ARCHITECTURE IN THAILAND: TRADITIONS, CONCEPTS, RELIGION, ROYALTY, VILLAGE HOUSES, WATER AND LIGHTNESS

ARCHITECTURE IN THAILAND

Characteristics of Thai architecture include steeply-sloping tile roofs with up turned edges, open air spaces and lush gardens. Stupas are bell-shaped, similar to the Sri-Lankan style. Sometimes Thai architecture is best appreciated for its details. One the gestalt level it often appears to overdone, gaudy and even kitschy.

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Architecture has always played an important role in society, especially in terms of habitations that closely connect to the people....Thailand developed as an agricultural society; therefore, the dwelling of the people were not big in size and were usually found on the low land near waterways. The house was mostly built above the ground on high posts and made with local material easily found in the area. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University ]

According to Prof. Choti Kanlayanamitr, traditional Thai house architecture clearly expresses the relationship between the life style of Thai people and the natural environment. The different regional environment, culture and local traditions have a big influence on the architecture of Thai houses. It can be said that changes in art are largely driven by three factors, including the influence of natural settings, religious beliefs, and the acceptance of foreign civilisation, either direct or indirect. This, too, is applicable to theories of Thai architecture.

Relationship of elements create the philosophy form Thai architecture has a definite identity. It is created by artists who transform imagination to reality. These artists pass on the knowledge through generations. Thai art means works that are created in accordance with tradition and custom with specific form and identity. Thai art has evolved and changed due to socio-economic condition and people's education. Art in Thai architecture was made out of artists' wisdom, which combined natural beauty with religious beliefs, classic literature, and people’s livelihood through creativity, ideal imagination, and national identity. It exudes peace and serenity both in form and substance and reflects the inner gentleness of Thai artists.

Generally the knowledge of Thai architecture has been passed down through direct learning from the masters. There was no textbook that offered theories or guidelines. This makes Thai architecture different from other subjects such as traditional medicine, astrology, and black magic – all of them have a record in the form of khoi or larn dry-leaf inscription. There are some related textbooks that deal with finding auspicious times for house construction, or how to determine spots in pillars whether they are good or bad to house owners. Despite the lack of architecture textbooks, construction of buildings in Thai style continued into the Rattanakosin era without major changes. That there are few - or any change - in Thai architecture reflects that there must be philosophy or custom that keep the knowledge intact.

See Separate Article 1) THERAVADA BUDDHIST RELIGIOUS BUILDINGS; 2) HOMES IN THAILAND: BAMBOO HOUSES, TEAK HOUSES, RAFT HOMES, CONDOMINIUMS AND SUBURBAN CONCRETE TOWN HOUSES.

Rivers, Canals, Lotus Ponds and Thai Architecture

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Thais have traditionally built their houses near canals and rivers. Many families earned a living through fisheries and farming. Transport was on canals or rivers. Santi Chansaeng, a leading Thai architect at Sarin, said: "We have to look back that we initially lived in an agrarian society, with people living a simple life. They settled down near the water, a major factor for farming. Their houses were close to the water and they had to raise the platform from the water. When the water receded, people were able to make use of the vast space underneath the cabins." 100 This shows that water has always been a part of people's livelihood. When deciding on the location of their settlement, people gave little consideration to the wind. They paid more attention to the water, whether the site was near a canal or a river. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Khaisaeng Sukhawattana said riverside settlement are now scarce: “We turn to roads and forget about canals. When we take a boat in a city canal, we have to face with visual pollution.'' He also noted that there are three types of riverine architecture including: 1. The settlement of ordinary people was mostly adjacent to the water because it was a very important channel of transportation. Besides, they had access to the water supply all year round. Living by the water was considered an advantage. Those who lived inland had to dig up a canal that connected with the river.

Temples, particularly the major ones, were built facing the water. The best location for temples was the land on the bank of the canal or the river. When people donated land to the temple, they tended to choose the one near the waterways. Palaces were always situated near the river because the land that was far away from it was considered inappropriate. Such practice came into place since the Ayutthaya period.

Many architects and home owners nowadays still prefer to install a lotus pond in the compound as an interior or exterior decoration. It is a tradition that has been passed down for generations. A lotus is a significant part of offerings to Buddha images, apart from candles and incense sticks. Nit Hinchiranan says a lotus pond is a distinctive feature of houses in the central region. "People put decorative and fragrant plants on the terrace of their houses because it is hard to tend the garden during the floods. Some people decorate their lotus pond with mountain rocks, or angbua khao mo, and some ivies.'' Reuthai Chaichongrak mentions the decorative lotus in his article: A corner on a terrace may have decorative plants like various leafy plants like bon and koson, waan, or lucky plants, as well as a vat of lotus, for example.'' MR Naengnoi Saksri refers to angkaew as a man-made pond that stores water for distribution to palaces and royal temples. Sometimes, various kinds of fish are bred in the pond that also contain decorative lotus.

Royalty, Hierarchy and Thai Architecture

The acceptance of the kings' divinity and the architectural interpretation of heaven in Buddhism are the main reasons that inspired craftsmen to devote themselves faithfully to the job and go into great details to create an architectural masterpiece for the religion and the kings. Their good work will hopefully ensure great fortune and social hierarchy as well as a place in heaven. It should be noted while craftsmen do their best to complete the job for the kings and the royal members, there are some construction rules and guidelines about the hierarchical status of Thai architecture. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

In the past, Thai houses were used to identify the social status and wealth of the owners. There were some feudal rules that governed the construction and the design of a house. This is known as the hierarchical status of Thai architecture. This was evident in a court law dating back to the Ayutthaya period. In this system, a person with a social rank is granted certain types of possessions. “A prince administers a town, rides on Phraya Numat horse, .......Have male and female krom, a Buddha chamber and a hall..'' This means only a prince and princess in the rank of krom were allowed to have a Buddha chamber and a reception hall in their palaces. A prince and princess of lower ranks could not have such structures. The two structures were, thus, the indicator of their ranks and status.

Basically, there were two kinds of house for commoners and those in high positions. Houses of commoners were made of non-durable materials like bamboo, leaves of sugar palm trees, rattan and others in the same family. This kind of house was called / (pook literally means tying). It was given such a name because builders used a rattan or bamboo strip to tie the whole structure together.

On the other hand, houses of those in power were made of stronger materials, particularly timber from perennial trees like teak and some others in mixed deciduous plants. To build these houses, builders make pre-assembled planks and join them together. This kind of house was called or sometimes called for its pre-fabricated wooden planks. Therefore, people were to comply with their social status and restricted to build a certain type of house, using a certain type of materials.

Furthermore, the house’s hierarchical status was only one of the ways to display the owners’ social status. It was a mechanism that indirectly informs its citizens of their duties and rights in the society. Such awareness helped society maintain normality to a certain extent. However, the idea is obliterated in the modern Thai society because of the rapid influx of foreign cultures. It is also caused by socio-political changes as stipulated by the constitution, which endorses the right and freedom of people. House owners are now free to build a house in any style without an obligation to follow the hierarchical rules.

Influences on Thai Architecture

The deepest foundation of Thai architecture of basic structures such as temple layouts, memorial towers and mondops were adopted during the Sukhothai period from Indian, Ceylonese, Mon, Khmer and Burmese antecedents. In the Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin periods, the main foreign influences were from Europe and China, which grew especially strong during the 19th century. [Wattana Boonjub]

When the first Tai kingdoms emerged in Chiang Mai and Sukhothai in the 12th century and after, there had already been local settlements of Chinese Han traders, craftsmen and officials. Chinese potters helped Sukhothai to establish its famous ceramics kilns. When Thais displaced Khmer dominions in the region after the 12th century, China became an important cultural influence. There were extensive diplomatic exchanges with the Yuan and the early Ming dynasties between the 13th and the 15th centuries. From that period onwards, traders brought Chinese ceramics, textiles and other arts into the country, dominating the Siamese’s repertoire of ornamental designs. Thai artisans adopted Chinese decorations such as lacquer paintings and mother-of-pearly inlay.

In addition to their influence on Thai architecture, Chinese immigrants also created their own religious and residential architecture. By far the most important example of this is the Chinese-style shop houses, which have become the architectural setting for Thailand’s extraordinarily vibrant culture of small enterprise.

Much of the be st Western-influenced Thai architecture was built under royal commission. King Rama IV and his successors had a key role in adapting European architecture, making it a part of Thailand’s official style. It is evident in many royal mansions and palaces in and around Bangkok. These structures have been extensively photographed and published, thus shaping Thai tastes right up to the present.

Modern architecture is another foreign influence, one that has not often been successfully integrated into the Thai context. Since the 1990s, however, architects have made progress at deploying local forms to contemporary buildings.

Raft Houses

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Thai houses in the central region were located on flood plains. Therefore, it was necessary that the houses were designed to enable occupants to continue a normal life in their houses during floods. Some groups of people like traders and fishermen, whose livelihood depended particularly on water preferred living on rafts, which allowed them to move from place to place and earn a living. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

In the past, rivers and canals were the most convenient channels of transportation for people and goods. They are also an important source of water for farming. All ancient Thai cities were located near water sources and when cities were expanded inland, people dug up canals, mainly to get water for their farm and use them as transportation channels. They were designed specifically for people to live on or to use in making a living. During the reign of King Rama V, the number of rafts along the canals and rivers was substantial. Now only a few remain in provinces like Uthai Thani. The number of rafts is dwindling since the maintenance cost is high. Besides, the increasing number of boat population makes living on the rafts no longer convenient.

Construction Methods Used in Traditional Thai Architecture

Thai craftsmen adhered to conventional construction practices when building a house. They usually made all prefabricated parts, including the roof frame and walls, often tested them for fit, and when they were certain that there were no flaws, they would start the construction, assembling the parts on the prepared stilts at an auspicious time. The construction was normally quick. Pre-fabricated walls can be assembled without nails and bolts. No matter how old and dilapidated the house becomes, the structure will remain intact as the forces on each side of the structure automatically press into one another. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

It should be noted that traditional Thai houses did not vary much in size, especially those for medium-sized families. The similarity was as close as if they were made using blueprints. This traditional construction method conforms to geometric theory, an amazing observation given Thai craftsmen who never studied geometry were able to make precise or close calculations. This leads to the conclusion that there was a rationale behind the idealistic beauty, which perhaps can be rediscovered if we use the right methodology.

The construction of a raft house requires more knowledge and technical capacity than a house on land. A raft is like a boat as it moves on waves. Raft-house builders must know how and where to put the weight to keep the structure in balance and every joint 14 must be specially made to ensure it flexibly moves when hit by waves or the structure may be broken. Raft-house occupants brilliantly use water jars as weight and place it where needed.

Positioning and Natural Setting and Traditional Thai Architectural

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Looking at Thai house architecture, it is evident that Thai builders are well aware of climate and wisely select construction materials. They develop the structure to make it suitable to the surroundings. Traditional houses depend on natural wind and since all the houses are elevated, the wind is able to pass through the entire village without impediment. In some communities where houses adjoin those of close relatives there are no fences. The fence, if any, is meant primarily to mark the boundary, or to protect the property from animals and thus is designed to facilitate wind flow. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand , a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

If modern builders were to adapt the advantages of traditional architecture, there would be no close and unventilated spots in houses, and occupants would depend much less on air-conditioning and electric lighting. However, modern Thai houses possess few traditional features. Nowadays, house owners opt for concrete or masonry as fence and house construction material. Houses are no longer elevated, and they become wind blockages themselves.

The positioning of the house and roofing play a key part in heat reduction. Ideally Thai houses face north, while the structure parallels to the eastern and the western side. In this position, the surface of the roof at any given time - even noon - will not receive direct sunlight and thus will not absorb the heat. This position allows the house to fully receive the southern wind.

Even if builders cannot put the house in the desired position, there will be no big problem if the structure is roofed with thatch as it is not heat-absorbing material. Such a positioning is advantageous in that the longer sides will not receive direct light, which directly goes to the surface of the walls' shorter sides only in the morning and late afternoon, the time when the light becomes favourably soft. Therefore the positioning and architectural design contributes a great deal to house ventilation and heat reduction.

The size and height of Thai traditional houses are related to the occupants’ physical traits. The different space between floor and open deck area is designed to make it fit for occupants to sit with their feet hanging down. The window panes are level with seated occupants, allowing them to look out of the house comfortably. The roof of enclosed makes it comfortable for occupants to place baskets, which contain things to sun-dry. Thai houses are designed to allow occupants to complete all activities without the need to go down to the ground. Occupants can also pull up the stairs at night to prevent invaders from climbing up.

Since traditional Thai houses have no fences and the land can sometimes be flooded, occupants need an open-decked space to sun-dry things during the wet season. Some houses even turn the open-deck area into a small garden. In the past, house owners hid their money and valuables in unconventional places, rather than cabinets and coffers. It was common that they discreetly holed one of the house’s large pillars, making it a secret chamber. Such treasure pillars are now extremely rare.

Creating Lightness and Buoyancy by Breaking Down the Roof Structure

Artisans successfully break down the roof structure, particularly in religious buildings like bot and viharn, in order to create the feeling of lightness and floating and decrease the building’s bulky appearance. Nij Hincheeranand said: ''Breaking down the roof structure of Bot and Viharn into three major sections, with the prime, the biggest part at the centre, and the lower part at the front and back, is one of the methods invented to create the lightness of the building.'' Chote Kalayanamit said: ''In breaking down the roof, making the front and the back lower than the main part will help the structure appear light.'' [Wattana Boonjub]

The reduction of the roof mass can be achieved by a superimposing technique, making a multi-layered roof, as pointed out by Nij Hincheeranand: ''The layers are closer at the base of the roof and gradually spread out onto the top.'' Chote Kalayanamit gave an observation that: ''Artisans are able to reduce the mass of the roof of a large building by applying the multi-layer technique to the roof's sides. If the structure has only one big roof, the roof will look bulky. They deliberately made the dense layers at the base, and bit-by-bit added the distance between the tiers at the upper part. The gap was the biggest at the section that covered the central part of bot and viharn.

The use of sala posts allows one to see through the space underneath the raised cabin with nothing to block the view and creates the sense of lightness and floating. It makes the building 'float' before one's eyes. Such light and floating feelings are in regard with the Buddhist beliefs concerning meditation (calmness), lightness and floating.

Posts with the use of an open space between the walls. Architect Anucha Tangsiriwiriyakul of 4-S Co said in an interview, “The tradition of leaving a gap between the wall and the object is to ensure that there is a sufficient space between them. For instance, when placing Buddha images inside bot or viharn, one has to be careful not to put the statues too close to the wall, leaving the gap of 2 - 4 sawk (a traditional Thai measurement) between them. This also applies to some furniture like tang, a traditional bench, which is placed in the middle of the room to ensure that the surrounding space is free.

Lightness and Floating in Relation to Water and Buildings

Architect Santi Chansaeng, managing director of Sarin Architect Co, said that because “we lived in an agrarian society, the most appropriate site for settlement must be the area near the source of water. This is because water is very important for farming. Thus, buildings were established adjacent to the waterways. Dwellers had to live on a raised cabin to avoid the floods during the wet season. After the water eventually receded, they were able to use an ample space underneath the cabin.” His statement indicates that people and the water have been closely related since the ancient time. Thais paid less attention to the wind direction than the water when they choose the site of their residence. [Wattana Boonjub]

Space between cabins of a Thai cluster house facilitates good ventilation and ensures enough sunlight. This is a characteristic of chaan or terrace, which is the area that receives the most sunlight and pure air, with optimum ventilation. Each house has an open space called in Lanna dialect as ''kwuang baan.'' It is a vast, levelled ground used for various activities such as a playground, the ground for sun-drying farm produce and a walkway to the buildings.

Openness in the space between sala posts The sala posts, with a raised cabin above people's heads, enable people to look across to the other side of the structure and create the feeling of lightness and floating as well as openness. The free-standing look effectively makes the building appear light. Openness from the space of chaan or terrace Chaan or terrace facilitates the flow of space between the cabins and in turn creates the sense of openness. Ruethai Chaichongrak said since chaan connects the cabins in the house, it supports the flow of space from the inside to the outside of the house --from cabins, verandah to the terrace.

Thai Architecture and Religion

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Obviously, Thai architecture is influenced by Buddhism. Artistic artefacts such as carved stones and paintings were created to depict Buddhist history and stories. Monks play a vital role in spreading Buddha’s teachings while craftsmen transformed the ideals of Buddhism into physical structures, buildings and artistic works. It is unfortunate that there are no written records of the knowledge about Thai traditional construction. The passage of knowledge was orally made from generations to generations. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

Theravada Buddhism was embraced by ethnic Mons, one of the first settlers in central Thailand. They were known for their magnificent craftsmanship. The influence of Mon style art and architecture dates back to the 9th century and influenced architecture in the central plains, the Northeast and some parts of the North and the South of the Siamese kingdom. In the 8th century, Thai artists adopted Ceylon architectural style, which remained influential until the Rattanakosin period in the 14th century.

Some influences of Mahayana Buddhism were embraced before establishment of Sukhothai kingdom in the 12th century and remained even though Theravada Buddhism became dominant. There are some historical and religious artefacts that show the harmonious blend of the two Buddhist schools. Historical artefacts and structures influenced by the Mahayana school is spread in different parts of Thailand such as southern Thailand, the old Chiang Saen town in the North, pre-Ayutthaya sites in the central plains and the north eastern region.

Theravda Buddhist Concepts and Thai Architecture

“To understand Thai architecture, one needs to study various aspects of religious beliefs behind those architectural forms since it will help see the other side of beauty, which is no less important. When discussing Buddhist ideology in Thai architecture, it is inevitable to focus on the Theravada Buddhism, which arrived in the Thai Kingdom around the 12th century and remained the most prominent Buddhist school in Thailand until now. Its long continuity should ensure the influence of Theravada's script and preaching over Thai art and architecture. In fact, the main Theravada idea about getting rid of unwholesomeness, as a way to end all sufferings at the level of lokiya and lokutara, is related to the unique features of Thai architecture -- peace, lightness and floating. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Artists and architects must be driven by passion to create artistic structures. To make such creations, they are required to have profound understanding of the Lord Buddha's teachings in order to transform the ideals into physical structures and that is not an easy task. Studying the works of ancient craftsmen has resulted in some important clues that may be linked to certain forms and features of Thai architecture as follows: 1. Mindfulness through meditation is a basic practice of Buddhist disciples. The practice is aimed at getting rid of unwholesomeness to achieve inner peace and finally end the reincarnation. The architects’ task is to find out what architectural features signify inner peace.

If the meditation helps free one's mind from unwholesomeness and also brings the feeling of lightness, what forms and features are required to signify such lightness. The feeling of lightness or floating is usually compared when one is free from all attachments. To abstain from unwholesome deeds and to commit only wholesome acts are believed to lead to nirvana. A sacred Buddhist text written by King Lithai of the Sukhothai Kingdom (12th century) describes the lightness (absence) of sins in each plane of heaven. What forms and features of architectural design can represent the different levels of lightness? The thorough study of the Thai architectural design will help ones appreciate the great craftsmanship of ancient architects who excellently transformed concepts into physical structures.

Buddhist Universe Concepts and Thai Architecture

Buddhism has a great influence on Thai craftsmen and builders. In particular, the Trai bhumi Praruang scripture is a great inspiration to those working in various fields of art. This holy text describes three different planes of existence: 1) the sensuous plane; 2) the non-sensuous plane; and 3) the universe. The universe is surrounded by rings of seven anad a vast ocean. The ocean is in turn is surrounded by a circular mountain wall, which marks the horizontal limit of the world. [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

In this ocean, there are four continents inhabited by humans and human-like beings, including 1) the north of Mount Sumeru; 2) the east of Mount Sumera; 3) the south of Mount Sumeru; and 4) the west of Mount Sumera According to Trai bhumi Praruang, Chompoo Thaweep is the only place where human deeds committed in this and previous lives determine the type of reincarnation in the next life. There are six realms of rebirths within the system of traditional Buddhist cosmology. They include all the possibilities - advantageous and less advantageous - of lives. The six realms are divided into Deva Realm, Human Realm, Animal Realm, Asura Realm, Preta (a hungry ghost) Realm and Naraka (hell) Realm. All human beings live in the Human Realm, which is the result of Kusala (wholesome) acts in the past, while those who live in the Deva (blissful) Realm accumulate higher virtue than humans. On the other hand, anyone with Akusara (unwholesome) deeds will be reborn in one of the last four realms, which are together called Abaiyabhumi.

The topography of Mount Sumeru and its surroundings described in the Tri-bhumi scripture has a significant role in the design of many structures in Thailand, particularly temples. It becomes an architectural template of any building wishing to achieve the status of Mount Sumeru.

Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism in Thai Architecture Mahayana

Buddhism and Hinduism have influenced Thai culture since the early period of the Siamese Kingdom. Originating in the 1st century in northern India, Mahayana followers respect Bodhisattva and certain gods in Hinduism. However, both Hinduism and Buddhism share similar belief about the centre of the universe. This idea significantly shaped the form of Thai art and architecture. [Wattana Boonjub]

It should also be noted that some Mahayana-influenced structures were built when the Theravada school was popular in Thailand. This means these two schools of Buddhism can co-exist. There are two Mahayana Sutras (scriptures) that play an important role in Thai art and culture: one deals with non-religious art and culture and the other is concerned with religious art and architecture.

The residence of Phra Amitabha Buddha is an elegant structure whose roof is decorated with wind chimes that give “blissful sounds when struck with the wind.” The structure is surrounded with “jeweled walls.” Such features are part and parcel of the ordination hall and the assembly hall and stupa in most temples in Thailand.

Ancient craftsmen put a lot of effort to imitate the abode of Phra Amitabha Buddha as described in the Sutra. For instance, the ceiling of the main Buddha hall , which is regarded as the residence of the Lord Buddha, is meticulously adorned with glittering objects like gild and coloured glasses to make it look like stars. Sometimes, the star-like ornaments are made in silver colour to imitate the full moon or in gold colour like that of the clouds at dawn or dusk. The reflection of gold and candle light in this building makes gilded Buddha statues look luminous like they have a aura. This exudes a serene, respectful atmosphere that easily draws people closer to the religion.

Another architectural feature that reflects the Mahayana belief is the concave curve of the base of the building, which resembles the bottom of the boat. This curving design was popular in the Ayutthaya and early Rattanakosin era. It is believed that the craftsmen use the shape of the vessel to symbolize Bodhisattva’s determination to help as many living creatures as possible to cross the cycle of life before he eventually achieved nirvana.

Transforming Buddhist Philosophy into Thai Architecture

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Various architectural features of the late Ayutthaya period indicate the craftsmen's attempt to imitate heaven to create the sense of peace, lightness and floating in accordance with the Buddhist philosophy. Peace is represented in the symmetry of the structures in the temples. This is visible in the square shape and the rectangular structure of some structures and the round shape of others. These features, with the stress at the structure centre that rises toward the top of the structure, give a sense of firmness and stability. One can have this kind of feelings when looking at the facade of Benchamabopit Temple and the famous stupa at the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun). [Source:Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand ]

Lightness is represented in the form of the curve. This curving design appears in several parts of the structures in the temples such as the arched roof and the base as well as the curve of the roof kernel' end. This design is aimed to create the feeling of lightness. Another way to create the sense of lightness is to break up a big rectangular form into tiers while maintaining the whole structure. This method is typically employed for the roof of large structures and multi-purpose buildings. Without the tiered roof, the structure would look stiff.

In addition to the curving design, craftsmen of the late Ayutthaya period make a lower layer at the front and back part of the roof. The lower layer from the main roof helps make the structure look light. Apart from knowing how to create the sense of lightness, late-Ayutthaya craftsmen were able to make an object or structure of different sizes look as if they were floating in the air, imitating the movement of angels. Some features such as the sweeping multi-tiered 54 roof and the upward curve at the roof are good examples in this case. Moreover each roof tier is imbued with religious meanings. For the construction of and 6 the craftsmen intentionally made the space between the tiers at the lower end closer to each other than the tiers at the upper part. As a result, the tiers at the lower end of the roof makes the structure look tense and heavy while the upper part of the roof looks more relaxing and liberating. The design is meant to represent the freedom from all attachments, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhist philosophy.

Such philosophy is even obvious in the design of a steep roof, which also feature dense multi tiered roof s. The top tier of the steep roof sweeping up into the sky represents the achievement of the supreme wisdom or nirvana. Basically, this is the symbol of peace, lightness, floating up high in Mahayana beliefs. Although the sweeping roof is designed to represents the concept in the Trai-bhumi scripture of the Theravada school, the Mahayana school’ s symbol of peace, lightness, and floating helps complement the structure beautifully.

The walls and pillars are also built to signify heaven. Thick at the base and thin at the top, walls and pillars lean toward the centre of the structure. It is a unique characteristic of Thai architectural design. In addition, the Maha Chompoobodi Sutra in Mahayana school refers to the story of the Lord Buddha when he used supernatural power to appear as King Jakkapat in order to teach the arrogant Tao Mahachompoo, who, after listening to the teaching, became a Buddhist saint (Arahat monk). The story inspired the creation of elaborately adorned Buddha statues such as Phra Athibuddh, Phra Wairojana Buddh, and Phra Sakkayanmuni Buddh. Such beliefs are linked to the making of both elaborately ornamented Buddha statues and Bodhisattva, especially the ones made of raw clay that is widely popular in the south. This idea was also popular in the Theravada influenced Ayutthaya Kingdom and continues to dominate the making of Buddha statues today.

Styles and Symbolism in Thai Architecture

The elements of buildings, especially architectural elements of religious buildings and palaces— roofs, doors and windows, bases and so on—have a greater importance in the Thai system of architecture than others. Temple and palace buildings are more readily perceived through their highly distinctive elements than as wholes. The elements call attention to themselves because they are stylized so far beyond their original functions. This stylization is partly for aesthetic purposes — to create a more complex, dynamic and visually harmonious architectural whole. It usually has a symbolic intent as well, with reference to Buddhism and the cosmology. It can serve magical purposes, as in the case of carved roof finials that embody guardian figures meant to ward off evil influence. [Wattana Boonjub]

The elements speak volumes about a building itself, revealing its vintage and regional identity. In contrast, the basic structures of religious architecture do not differ much no matter when and where they are built. For example, most temple halls have been built as rectangular boxes with gable roofs since the 11th century. Most present architectural elements have maintained the same characteristics since the Ayutthaya period, which became the foundation of the Rattanakosin architecture. Surviving examples of temple and palace elements typically date to the late 18th century and after. Earlier elements were lost to war, theft, decay and frequent renovations.

The style of recently built buildings throughout the central region and beyond was influenced by the architecture of royally sponsored temples in Bangkok. These royal temples feature styles and elements similar to buildings in the Grand Palace and its royal temple. Indeed, many were built by the same architects and artisans. Central-style temples started to appear in other regions in the 19th century as part of the Crown’s extension of political influence into places that had been under other countries’ sovereignty such as Isaan and the south. In this way, the royal architectural style from the central region becomes the prototype of important buildings in Thailand.

Almost all of the elements are rich in symbolism. Guardian figures are embodied in roof finials, eave brackets and courtyard statuary. Buddhist cosmology is expressed in the courtyard layout and the odd-numbered tiers of bases, roof spires and finials on courtyard wall columns. The most sacred elements, to be certain, are Buddha statues.

Applying Traditional Thai Architecture to New Buildings

Modern architecture can accommodate certain elements of traditional Thai architecture like extended eaves, which can do a good job in sun and rain protection. Pusadee Thippatat, who studied the architectural design concerning the climate and tropical architecture between 1983 and 1984, said that architects with conscience would apply the concept in their works, housing estates or public buildings. As a result, the design will give due consideration to the climate, with extended eaves to provide protection against the sun.” Pusadee Thippatat noted that a number of buildings -- houses, hotels, resorts, and religious structures -- reflected an attempt to incorporate traditional architectural elements into new works that suit the environment and the climate.

The application of traditional Thai characteristics in new works, using modern construction materials and technology Sanchai Maiman suggested that "Modern buildings should be developed from making appropriate adjustments of some familiar architectural elements such as naa chua, naa bun and panlom.' Saeng-arun Ratkasikorn said: ''Thainess in architecture does not mean only panlom, tua ngao, and fa pakon. With new materials and technology as well as the architects’ versatility, people can have a Thai building without panlom or fa pakon.'' The design with energy-saving materials and technology Sunthorn Bunyathikan and Thanit Jindawit who studies the “convenienceness” and the environment, finds that traditional Thai architecture possesses factors attributing to the ''convenienceness.'' That amounts to the Thai uniqueness in the area of technology.

Truengjai Buranasomphob said, “The most important element in Thai architecture lies in the way it responds to the topography and the climate like sunlight, wind, rain and humidity, considering there was no electricity and air conditioner in the past. Even though we now have technology, we should not forget the environment and build a structure that suits the surroundings. In doing so, we not only create the structure with unique characters but also save the energy and reduce the pollution. Air-conditioner and electricity should be limited to necessary areas like meeting rooms. We may use natural sunlight and air vents in certain areas like stairways, walkway, toilet, and others.'' Architectural innovation a: Modern architecture and cultural conservation Nowadays the influx of foreign cultures caused by globalisation has brought new ideas to architectural works but at the same time threatened to wipe out local cultures. Some experts think there is a need to resist this trend. Wimolsit Horayangoor said “Thai society has changed due to globalisation that becomes a new force that disregards wisdom roots. The force, if intensified, is a threat to local wisdom and culture. Each locality needs to safeguard its culture.

Wiwat Temiyapan (2539:43-52) suggested that buildings in each local area need to have unique characteristics. The uniqueness results not only from geographical setting, but also people's livelihood, historical background and local culture. These are key factors that help shape local architecture. Design for hotels and resorts with consideration to hierarchical status Wimolsit Horayangoor noted that in the past, traditional Thai architecture was limited to certain types of buildings. There should be more study about the traditional belief with regard to hierarchical status in order that the application of traditional architecture to new buildings will be appropriate, ensuring that the structure contains aesthetic value and suitability.

Thai Styles of Religious Architecture

The Thai style of religious architecture features whitewashed stucco walls, small windows, two or three-tiered roofs, curved pediments and naga lintels over the doors and steps. Thai Lu stupas are typically gilded and octagonal in shape and are covered with Thai Lu fabrics

Sukhothai architecture is dominated by Lotus-bud-shaped stupas, which feature a conical spire topping a square-structure resting on a three-tiered base. Bell-shaped Sri Lankan style stupas and double-tiered Srivijaya stupas are also featured prominently. Many of the buildings were constructed by artisans using mortared bricks covered in stucco. Five centuries of neglect have caused virtually all the stucco—and the bas reliefs that were carved into it—to wash and decay away. In some places you will see Buddha statues backed by chedis. What has happened at these places is the building that once housed the statue have crumbled away.

A typical Sukhothai chedi (from top to bottom) features: 1) a lotus bulb finial symbolizing nirvana at the top; 2) a conical spire and circular tiers signifying the heavens; 3) a shaft; 4) the hamika; 5) the relic chamber (the top of the dome portion of the chedi, which sits under the spire part); 6) the platform, usually built in three levels, representing the “Three Worlds”; and 7) the base.

The central prang at Wat Chai Wattanaram illustrates the basic features of Ayutthaya-style architecture. At the top of the dome-like prang are pediments, antefix decorations and circular tiers symbolizing the lower heavens. The base is topped by platforms representing the celestial regions of the Traphum. In the middle are niches with sculpted guardians or Buddha images.

The Lan Na style of northern Thailand features a roof that is very pointed and steep at the top and gradually flares and is almost horizontal at the bottom and often almost touches the ground. Locals sometimes say these roofs resemble to the wings of a hen protecting her chicks. Many wats have gold-leaf-covered doors and outer walls. Another identifying feature of the North is the ancient Lan Na architectural motif known as ruean kalae, the horn-like woodcarving crossed over the gable of the house, showing the aesthetic sense of the Northerners, as well as the skill in woodcarving inherited by modern-day craftsmen.

Peter Jon Lindberg wrote in Travel and Leisure magazine: “Temples in northern Thailand are more modest than those in Bangkok, though many boast intricately carved fretwork, mirror-glass mosaics, and gold leaf. Wood is the dominant material; gold is less common here than in the wealthier south. A hallmark of Lanna construction is the cho fa, the V-shaped finial that crowns the apex of a temple's pitched roof. Builders often left ceiling beams exposed to highlight the temple's "honest architecture." Many of the buildings at Dhara Dheviare representative of Lanna style, as are incidental details such as the terra-cotta pots of "drinking water."

Regional Styles of Architecture, See Places

Contemporary Architecture in Thailand

The best exaples of the merging of Thai and European styles in the 19th and early 20th century are Bangkok’s Vimanmek teak Mansion, the Author’s Wing of the Orietntal Hotel and the Chakri Mahaprasat next to Wat Phra Kaew near the Grand palace in Bangkok. In the 1920s and 30s Bangkok got swept up in the Art Deco movement. Examples of this include the Chalemkrung Royal Theater, the Royal Hotel and the Ratchadamnoen Boxing Stadium. As far as European influence goes buildings with foreign touches in the north tend to have British or French touches while those in the south have more Portuguese influences. Chinese-style temples and shophouse buildings can be found throughout the country. MIT graduate Rangsan Torsuwan has been the main force vehind the neo-Thai (neo-classic) movement of which the Grand Hyatt Erawan un Bangkok is the best example. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

In his “Study of Thai Traditional Architecture,” Wattana Boonjub wrote: “Thailand today is going through a lot of changes and development. We are more westernized, with development in education, social structure, economy and the physical environment. Technological development is the major factor that affects traditional Thai architecture, and has a great influence on the diversity of Thai architecture to meet with the requirement of the dwellers to support their life style and usability. There are varieties of building types: lodging, residence, shop houses, hotels, resorts and institution buildings such as government offices and educational institutes. [Source: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University]

The trend of Thai contemporary design is awaking during the past years to fulfill the taste, character and also to support the business usability. However, most of those buildings do not appropriately feature the relationship between the traditional identities and the prestige of Thai architecture. The Thai traditional architecture design is limited and mostly appears in the form of temples, palaces and houses. The design of some specific buildings such as hotels and resorts could utilize traditional architectural forms. However, not all aspects of Thai traditional building are accepted by people.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Wattana Boonjub, The Study of Thai Traditional Architecture as a Resource for Contemporary Building Design in Thailand, a Thesis for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Program of Architectural Heritage Management and Tourism (International Program), Silpakorn University; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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