Where: Th. Wittayu / Th. Sathorn
Duration: One hour
Start: Ploenchit BTS
1) From Ploenchit BTS, take the walkway back towards Chitlom BTS and if you look down to your right you will see a large black horse. Enter Central Embassy (sometimes called Central Empty) and make your way to ground level and out onto the forecourt. The sculpture is by famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero (b. 1932) and was unveiled in 2014 (Chinese Year of the Horse). Botero started matador school at age 12 but after two years began to pursue his art. Most notable recent work was his 2005 Abu Ghraib series of paintings. The bronze monumental sculpture itself comes in at 2000kg.
2) The Central Embassy Mall / Residences (on land said to be the most expensive in Thailand) that flow upward behind you is located on the former garden space of the British Embassy (hence the name) and was designed by British architect Amanda Levete (b.1955). In her own words:
“Central Embassy will be the first contemporary landmark building in Bangkok. It is demonstrably of its time but rooted in Thai heritage and culture. Our architectural ambition is matched by the ambition of Central to create the best and most exciting retail and hotel destination in Thailand.”
That’s a big call given the next building we will explore, but more on that in a moment. Levete’s work can be seen across the globe – from a station on the Naples subway, to a mosque in Abu Dhabi and an outdoor pavilion at Docklands, Melbourne. She can also be seen regularly in glossy design magazines and has just been selected to remodel Paris’ Galeries Lafayette department store.
3) Before we join the walkway again, look to the intersection and the nearest corner. There you will see the last of the eight original boundary markers that staked out the land owned by Thai entrepreneur Nai Lert. More on his story when another walk will take us north from this corner.
4) Re-joining the overhead walkway, to the left you will see the Park Ventures Ecoplex. Designed by Hong Kong based Palmer and Turner Architects, it stands at 142 metres and also houses the Okura Prestige Hotel. The structural design concept was that of a ‘wai’ but for mine it is more transformer-like, especially at night. That perception probably comes to mind because we are not to far from the famous Robot Building. The Park Ventures building is like the more contemporary sibling to that building – Gigantor updated to Optimus Prime.
It is probably one of the more conceptually integrated buildings in Bangkok and has excellent green credentials. The landscape work has been up for awards and a lot of attention has been given to details (see the calorie markers on the outdoor steps). There are three ground level sculptures here – done by “Friends On Site”, a design and fabrication workshop in Bangkok. The most impressive of the three, called ‘Voice of the Wind’, is in the forecourt and made from re-cycled industrial waster. You can arrange a tour of the building’s ecology by calling 02643 7193.
5) From here, the plan is to head south along the left hand side of Th. Wittayu. Adjacent to The Park Venture building are the Siri Apartments. The street facing block is a nondescript low-rise but tucked in behind is one of the more quirky apartment blocks in Bangkok. You may have to sweet talk the guard to get up close.
6) Continue down Th. Wittayu and you will come to the cleverly designed Indigo Hotel. Outside you will see a series of steel sculptures by Thai outfit VIF Sculptures.
It is worth going inside to see some of the design ideas that have been employed to mark its territory in the competitive Bangkok hotel market – the rooftop bar has expansive 180 degrees west-facing views.
7) Across the road from the Indigo Hotel is about 4 acres of green space. The centre-piece is a white timber house. The house was built in 1914 by English adventurer / entrepreneur Henry Victor Bailey. He later sold it to the Thai Ministry of Finance. After the Second World War, England was intent on retribution for Thailand’s support for the Japanese, however the United States pushed back against this and as a sign of gratitude the house was handed over to the US in 1947 from which time it has been the Ambassador’s Residence. See http://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/bangkok-article for a glimpse inside this beautiful house.
8) If you have crossed the road for a closer look at the house and grounds, go a little further along to find what seems to be a herd of slightly annoyed cows…..and the Embassy of the Netherlands. Like the US Ambassador’s house, this embassy is nestled in greenery.
9) Stay on this side of the road and a little further on and opposite you will see the China Resources Tower. Completed in 2001, it was designed by the same team that did the Park Ventures Building and stands at 210 metres and is the 13th tallest building in Bangkok as of 2016. The entry and exit points onto Th. Wittayu are framed by a number of celestial pieces.
10) Continue down Th. Wittayu until you come to a T-Intersection with Th. Sarasin. Cross Th. Sarasin and you will be at the north-east corner of 57 hectare Lumpini Park, named after the birthplace of Gautama Buddha. If you look up you can glimpse the radio tower from which came the first radio broadcasts in Thailand (hence, Wireless Road). Walk south alongside the park for about 100 metres. Take the first entrance on your right and once inside the park take the road immediately to your left – this road runs parallel to Th. Wittayu on the other side of the fence. The intention is to exit the park where Th. Wittayu meets Rama 4 – and along the way you will see three sculptures in amongst the greenery. The first is an unusually named piece called “Women in the next three decades” by award winning Thai sculptor, Sahathep Thepburi.
Now I’m thinking, if we combine Botero’s horse and Thepburi’s woman we’ve got a Queen Bodicea thing going and it would be no wonder that the Celtic queen struck terror in the hearts of many a Roman foot soldier 2000 years ago in East Anglia.
The second is a less challenging work showing mother and child while the third, “Sagittarius” by University of Texas based based Thai sculptor Thana Lauhakaikul (b. 1941)
This is a memorial piece commissioned in 2007 by the Thai-Japanese Association to celebrate the Thai King’s 80th birthday and the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. As the name suggests, both the King and the current Emperor are Sagittarians.
11) From the Sagittarius sculpture, take the exit back to the intersection of Th. Wittayu and Rama 4. Cross Rama 4 here from where we will head down what is now Th. Sathorn. Before we do however, take a short walk (about 100 metres) west along the far side of Rama 4. Here you will see a most unusual building. The Srifuengfung Building is a 12 story example of brutalist architecture. A cross between a cheese grater and a beehive, the mustard coloured building seems to be full of secrets.Given the current re-surgence of interest in brutalism, bangkok should go out of its way to protect what it has. See for this revival of the architectural love affair:
Here’s one building that I like more each time I see it. The architect was Jira Silpakanok who also designed another iconic example of Bangkok brutalism – the Indra Regent Hotel in the Pratunam area. For those interested in film and the history of cinema in Thailand, Silpakanok also designed the iconic Scala Film Theatre in Siam Square which was built in 1969. Chulalongkorn University owns virtually all the land here and the theatre is under constant threat of demolition to make way for, you guessed it, more shopping malls.
Speaking of malls and of equal interest is the strangely named Nightingale – Olympic Department store – the first in Bangkok. It is an early example of brutalist architecture in Bangkok. I’ve yet to walk there but it’s on the list.
With our brutalist excursion done for the moment, return to the intersection. What a treat on the south eastern corner. Normally, I don’t go for glass facades but the 39 story Q House Lumpini makes a big statement here. Designed by Robert G. Boughey & Associates – a Bangkok based firm – it’s kind of medieval meets modernism.
12) Now we head down the western side of Sathorn. Shortly we come to a prominent sculpture outside the Bubhajit Building. It is titled ‘Wheel of Law’ and the sculptor was Ithipol Thangchalot (b.1946).
Looking now to the left we can see the Thai Wah Towers, the most impressive of the two being the Banyan Tree Hotel which celebrates it’s 2oth anniversary in 2016. The Banyan Tree brand is now global and was started Ho Kwon Ping (b. 1952). He was born in Hong Kong, studied in Thailand and attended Stanford University. He was an anti-war protester and later was arrested and imprisoned in Singapore for articles he had written for the Far East Economic Review. The company name originates from Banyan Tree Bay in Hong Kong where he lived with his wife for the first three years of their marriage. The main attraction is the well-known Vertigo rooftop bar and restaurant. What was once a helicopter landing pad is now one of the best places for a sunset drink – dress regulations apply.
Crossing the road we will walk past the fine entrance way to the Sukothai Hotel, next to which is Australian chef David Thompson’s Nahm restaurant in the Metropole Hotel. Rated as the 37th best restaurant in the world, for mine it does not always live up to its reputation. And it’s expensive by Thai standards.
About 100 metres further along we come to the Australian Embassy. The building is a 1970s classic. It was designed by Australian architect Ken Woolley (b. 1933) along with local consultants M L Devakul, Architects.
Previous to its construction, the Embassy had rented office space on Th. Silom. In December 1972, after 23 years of Conservative government, the Australian Labor Party won office under the leadership of Gough Whitlam. Arguably Australia’s most visionary leader (something with which Gough would agree), Whitlam and his party set Australia on a new path. Conscription was stopped, China recognised, and free university tuition and universal health care both legislated. Whitlam also saw Australia as having an important place to play in South East Asia and so commissioned the building of the Embassy on Sathorn. Photo below is of Gough Whitlam, 40 yrs ago this month (August 2016), handing back of the land to the Gurindji people in commemoration of the Wave Hill walk off.
Woolley was one of the key figures in what became known as the Sydney Style – a mixture of organic architecture, brutalism and the arts and crafts movements. The design of the Embassy reflects these interests and recognises its context as well – sitting above lush gardens and water features.
As an indulgent personal aside, I met my partner Carmel outside the University of Sydney Library in 1973 – a building built in 1962 and designed by Ken Woolley. It is another fine example of brutalism and Woolley was only 25 when he did the original design. He is one of the few architects who have seen one of their buildings heritage listed in their lifetime.
The Embassy, however, is on the move. In March 2017 the new Embassy will be opened just off Th. Wittayu behind the Japanese Embassy. The reason for the move is based on security issues.
13) Around 200 meters further down Sathorn and we come to what is currently the 5th tallest building in Bangkok. Designed by WOHA + Tandem Architects , The Met is a 69 story condominium comprised of six towers and was completed in 2009. Like the Park Ventures Ecoplex, the building is an environmentally sensitive and has won numerous awards including the German ” International Highrise Award” and was cited for “sustainable living conditions in this tropical region without recourse to air conditioning”.
From Wikipedia: The design is inspired by Thai forms – Thai tiles, textiles and timber panelling, abstracted and used as a way to organise forms. The cladding, for instance, uses temple tiles as an inspiration, while the staggered arrangement of the balconies recalls the Thai teak staggered panelling on traditional houses.
Fifty metres further on we come to Th. Suan Phlu. Take a left here if it’s the right time of day for a tipple. On a corner, a little way along on the right is Smalls, a relatively new three story bar serving, I’m told, the best absinthe cocktails in Bangkok.
If we don’t turn left, look to the other side of Sathorn and you can see Christ Church Bangkok. Christians have been free to worship in Thailand for around 500 years. This protestant church was built in 1905 on land granted by King Rama V. Just past Th. Suan is the concrete facade of the Singaporean Embassy which is a contemporary of the Australian Embassy having been built in 1974.
14) Cross Soi 7 and we reach the 24 story ASA Centre. It is another one of those buildings that grow upon you. It certainly makes a statement with its large milky green tiles and polished steel exoskeleton.
And next door? The mini version of the Tyrell Building from Blade Runner. The 31 story Sathorn City Tower is worth a little of our time. The foyer is dominated by two large murals in a swirling, Chinese style that depicts a wonderfully exotic mix of creatures. These murals frame the central escalators – the design here is special. The escalators ascend and descend through stone mosaic walls adorned with a series of individual bronze ripples. What appear to be stone mosaic stairs aside each escalator are actually waterfalls. From the marble floor of the foyer it is difficult to know where the escalators are about to take you.
Keeping with the Blade Runner theme, it’s interesting to note that the very exclusive Bangkok Club occupies the top four floors of this building. To give you an inkling as to the nature of the members, the Honorary Chairman is none other than H.E. General Prem Tinsulanonda, Privy Councillor, President and Statesman (b.1920). That’s about as high powered as it comes in Thailand. Membership is by invitation only and I suspect there might be a dress code.
We are almost at the end of this walk. A little further on we come to the intersection of Th. Sathorn and Th Narathivat. On the south eastern corner stands the impressive 62 story Empire Tower. It is the 6th tallest building in Bangkok and the largest office block. Of note is that it has possibly the largest curtain wall constructions in SE Asia – where the facade, in this case glass, is not structural.
Climb the stairs to the overhead walkway for good views up and down Sathorn. To note also that this open space has been the site for anti-government protestors to front the media in 2016.
On the south west corner of the intersection stands the 40 story Sathorn Square. Designed with the Thai temple features of ‘cho fah’ the building is extremly elegant. Likewise, the boundary marker takes its shape from Phitsanulok’s Wat Ratchburana.
Sathorn Square also has a generous forecourt that has a range of sculptural pieces. Some impress more than others. The standout for me are the pixelated ‘boulders’ on the western side. What fascinates me is their connection to the last building we see on this walk. More of that in a moment.
Talk about saving the best until the end…..no doubt you have seen the 77 story Mahanakon Building as you have walked down Sathorn. Well here it is. The tallest building in Krung Thep and my favourite.
Like the Empire Tower, this is a monumental curtain-walled structure that rises to 314 metres – about 10 metres taller than the Baiyoke Tower. The pixelated design is supposed to allow the building to blend into the surrounds. For mine it looks distinctly post-apocalyptic. Designed by young gun architect Ole Scheeren (b.1971), the building is a mixed-use skyscraper with what will be reputedly, some of the most expensive apartment in Bangkok.
Scheeren (pictured above) has won many architectural awards and has and is designing what look to me to be both whimsical and adventurous buildings. The link below will take you to a TED talk he gave recently. Form follows……fiction? – you decide.
15) Well, that’s it for Walk 4. The next architecture / sculpture walk will start here and continue down Th Sathorn. We’ll encounter the past, ghosts, artists, and the future. For now, Dean and DeLuca’s is right here at the base of the Mahanakhon, so it’s coffee time.