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313th Meeting - Tuesday, July 14th 2009

‘AFTER THE CRASH’: Reclaiming architecture for the other side of the economic miracle.

A talk and presentation by Kevin Moore

Present: Bodil Blokker, Robert Tilley, Suriya Smutkupt, Marisa Guptarak, Gernot Huber, Wyndham Hollis, Joyce Barns, Max Keller, David James + Mongkhoot, Annelie Hendriks, Manus Brinkman, Michael Tuckson, David Steane, Klaus Berkmüller, Adrian Pieper, Guy Cardinal, Derrick Titmus, Prissy Boonoliskulchok, Ricky Ward, Matt Yoxall, Juergen Polte, Oliver Hargreave, Bodge Wallingford, Stefanie Shull, Joe Harris, Zachary Lamb, Felicity Aulino, Nicholas Thomson, Daniel Blau Poran, Celeste Holland, Renee Vines, Paul Mahoney. An audience of 33 plus a couple more.

A summary of his talk prepared by Kevin
Thanks you all for coming tonight.  Thanks to the Alliance Française for allowing us to use their space on this Bastille Day holiday.  I wish I could say there were fireworks after the talk, but I hope you stick around anyway.

My name is Kevin Moore, I am living in Thailand this year with my wife Felicity, who is conducting field work for her PhD in medical anthropology.

Tonight, I’ll talk primarily of the background research and site visits that I’ve been conducting this year – towards my Masters in Architecture thesis.

I feel fortunate to share my work-in-progress with the Informal Northern Thai Group tonight, as I’m certain there are many in the audience who have a far more intimate take on the period of the late 1990’s in Bangkok, Thailand, and the region – so I look forward to your feedback tonight – and I’ll try to be brief to allow time for discussion.

After the Crash  

The research and narratives surrounding the 1997 financial crisis are in support of my thesis design project for my Masters in Architecture degree at MIT, back in Boston.

When I chose this topic, I certainly didn’t expect to hear echoes of this crisis coming from Stateside – and it has been interesting to watch the same patterns of blame, call for regulation, public bailout of private debt, emerge. 

It is sobering and frustrating to see this as a cycle – and like many architects working within larger financial systems, it is difficult to know what role (if any) the profession could play in tempering the cycle.

I must say, I enjoy the Thai penchant to give a flavor to economic crises, from the homegrown Setakit Tom Yum Goong, to our current Setakit Hamburger.

So, I guess in short, I’ll be presenting some of the ingredients that went into the Tom Yum Goong – and, 12 years later in 2009, a view of the leftovers. 

And to stretch the metaphor mercilessly, maybe lay out some plans for reheating those leftovers? (sorry)

Scenario: Ghost City

-  Again, my proposal from last spring…for a bit of an overview

- After the speculative bubble of the real estate market burst and the resulting credit crisis in 96-97, there were an estimated 500 unfinished projects throughout the city of Bangkok.

- Engineers who perform due diligence on abandoned structures for potential buyers (one firm has studied over 40 of the ghost towers), give the general lifespan of 15-20 years for reinforced concrete when exposed to the Bangkok climate (particularly, the rainy season).

- So for these remaining ghosts, the time is now to steer clear of a massive amount of waste…

Sathorn Unique (Slides)

- Architect Ajarn Rangsan Torsuwan.

- 47 story residential tower – perhaps the most iconic of the ‘ghosts’.

- South of Sathorn at the Taksin Bridge Skytrain station, the tower sits on an 8-story retail pedestal.

- Derisively called a ‘Vertical Shophouse’ by a real-estate broker, who claims to have attempted to talk Ajarn Rangsan out of his 4m x 16m long and narrow floor plan for units.

- His own crisis beat the economic crisis by a few years: in 1993 he was accused of plotting to assassinate the Supreme Court President Praman Chansue.  Last year, after a 15-year court battle (and Praman’s death due to natural causes), he has been sentenced to 25 years. 

- Now, it seems the building changes owners almost yearly, with no-one able to enact a viable reclamation project.

Maison Dom-Ino (Slides)

- (1914) – Corbusier providing our French connection for the evening…

- A showpiece, to display how new building technology demands a new architecture. 

- Thin columns, floating stairs, an open floor plan and façade – strange, this archetype can be seen in the skeleton of every ghost building in Bangkok

- (slide of Honda building, opposite Nana station on Sukhumvit)

Le Ville Radieuse (Slides)­­

Modernism’s Promise – initial focus upon social welfare.  Provision of housing for everyone, using industrial efficiency.  Thought it necessary to throw off the oppressive shackles of history, and vernacular architecture – the boutique method of building can’t suffice for the modern era.  Scarcity – no talk of scarcity when speculation overbuilds…

- May be hard to recognize, but that is Paris (Slide - see the Seine)

- Modernist ideal of the high-rise city – ushering in a classless society, where housing size is based primarily on family size.

- What we see is the same technology, reinforced concrete, used by developers

- Social idealism has been replaced by developers bottom-line

See-Through (Slides)

- I learned during real-estate lunches that ‘see-through’ is the industry term for the ghost buildings.

- Of course this conjures up another ideal of modernism – here we see Phillip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, CT.

- In these ghosts, there are echoes of high modernism – it almost looks like the modern utopia gone awry.


Post-Modernism’s Promise – that the international story of Modernism was just that – a story – and in that, one of many stories.  Post-modernism’s promise was that there is no single, universal aim (and believes that ‘universal’ language was the language of colonialism) and that strength can arrive from (more local) histories and narratives as well.

(Slides) Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall – finished in 1882

- King Rama V hired British architect, John Clunich.

- Clunich had worked on the Governor of Singapore’s house.

- Western architecture became recognized as the Royal Preferred style: though the King wished to have an entirely Western throne hall, he was advised against it, and the result is the hybrid style.

Uses both forms of European power and royalty, as well as ‘traditional’ Thai elements.

This careful construction of identity is exactly the issue that Postmodernism concerns itself with.

- essentially a baroque and Italianate palace with a traditional Thai roof.

- Rama V wanted a full European Hall in which to hold court. However, it was a regent who persuaded the King to replace the originally proposed dome with Siamese-style spires to preserve the tradition of the Siamese palaces.

- It was at this point that aspiration for the modern came in direct conflict with established symbolism.

- The building in fact has signified kitsch for many, and has highlighted the mediocrity of a hybrid architecture; however, it is a surviving edifice that marks this period of negotiating cultural influence.

The Duck (Slides)

- From the book, “Learning from Las Vegas” written by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, after teaching a studio that analyzed the architecture of Las Vegas.

- Post-modern identity meets commercial architecture – Communicative architecture, one that announces its identity – and they found two forms:

- The Duck and The Decorated Shed

- This is merely a more outlandish version of ‘branding’ or ‘identification’ that goes on everywhere.

Bangkok: The Robot and The Elephant (Slides)

- The Robot – The UOB Bank tower on Sathorn, by Sumet Jumsai.

- The Elephant – The Elephant Building on Pahonyothin, near Chatuchuk park/market.

- Though most frequent examples are high-end hotels – I’m sure we can all imagine the ‘Sukhothai mystique’ lobby of a local 5-star

- Commercial terms – Image/Identity based architecture transition:


One Minute Real Estate History of the City of Angels (Slides)

- Ayutthaya was sacked by Burmese in the late 18th century

- Thonburi, where the recently deposed King Taksin had briefly ruled Siam from 1768-1782

- Bangkok was founded upon the east bank of the Chao Phraya River as the seat of the new Chakri dynasty in 1782.

- Layout of the new capital Krung Thep (the City of Angels): primary concern was the re-establishment of the symbols, spaces and functions of the old capital of Ayutthaya

- The walls were constructed in part with salvaged bricks from the ruined walls of Ayutthaya, a gesture that further linked the new capital to the magnificence of the old, while simultaneously dismantling a potential fortification for a counter insurgency or Burmese advance from the north.

- In terms of trade, the City of Angels was considerably closer to the Gulf of Siam than Ayutthaya and lent itself even more favorably to maritime trade. In fact, Bangkok had been the site of a settlement of Chinese traders, who were moved from the desired site of the Grand Palace to the area that remains Bangkok's Chinatown.

- Road building:  turn of 20th century, the ‘Venice of the East’ began to transform

- Most new road ways replaced existing canals.  In 1905 King Chulalongkorn had a Mercedes shipped to Bangkok, driving on new Rachadamnoen Road

The Condo Act of 1979

The Condo Act ushered in a new era of development in Thailand. There are actually 4 acts:

- Condo Act of 1979 started with maximum 40% foreign ownership - such that the majority of any condo building was Thai.

- Condo Act #2 moved that number to 49% in the 1990's, during the boom.

- Then rewritten in Act #3 (1999) to allow 100% foreign ownership after the 1997 Crash, provided the building was within the Bangkok Metro and certain other areas (for a limited 5-year period): such Condominium shall:

(i) have not less than forty (40) Condominium Units;

(ii) when combined with the common property designated for the benefit of the co-owners, its area shall not exceed five (5) rais;

(iii) has already been registered at least one (1) year prior to the date a non-Thai applicant applies to register the transfer of ownership over a Condominium Unit;

(iv) not be located in a military safety zone.

It is believed that the main reason for the enactment of Condominium Act No. 3 and the relaxation in foreign ownership limitation was the need to attract foreign investors and investment into Thailand which suffered a tremendous decline in its economy and GDP pursuant to the economic crisis of 1997.

It is clear this is a 'See-through tower' amendment. The project needs to be (i)big, (ii)dense, (iii)distressed, (iv)not near royals or the army (i.e. undesirable to have finished)
It's worth noting that the Condo Act insures no foreign legacy - in fact, "..any non-Thai which obtained the ownership of a Condominium Unit by a way of will/inheritance, must inform the competent authority of his/her ownership and “dispose of it within one year from the date of obtaining the ownership thereof”.

Condo Act #4 (2008) is essential a consumer protection amendment, mostly stating that promotional literature must match the final product, and offer a Standard Contract.

"...If the advertisement material differs from the Sales Agreement, it shall be interpreted for the benefit of the buyer”

So this may be taken as a "No, never again" amendment. A sign that the Age of a New Sobriety has begun.
Headline: Bangkok Post

“World’s Most Over-Built City”

“Their investment decisions were not driven by sustainable rents and yields, but by easy access to credit, tax considerations, a trophy mentality, and euphoria.”

The Crash

Brief description of the events around July 2007 that caused the SET to plunge, losing over 50% value in one week, and draw construction to a halt in the credit crisis – all caused by profligate lending and speculative building in Bangkok.

Thai Asset Management Corporation (TAMC) (Slides):

- The 'bad bank' that was created after the 1997 crisis.

- TAMC's website states its mission as follows (and it is a mouthful):

“the objectives in managing impaired assets of financial institutions and of asset management companies, debt restructuring, and business reorganization by taking transfer of impaired assets of financial institutions and of asset management companies as well as any other rights over the property being held as collateral for debt repayments with respect to such impaired assets, or by applying any other measures for the purpose of reviving the economy or restoring national stability.”

 The impaired assets are also called NPL's - non-performing loans - and the website states that in 1999, two years into the crisis, 47.7 percent of loans from Thai banking institutions were in the NPL category.
In late 1997, Thailand shut down 56 insolvent finance companies. A year later, the government began auctioning off their roughly $22 billion in bad loans and collateral. The unfinished office buildings on average fetched just half their book value, part of a liquidation that earned plaudits from abroad but generated widespread criticism at home as a ‘fire sale’ for foreign bargain hunters.

Real Estate Information Center (REIC) (Slides):

The REIC’s  five major missions are:

1.      Becoming the most recognized and reliable Thai Real Estate Information Center.

2.      Developing research, analysis and forecasting capabilities through the effective use of reliable Real Estate Data.

3.      Developing tools and indicators that reliably forecast the Thai property markets demand, supply and price levels.

4.      Regularly disseminating Real Estate Information to the public.

5.      Becoming a Real Estate Industry consulting center and knowledge base.

Headline: Bangkok Post

"Condos are for Mosquitoes, Foreigners" 

 - Quote from Deputy Interior Minister, ironically arguing FOR foreign ownership – claiming that increasing foreign purchasing power will not hurt coming generation of Thai buyers, because no real Thai would want to live in a condo.

- Xenophobia in support of Condominium Amendment Bill, increasing ownership rights of foreigners from 40 to 49 percent of total units.

- rise of Nativism, example being the ever-vague ‘Sufficiency Economy’

- hand-wringing over ‘how did this happen?”

TOLSTOY – or, how did this happen?

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ (Substitute ‘development’/’building’ for ‘family’ and you get the idea…)

Hopewell (Slides)

Public/Private gone bad.  Also parallels US railroad builders (now timber/mineral extraction companies), as well as Krung Thep initial road building by royals, which created petite palace estates and rental real estate that started the CPB’s wealth.

- Bangkok Post article:

“He (PM Montri Pongpanich, initiated contract as transport minister) was quoted as telling cabinet colleagues Hopewell had a strong intention at first to realize the project as it had the right in return to commercially develop 600 rai of SRT land in Hua Lampong, Makkasan, Chatuchak, and Bangkok Noi as well as a corridor of land along the project’s routes. However, the current slump in the property sector and overall economy put the project in trouble.”

Aha!  The real prize was land, when land looked like gold – as the rail was the ‘value added’ mechanism.  When real estate tanked, it just wasn’t worth it (hence, no more investors interested)

Muang Thong Thani (Slides)

- Bangkok Land – Anant Kanjanapas (and sons)

- Developers of Muang Thong Thani

- Eventually forced to sell most properties in fire sale, in order to complete Asian Games sports complex.

- Bangkok Land had been Thailand’s largest developer.

“The 4000-rai Muang Thong Thani satellite town was to be the largest residential satellite outside of Bangkok, possible the largest privately-built satellite city in Asia.”

SV Garden (Slides)

- Four riverfront towers, 30-35 stories, on Rama III road

- Rama III was planned to have been the new CBD

- “Sahaviriya City, better known as SV City, is 60% owned by Thailand’s largest steel producer Sahaviriya Steel, with the rest held by Hong Kong-based investment group, New Wave.” 

- Eric Lai, architect

- Hong Kong density in Bangkok – didn’t really work out.  Ended up placing everyone in SV City

- Missed opportunity to sell as scrap steel during peak a few years ago…

Who wins? Charoen, for one …

One can only hear mention of Charoen so many times before yielding to the tug of Google. Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi is rich. In fact, he is currently the richest person in Thailand, head of TCC Group (Thai Charoen Corp Group).

- Whiskey mogul found himself as one of the few with cash on hand after 1997, now the largest land holder in Thailand.

Empire Tower (Slides)

- Blatantly pragmatic modifications

- TCC's latest move is Empire Tower, three towers fused together into single building, near Chong Nonsi

Creating Identity / Energy Use

- Yellow shirts (pre-politicization): honoring King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday, and 60 years on the throne

- Heard interesting theory:  attempt to get rid of Western suit as only office wear: Shrinking government money and spike in energy costs– less money for air con, need for cooler office clothes

- Projecting forward – redefining Thai-ness through climate-sensitive design (Tropical architecture would be a whole other talk…)

Micro-Agency Contingency (Slides)


- self-built housing examples

- use of space in Bangkok – Thaksin’s equity plan for pushcart operators

- term ‘anusaowaree’ or ‘monument’ is loaded with derision: derision for a hometown that most residents find almost unrecognizable, a city whose form and size are controlled by very few wealthy families

- blog post as opening to concept

- contingency in the monumental city

- photos of ‘ghost building’ dwellers from PJack.


Feel free to visit my blog, where I’ve been keeping notes to myself, gathering info, etc.:





After a stimulating question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Kevin in more informal conversation over snacks and drinks.