Building in Ferro-concrete, Building in Thailand (1932 to 1951)
Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, USA
This paper examines the circulation of materials, labor, and capital in the history of 20th-century Thai ferro-concrete architecture to reveal the conjoined but heterogeneous global genealogy of the modern built environment. Shifts in ideology, labor development, and material production in Thailand during this period were tied to but did not mimic those in Europe. Modernism and historicism as well as political concepts like democracy, fascism, and nationalism developed in Thailand in a more complex way than can be gleaned by seeing such ideals as perfect translations of Western values and aesthetics.
In the early 20th century, the production of steel and concrete became projects of the Siamese crown at the same time as the birth of the architectural profession and the consolidation of labor divisions in the building trades. Architects first used concrete to portray the modern virtues of a Siamese monarchy which equated itself with European imperial powers. After the overthrow of absolutism in 1932, the same architects seized on the material characteristics of concrete to purge Thai architecture of its royalist symbolism. Pared-down classical forms that were popular in fascist Italy and Germany were used by Thai architects to celebrate both class equality and racial purity. During the Cold War, these same sites were part of a campaign to instill a new aestheticized sense of anti-Communist politics and modernization in the Thai public.
Drawing on Thai- and Chinese-language archival documents and sites built in Thailand between 1932 and 1951, this paper challenges narratives of diffusion and mimesis which have structured canonical histories. By de-centering the conceptualization of the modern and its origins in “the West,” this paper offers a critical account of the development of architecture as a dialogue between local intentions and a global network of aesthetics, labor, materials, and capital.