Zaha Hadid's Galaxy Soho, Beijing. Credit: Iwan Baan via Flickr.
Why Bangkok was never going to get a Zaha Hadid building
Our city keeps getting bad architecture. This needs to change.
By Gregoire Glachant | Apr 01, 2016
BK Asia City.com
The short answer: it’s illegal to hire a foreign architect to design a building in Thailand.
The long answer is, of course, more complicated. Foreign architects get hired here all the time, even if they don’t get mentioned or get mentioned solely as “design consultants.” From Australian Kerry Hill (The Sukhothai) to Brit Amanda Levete (Central Embassy) and Singaporean firm WOHA (The Met), the list of Thai buildings designed by foreigners is endless. But the closest the city has gotten to having a full-blown starchitect-designed building is probably Mahanakhon. When the building was announced, the PRs at first reached out for us to interview its architect, Ole Scheeren. They then quickly retracted the offer and began erasing his name from every press release and website under the luxury project’s name. Today, Ole Scheeren lists the Mahanakohn on his firm’s portfolio of projects. But Mahanakhon never mentions him as its architect.
That means some deep-pocketed mall or condo developer in Bangkok could have employed Zaha Hadid and then pretended they didn’t. (Zaha Hadid, one of the most celebrated architects of our day, passed away yesterday, at the age of 65.) Except that when you’re paying for someone like Hadid, you have to be able to fully milk her name for all the publicity it is worth. You’re not just doing it for the purity of her designs. Given the Mahanakhon precedent, it was therefore highly unlikely we’d ever get a Hadid building.
While the 20th century saw an explosion of transnational architecture by heavyweights like Oscar Niemeyer, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, Thailand continues to exist in an isolationist dark age that bars foreign architects from lending their names to local projects.
Why does this matter? Because great architecture is great for everyone. The Sydney Opera House attracts 8.2 million visitors a year. Had it been designed by Australia’s hottest architect at the time, Harry Seidler, you wouldn’t even know what Sydney’s opera house looks like. Instead the project was awarded to a Dane (Jorn Utzon) at the end of a competition headed by Finnish American Eero Saarinen. (Entries were given numbers, meaning Saarinen had no idea he was picking a fellow Scandinavian.)
On top of being stuck with Thai architects only, government projects are further plagued by nepotism and corruption, meaning the worst firm alway gets the job—if the project goes to a firm at all. The Bangkok Riverside Promenade, for example, was designed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s in-house team of architects. That’s right. What could be the city’s most important urban development project since the launch of the BTS was designed by the same guys who sketch our beloved pedestrian crossover bridges. No environmental impact assessment. No national competition. And definitely no international competition.
Thai architects are great. And they keep getting better. But protectionism is holding their entire industry back and it’s up to them to take a stand against this. The biggest defender of Jorn Utzon was the aforementioned Harry Seidler, the Australian architect Utzon beat in the competition for Australia’s most important building. Utzon was a genius. But Seidler is the true hero for architecture lovers.
This man objects to the German architect of Thailand's tallest building, saying it's a job reserved for Thais only. https://t.co/xerrbHmABp— Kaewmala (@Thai_Talk) August 30, 2016