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Honouring the old with the new

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A digital exhibition of the magnificent architecture that once formed Wang Na or the Front Palace goes on display in Bangkok

WHEN THE energetic Khun Sirikitiya “Mai” Jensen, the youngest daughter of Princess Ubolratana, started work with the Office of Architecture of Thailand’s Fine Arts Department, she quickly became aware of the mountains of historical documents about Wang Na or the Front Palace, the handsome series of buildings that served as the residences for five viceroys and one second king during the reigns of Kings Rama I to V.
Wanting to connect the past and the present, Sirikitiya came up with the idea of assimilating and reinterpreting the historical and textual collection into an understandable visual language that would be easily accessible to the public, particularly the young generation. The first phase of her project “The Architectural Ensemble of Wang Na” is now on show at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre until June 27.

Honouring the old with the new

The historical bodies of the Front Palace are reinterpreted into visual language for the digitally engaging exhibition “The Architectural Ensemble of Wang Na”.

“Five years ago, the Fine Arts Department started its programme of renovations of Wang Na and I found that there was tons of information. I want to recall the past and recreate the old feelings but without force-feeding the information. Accessibility, connectivity and continuity are key words of our exhibition. With the new technology, we can integrate layers of historical contexts between the old and the modern day to create shared experiences,” says Sirikitiya who serves as the project director.

Honouring the old with the new

Khun Sirikitiya Jensen, the project director

The exhibition’s knowledge bodies are based on “The Study of the Front Palace (Wang Na): A Digital Revitalisation of the Palace’s Past”, a project led by the Office of Architecture. The exhibition design is supported by the Foundation of Mrigadayavan Palace led by its curator Chitti Kasemkitvatana. Google maps, 3D models, interactive maps and moving images on double screens are integrated to recall the past.
The Front Palace was constructed in 1782, about the same time the Grand Palace was built and was one of the very first structures to be erected at the beginning of the Rattanakosin Era. The site encompasses the land now occupied by Thammasat University, the National Museum Bangkok, the National Theatre, the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute and the northern part of Sanam Luang.

Honouring the old with the new

Moving images of the Front Palace ensemble are layered on two screens to link past and present.

The palace was the residence of the viceroy, who held the title Krom Phra Rajawang Bovorn Sathan Mongkol (literally Lord of the Front Palace) and was considered the heir apparent of Siam from 1782 to 1885. The title was established by King Rama I when he appointed his younger brother Maha Surasinghanat as the first viceroy of Siam. Prince Itsarasunthorn, who served as the second viceroy between 1806 and 1809, would later become King Rama II. 
“The exhibition focuses mainly on the architectural ensemble of the Front Palace during the reigns of Kings Rama IV and V as many documents on and about the site during that period have been found. They include old photographs of various architectural units, notably the ones that are no longer in existence, maps and journals especially those of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s “Tamnan Wang Na” (The Chronicle of the Front Palace),” explains curator Chitti.

Honouring the old with the new

The exhibition also boasts an interactive map displaying the whole of Rattanakosin Island with the territory of the Front Palace marked in red. Visitors can use their hand to track the map to see the location and the architecture of two buildings that have since been dismantled, namely Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion and Phlup Phla Soong (High Pavilion), as well as the still existing Issaravinitchai Throne Hall.
“The architectural structure employed a hierarchy,” explains Anandha Chuchoti, the director of Fine Arts Department. “The prasat-style (tier-spire roof) buildings and the exquisite decoration with gold and glass mosaic were reserved only for the kingship. The buildings of the Front Palace were thus generally built with two-tiered gable roofs covered with unglazed terra-cotta tiles. Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion was the only building in the Front Palace that was built with a five-tiered spire roof.”

Honouring the old with the new

Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion was the only building in the Front Palace to be constructed with a prasat-style roof. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Thailand)

King Rama IV constructed this building for his younger brother King Pinklao, who was dubbed the second King of Siam, as a symbol of equal honour to himself. Due to its wooden structure, the pavilion fell into disrepair over the years and all that remains today is the concrete platform used to climb on elephant back, which is now located in front of Buddhaisawan Throne Hall in the National Museum Bangkok’s compound.

Honouring the old with the new

The touch screen provides brief information and old picture of the now-demolished Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion.

The touch screen allows visitors to see the integrated images of the architectural drafting of Kotchakam Pawet Pavilion and its old photo. The pavilion was designed in a style similar to Aphorn Phimok Prasat in the Grand Palace, an image of which is placed adjacent for comparison. 
Another demolished building translated into the digital map is Phlup Phla Soong, which King Rama IV ordered to be built in honour of King Pinklao. It was located at the palace’s eastern wall, and presently forms the northern edge of Sanam Luang.

Honouring the old with the new

A rare photo shows the Phlup Phla Soong (High Pavilion) located at the Front Palace’s eastern wall. Its former site is now the northern part of Sanam Luang. (Courtesy of the Architectural Ensemble of Wang Na exhibition)

“We found a rare picture of Phlup Phla Soong a few years ago,” says Sirikitiya. “In addition to the digital architectural structure of Phlup Phla Soong, the Office of Architecture has also built a 3D model so visitors can admire all its aspects.”
The moving images of the present-day premises of the National Museum Bangkok, Thammasat University and Sanam Luang as well as an up-to-date Google map of Rattanakosin Island are layered on double screens alongside the architectural drafting and old photos of the Front Palace’s ensemble to give viewers a visual perspective of their former locations.

Honouring the old with the new

The 3D model of Phlup Phla Soong (High Pavilion) by the Office of Architecture, Fine Arts Department.

There is also a reading room zone with glass cabinets displaying old books, journals, documents and rare photos, which served as references for the exhibition’s organiser. 
“The exhibition has only a little text as we want to recall old memories of the historical site and transmit its heritage to the contemporary platform,” says Sirikitiya. “Anyone who is interested can learn more from the information, rare pictures and old maps we gathered for the exhibition, which will be uploaded to our website (wangnaproject.space) and open for consultation in August. Our media partner The Standard (thestandrad.co) will also run a series on different aspects of the Front Palace.”

Honouring the old with the new

The Reading Room zone displays documents and photographs that serve as references to the exhibition.

The title of the Front Palace was replaced by that of Crown Prince following the death of viceroy Vichaichan in 1886 in the reign of King Rama V. Since then, the Front Palace area has been used in part as the Royal Museum (1893-1926) and the Royal Guards’ Camp (1893-1926) while its outer court was demolished to give more space to Sanam Luang.
The surviving structures of the Front Palace that can still be seen today are mainly located within the site of the National Museum Bangkok and include the Siwamokkhaphiman, Issaravinitchai, Buddhaisawan and Issaresrajanusorn Throne Halls as well as Moo Phra Wiman – the former residential complex of the viceroys. Another existing building is Wat Bovornsatharnsuthavart – known as Wat Phra Kaew of Wang Na – that was formerly situated behind the palace but is now in the compound of Bunditpatanasilpa Institute.

Honouring the old with the new

Some references and copies of old maps are on display.

The Fine Arts Department has been working on the renovation of the buildings making up the National Museum Bangkok since 2014. The first fully renovated hall in the complex, Siwamokkhaphiman, opened two years ago with an entirely revamped interior, greatly improved lighting, and shorn of its walls and other obstacles to exploration. Four refurbished halls in Moo Phra Wiman opened early this year. Work is continuing on the other 12 halls and the aim is to complete the project within the next two years.
To see the actual sites, interested persons can join a walking tour “Walking with the Cloud: The Hidden Palace” next Sunday (June 24), starting at 9am. The tour, which will led by celebrated historian Santi Leksukhum and Sirikitiya herself, will start at Thammasat University and explore many sites that were formerly in the compound of the Front Palace. To reserve, go to readthecloud.co.
“The complete version of the exhibition will return home for display at Issaravinitchai Throne Hall of the National Museum Bangkok in December,” says Sirikitiya.

A PALACE EXPLORED
“The Architectural Ensemble of Wang Na” exhibition continues until June 27 at the studio on the fourth floor of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.
The centre is located at Pathumwan Intersection, opposite MBK mall |(BTS: National Stadium).
It’s open daily except Monday from 10am to 9pm.
Call (02) 214 6630-8 or visit www.Bacc.or.th.

Published : June 15, 2018

By : Khetsirin Pholdhampalit The Sunday Nation