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Suvarnabhumi » Decorating the gateway to Southeast Asia

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

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While the structural architecture of the new airport may look modern and high-tech, the interior reflects its ‘Thainess’ through art
Gateway to SOUTHEAST ASIAFor most of us the central attraction of Suvarnabhumi airport during its complex history to completion has been the controversies shrouding it. Now, as the last dust of the construction cloud settles, the general public can see for itself if the new airport’s appearance – which is of no less consequence than the functionality of the operation itself – has been a success.

Criticisms of the airport’s appearance have rated highly on the list of complaints levelled at it, specifically the appropriateness of the application of its Western architectural aesthetic within a Thai cultural context.

Suvarnabhumi airport is, after all, Thailand’s self-proclaimed gateway to Southeast Asia and bears with it this national ambition that goes beyond the airport’s perimeter and the country’s borders. Its appearance then must both manifest its aspiration to achieve international status, and be imbued with the character of Thailand and its people.

Suvarnabhumi Building StructureTo achieve the former of these two goals, the Thai government held a major competition in 1994, resulting in the selection of German firm Murphy Jahn Architecture and its winning design. A principle grievance with this choice has been the design’s failure to meet the latter tenet of suitably representing Thailand.

The design left many pondering whether to praise Suvarnabhumi airport for emulating the West, or ridicule it for imitation. Now, so close to opening, one hears vox populi news reports of tourists declaring, “It looks just like anything in North America or Europe,” leaving us to wonder if their sentiment is in endorsement or derision of the world’s newest airport.

This new doorway to Thailand is a passenger terminal complex which impresses with its sheer size – it is one of the world’s largest; a transparent megastructure created of concrete, steel and glass. Yet its detractors have claimed, not without some justification, that at this critical juncture of communication with visitors – the point of first and final impression – it fails to live up to the inimitable nature of the rest of the Kingdom.

Seeking to address this, the government convened a special committee to ensure the incorporation of local culture and heritage. At their disposal was the final fundamental aspect of the building that lay in the blue between the lines of the architect’s drawings: the interior. This committee turned to a respected and trusted expert in the field, former president of Silpakorn University and president of NT Group, Trungjai Buranasomphob, to tackle the lack of Thainess with the interior design.

“Thai traditional architecture is not suitable for large scale projects like this,” said Trungjai. “Thai-style structures have spires and so forth, but the terminal is restricted to 45 metres due to regulatory constraints. Just take a look at any building built traditionally. They are all comparatively small and the intricate character is not suitable for an extensive edifice like the terminal. Even the renowned architect MR Mitraroon Kasamesri said to me that it should be modern.”

Trungjai’s vision to create a Thai atmosphere lay in the design of the decoration.

“There was little to be done with the interior structurally; the architect, Helmut Jahn, had really already dealt with that in his design, so I tried to create a Thai atmosphere through decoration. I designed the floor pattern, glass doors with dhavaras [male angels] and gardens with sugar palms, but the key to the success of the interior decoration was to be art,” she said.

“What I saw in this place Helmut had created was a blank canvas, only not a canvas of white walls, but of glass and, most important of all, light. What I saw was the perfect opportunity to promote Thai culture, history and character to the world through one of our greatest national assets: our contemporary artists.”

To aid her in the fulfilment of this vision she invited the dean of Silpakorn’s Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art, Panya Vijinthanasarn, himself an internationally recognised neo-traditional Thai artist, to work with her in selecting the best artwork and how to display it.

“Art from former times would have been inappropriate for a 21st century high-tech complex such as this, so we sought the best of Thai talent now,” said Trungjai. “The artists had to have a pedigree or be special in some way. We chose a variety of artists that conveyed Thai expression in all its forms from Thai life and landscapes, to Buddhist philosophical notions, to abstract and graphic concepts; even the graphic artists expressed the Thai atmosphere somehow.”

The 66 selected artists range from younger mid-career artists such as 39-year-old Vorasan Supap to long established icons such as National Artists Prayad Pongdam and Pichai Nirand. Subjects and styles cover the spectrum of contemporary Thai art from Roengsak Bunyavanitkun’s portraits of women in traditional Thai costume to Ithipol Thangchalok’s diagrammatic abstractions to Alongkorn Lauwatthana’s contemporary renditions of traditional Thai supernaturalist concepts.

Features of the airport include the 12 giants from the Ramayana, each with its own name; four Thai pavilions highlighting four different styles of traditional houses – country sala, city sala, high pulpit monthob and low pulpit pragoon – all 5-by-7m in dimension; and the four mural works, three by Panya Vijinthanasarn and the fourth a collaborative piece by 50 artists from the staff at Silpa-korn. Displayed in baggage claim, each mural is 4-by-35m, made up of 1m panels.

The other artworks displayed throughout the terminal are mostly high resolution oil paint-injected reproductions, a concession to the necessity to fill the size of the space, blowing each up to 2.6m in height and varying in length according to proportion.

Exemplary of them all is Supap’s Chao Phraya: It is characteristic of the artist’s technique and style. Primary magenta prevails. Reinforcing the landscape format is the horizontal Chao Phraya with Eum-jun-style houses floating side-by-side, impressionistic reflections of realist vessels and intimate views, in the background a riverbank and buildings.

Panya Vijinthanasarn’s three murals greet those collecting their baggage, a welcoming arrival. From right to left as you enter: Suvarnabhumi Dowwadung (One Step to Heaven), Dan Suong Phi Sut (The Land of the Heaven), Ananta Mahanakorn (The Great City) and the collaborative Suvarnabhumi.

“The reason His Majesty the King named the airport Suvarnabhumi is because it is the ancient name for this part of Southeast Asia, before it was even known as Siam,” said Panya. “Suvarnabhumi was a regional centre of trade, and the idea of this airport is to make Thailand a centre for trade, tourism and communications as Suvarnabhumi used to be in the past. His Majesty was particularly insightful when he chose this name,” he added.

“I named the first mural Suvarnabhumi Dowwadung because Dowwadung is a very important concept for Thai society. When Rama I built Bangkok as the capital, he wanted to make the new city the same as Dowwadung Heaven, and he had to exhibit himself as the Indra, the name of the king of Dowwadung Heaven, which I featured in the mural,” he said.

“Dan Suong Phi Sut looks more delicate and has lots of details because it tells a story. There are many mythical figures that the Thai people respect, and it is an invitation for those heavenly beings to protect the airport and all those who pass through it. This piece has the same idea and meaning as the spirit house Thais put outside their homes,” said Panya.

“The final piece, Ananta Mahanakorn, works with the airport’s design theme of transparency to show the story of Bangkok from the past to the present. It is also a celebration of His Majesty’s accession to the throne and features the symbol of the King’s jubilee.”

The decision to showcase Thai art at this unique venue will undoubtedly lift the profile of Thai art to both Thais and foreigners alike. On a deeper level, the airport has become a visual text upon which is written an account of Thai history, thought and the modern history of Thai art, a text open for anyone to read and come to a greater appreciation, subtly transforming the viewer from traveller to patron. What remains to be seen is what the impact of such an elevated exposure will be on Thai art and artists.

Over the past century Thai art can be characterised by a process of integrating so called “Western Art” or “Modern Art” – that is what has now become international art – with Thai traditional art, which had the temple at its centre. These artworks collectively convey the story of the convergence of these two dominant streams of Thai art, seen by all in a 21st-century high-tech environment which now serves the role of taking art to the people.

The inclusion of Thai art as the counterweight to the international style of the structural design gives balance to Thailand’s presentation of itself, a middle way along the global path, synthesising Thai aesthetics within the world milieu.

The opening of Suvarnabhumi airport puts Thailand on show to a world that is watching. What they will see is more than a mere logo for Thailand, it includes Thai art befitting a temple of the era, on show for both international and Thai alike; an aesthetic, an education, an experience, and a lasting pleasure the traveller will take back home with them and one that will welcome Thais back to theirs.


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