Conserving Bangkok’s architectural heritage: Old shophouses adapting to new circumstances

By Akkani Alexander Warning, AUN intern

The Rattanakosin area or Rattanakosin Island is the old town of the city of angels. It is the historic center and one of the most culturally rich areas in all of Bangkok. Being home to the royal palace and the extensive temple complex of Wat Pho, the Rattanakosin area also accommodates shophouses that are very rich in tradition. The majority of these shophouses were built between the 1930s and 1970s, a period with a lot of dynamics and change. Hence the great diversity in style. Due to the popularity among tourists, many shophouse owners are converting their buildings into more modern shophouses with contemporary function and exterior, disregarding the importance of heritage that these buildings carry. Dr. Peeraya Boonprasong, an assistant professor at Silpakorn University (SU) in Thailand is working exactly on this topic.

Students of the faculty of architecture at the Silpakorn University have the opportunity to work tangibly on this topic by participating in the Dern Do (walk and see) program. The aim of the Dern Do program is to gain a better understanding of historic buildings in Bangkok by investigating their hidden heritage and meaning for society. A big part of this is the process of getting in touch with the owners of the buildings and interviewing them for details for the purpose of further research. This program is directly connected to the research work of Dr. Boonprasong which is called: “Mapping new function via use transformation process: A study of modern shophouses in the Rattanakosin area in Bangkok'', Dr. Peeraya Boonprasong is ensuring that shophouses in the Rattanakosin area don’t lose the values that need to be conserved historically, socially, culturally, or even spiritually. Consequently, if a shophouse gets remodelled and modified to the point that it loses its identity and significance, not only does it lose its flair, but there will also be a decline in the aspect of heritage for the whole Rattanakosin area. One of the major problems that the Modern shophouses in the Rattanakosin area are facing when going through a transformation is their use as the loss of physical identity due to remodelling results in the loss of associative meaning and activities or function.

In a case study that Dr. Boonprasong has conducted, an old block of shophouses was converted into a hostel for economic purposes, not only did the obsolete block of shophouses get a change in function, it also got a whole new exterior with an outstanding look. Unfortunately, the transformation of the facade resulted in a loss of identity and does not fit into its surroundings anymore which poses another major problem. Thus, further emphasizing the importance of the aspect of understanding the process of transformation these shophouses need to go through. According to her research, the solution to the discussed issues is by understanding the use of transformation for these shophouses. A method of understanding the process of transformation better is the 5 stage-system that consists of the following stages: First, the acknowledgement of the situation of the building and why it needs to be put under change. Second, the conceptualization where the owners or stakeholders of the building are giving a meaning and a new proposal for the building. Next detecting the adaptability of the residents that are living in the area to have a better fitting to the surroundings. Followed by the stage of adaptation where the transformation of the building itself happened and the adaptation of the residents gets recognized. Lastly, after the architectural work has been completed, the stage of identification follows where the actual lifestyle of the people, after their adaptation to the new environment, gets identified.

For instance, an old shophouse that has lost its function due to lack of contemporaneity could find its new purpose by a transformation without losing its origin and heritage. Especially with the supreme location that these shophouses have, a great benefit for economic use is given. Thus a continuation of usage of these shophouses would not only be desirable but would also bring great value to the area itself. Given the necessary knowledge and understanding, the Rattanakosin area can only benefit from this process of transformation.