Un-Designed Bangkok

Urban Inspiration Appears Where You Least Expect It

December 10, 2013

Architect, NBBJ

Several weeks ago, while attending a dinner with several colleagues from around the world, I was asked, “What inspires you?” Left with memories of a recent trip to Bangkok spinning in my head, I reached for my iPad to give those at my dinner table a quick tour of one of southeast Asia’s most dynamic urban experiences.  The images I chose were not intended to depict the traditional postcard images dedicated to isolated moments or the historic monuments of the city. On the contrary, the inspiration I spoke of was found in the experiences that existed in the “gaps” of the traditional city structure — in the places and spaces where serendipity governed and the sights, sounds and smells of urban life ruled.

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I am typically inspired by great urban experiences that are created by everyday people looking to live, work, play, love, pray, shop and eventually die in the world’s most extreme urban conditions. The modern-day cities of Asia support extreme urbanism that propels forward at a thrilling and sometime disorienting pace. Social, political, economic and infrastructural systems routinely collide, creating unplanned urban “gaps” and events that can be simultaneously stirring and sobering, exciting and mundane.

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I also believe, contrary to many architects, that urban inspiration resides outside of the architectural and engineering marvels of tunnels, bridges and high-rise buildings. I believe that the most substantive urban inspiration exists in the opportunities created by the vitality of the left-over, marginal and un-designed spaces of the city. Existing in spite of the interventions we create, urban life like that found in Bangkok continuously finds a way to adapt over time, enabling the continuous existence of the city’s residents.

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During my time living in Asia, I have had the fortune to visit Bangkok several times. During previous trips my engagement with the city was limited to tourist destinations, family fun and sporting events. While these trips were entertaining and very enjoyable, they did not provide an inspiration that altered my way of seeing a better city. These previous experiences had a certain distance between me and the Bangkok in which most of its residents live.

To give an example of the “real” Bangkok, it is important to describe an encounter I had with a young girl who was helping her mother sell vegetables and dried fish. Set in a narrow alley off the busy streets, the family appeared to live, work and sometimes play in a tight space, assembled as a live/work space and clearly transformed from years of mere survival. Approaching me with great enthusiasm for her family’s products, yelling “Hey, mister! Hey, mister!” the young girl embodied the essence of city life — active, energetic and commercially driven, all the while centering her aspirations on family and the building of a better life. In her eyes city life is not defined by the modern interventions of high-rise office buildings and mega-malls. On the contrary, urban life for her is about the street, the alley, the urban plaza and all the other in-between spaces where serendipity governs experience, where the sights, sounds and smells of urban life collide to create daily life. This is her real Bangkok.

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From this encounter, I understood we must embrace the sometimes rough and crude reality of urbanism. We must embrace the urban intelligence of this young girl. If we can do this, it is easy to see that our obligation as architects, designers and urbanists is to build an urban future that is healthy and safe, that can fulfill the aspirations of the young girl, her family and the millions of urban dwellers like them.

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As an architect, and specifically an architect living and working in Asia, I have the exciting opportunity — and the accompanying responsibility — to have an extreme influence on the evolution of some of the world’s most dynamic urban environments. However, I believe that we all must understand that the interventions that we create are not the answers to all the questions of great city life. On the contrary, urban creation — whether architecture, planning, landscape or urban design — is nothing more than a framework or a chassis from which urban life consistently evolves, changes, morphs and transforms. That said, we also cannot ignore the positive impact designers can have if we take the time to learn from what we experience while walking through the streets, interacting with the people and observing the mundane responsibilities of life. By embracing the experiences of the city, not just its physical grandeur, we can alter our ability to see the city in all its layered complexity and in turn design a better urban future.

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In preparing these thoughts, I was reminded of the movie Hangover 2, when a character goes missing and a tattoo artist states, “Bangkok has him now. She’s not giving him back!” Inspired by a series of great urban experiences, Bangkok reignited my fascination for extreme urbanism and the splendor found in daily urban life. Bangkok has me now. She’s not giving me back!

Headline photo courtesy of Wikipedia / all others courtesy Eric Phillips

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