The Bangkok-based award-winning architectural practice, Department of ARCHITECTURE Co. has in the past 15 years since its inception, been hailed for its innovative conceptualisations and explorations in architecture and design. Amata Luphaiboon (AL), the co-founder and a principal of the firm speaks with Apurva Bose Dutta (ABD) and elaborates on the firm’s philosophies and ideologies.
AL: The four years that me and my partner, Twitee worked together in our former firm, revealed that we worked very well together, complimenting each other’s strengths and filling in for each other’s weakness. Our goals in the profession were similar—to approach every project with a deep exploration of all the possibilities of design. We decided to set up our firm, Department of ARCHITECTURE Co., where we had the freedom to work on projects that inspired us, regardless their size or building types—the kind of freedom that we could not have enjoyed while working in a large company. The unique name of our firm is reflective of our design principal that one also finds in architectural schools where the focus is on research, and experimenting on design directions.
AL: There is no one incident or person that significantly affects my design approach. I sincerely think that my inspiration for each project always comes from two sources—project conditions and my life’s experiences. While in some projects, it is the physical or cultural criteria of the site that leads me to explore the design in certain ways, in few others, a certain memory, such as a scene from a movie or some incident in my childhood, might trigger something interesting that can actually be a solution to a project’s particular problems.
AL: Actually, I have never intentionally thought of balancing the three notions into design. In order to make sense in design, one automatically considers these three together with other important issues such as culture, programming, context, time limitation etc. into the design process. Each project demands a different level of importance for each of the issues. In some projects, functionality might need most considerations, while in others, creativity or originality might be more essential. I think the issue is recognition of what issues should be considered for a particular project.
AL: I understand and am accustomed to traditional Thai architecture, not much as an architect, but rather as a Bangkok resident for half a century. I know how it responds to the tropical climate of Thailand, how it reflects Thai contemporary lifestyle, and Thai aesthetics. Those understandings intentionally and intuitively influence our designs in all dimensions, from planning, building volume, material selection, facade treatment, to the finest of architectural details.
We recently completed a project in Thailand - the Little Shelter Hotel, located in the 700-year old city of Chiang Mai, where the wood structure with a shingle pitched roof characterises the city’s old vernacular architecture. It further has been slightly reinterpreted with an asymmetrical form that blends in naturally with the surrounding tree top silhouette. While the traditional material of wood shingles is used on the roof and sidewalls; on the river facade, polycarbonate sheets cut into the same size as wood shingles form an architectural translucent facade. The design has explored a possibility to fuse new materials into a system to create a contemporary architectural surface, yet deeply rooted in tradition.
AL: I think conditions of public space initiation/formation differs hugely from country to country. In many Western countries, government and public agencies carefully plan urban development with consideration of providing proper public space to suit the communities and their social context. The situation is very different in many Asian cities where public spaces might not be properly planned ahead. Urban planning agencies might not be effective nor have enough influences to realise projects, mostly due to the lack of the government’s continued support. As a consequence, many important public areas have been provided by private parties. Most commonly found are plazas in shopping mall complexes or large mixed-use developments. However, these commercial-driven public spaces might not be as inclusive as they should be since they are created for certain projects and for certain customer targets. More government intervention and initiation is necessary to create public spaces that are really open for all.
AL: I would like to mention here one of our projects that was designed by Twitee. It is an emergency school located in the Chiangrai Province of Thailand. Many years ago, there was an earthquake that destroyed many schools in the Chiangrai area. Thousands of children were left with no shelters to study. At that time, nine Thai architects, including Twitee, led by Design for Disasters, a post-disaster recovery program, came together to design nine schools. Design for Disaster also campaigned for funding and built school structures for these schools. Each of the designs of the nine schools was extremely creative, with consideration on limited cost, and unusually fast construction time. This project, for me, was exemplary of how architects can actually enhance the lives of the people. Good architecture should not be exclusive for the privileged, but for all, especially for the ones in need, and without compromising the integrity of good design.
AL: Actually, my partner, Twitee, is responsible as a principal-in-charge for both the TCDC project and the Flow project. TCDC is a government agency that promotes Thai creative industries. They have a crystal-clear understanding on programs and users from their 10-years, hands-on experience with our creative industries. So, in our design process, they can give us valuable, precise, practical, and forward-looking inputs. As for the Flow project, our team spent considerable time to study the neighbourhood to understand its demography, lifestyle and particular needs for open space. Hence, there might not be a definite answer on how the public should be involved with architects in public projects. It depends on the amount of reliable information related to the users and programs that is available for us.
AL: Of the few similarities between the two cultures, the most influential and having a significant effect on how our architecture is formed, is our limitation on construction cost and technology. Since both India and Thailand are developing countries with not-so-much money to spend on construction, we cannot afford many expensive materials, nor high-tech construction technology. Many buildings in both the countries, however, have been internationally regarded as great pieces of architecture. Indian and Thai architects rely on design approaches that can be realised with limited budgets. We tend to focus more on indigenous materials and simple construction technique but manipulate them in different ways. In many cases, we benefit from our craftsmanship and skills that have been passed on for generations, to make our architecture unique to our cultures, but in a very contemporary manner.