officials, along with some younger generations of Thai architects and older generations, who were more attuned to modern knowledge and technology as well as Western culture, appeared to be content with MJTA’s design. Traditional or vernacular Thai structures, they insisted, could not efficiently shelter a modern function like a passenger terminal at the Suvarnabhumi. In other words, there was no precedent of building types in Thai architecture that could be suitably adapted for this edifice either in tectonic or esthetical dimension.
In contrast to ASA’s perspective on the sense of place and the Thai identity, those advocates of MJTA deemed that Thai culture had always been evolving, thus making khwampenthai constantly shifting too. Hence, MJTA’s design might not be regarded as “what is Thai” from both the past and present architectural precedents, but it could be indicative for Thai architecture in time to come. Similar to the Eiffel Tower and Pompidou Center in Paris, several people might not like the passenger terminal today since its overall appearance was so unconventional, but the same individuals could end up being fond of it in future .
On that basis, those in favor of MJTA’s design believed that in a bid to become Southeast Asia’s aviation hub—aside from attaining the status of a world-class city—Bangkok needed to operate a modern airport that would put the city on par with other metropolises abroad, especially the capability to accommodate air travel. Accordingly, the design of the passenger terminal at the Suvarnabhumi should reflect the vision of being a member of global cities via modern architecture. So, the terminal would act as a gateway linking Bangkok with the globalizing force of other “world-class” cities.
This discussion demonstrates that the design of the passenger terminal at the Suvarnabhumi encompassed a modern way of expressing the Thai identity as much as a Thai way of engaging global culture and modernity. The examinations on place-ness and placeless-ness of the building further unveiled that there was no definite answer depending on a personal view on identity of place: fixed versus adaptable.
In sum, a messier and, potentially, irresolvable inquiry on the identity of place emerged. The dichotomy between place-ness and placeless-ness of the passenger terminal at Suvarnabhumi International Airport raised additional critical questions like what represented an image of place in terms of cultural and national identity in a world that rapidly merged into a single unit? Notwithstanding the answers, the building was evident to intricate links between airports and their parent cities in cultural dimension.
As an ending note, the dichotomy between fixed and adaptable identity of place from critical readings on the architecture of the passenger terminal at Suvarnabhumi International Airport led to even more fundamental problems on khwampenthai discourse. For instance, what constituted the Thai identity? What symbolized Thailand for its cultural expression and uniqueness? In any case, living under globalization and economic interdependence, Thai people were increasingly aware of the loss of Thainess in the wake of Western cultural hegemony. However, one rarely asking his or herself; did khwampenthai ever exist at all?
Koompong Noobanjong, Ph.D., is professor of architecture at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, Thailand.
This essay is a summary of a scientific publication originally published in 2009.