Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Heritage destroyed: why the ASA is trying to raise consciousness of preserving our history

Dec 28. 2019
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By Kitchana Lersakvanitchakul
Special to The Nation

In recent years, Bangkok has been busy demolishing its historic buildings with the sad result that some of them are gone for good, taking them with their historical and cultural heritage.

Take for example, the British Embassy in Ploenchit, which was knocked down after being sold Bt18.7 billion to a joint-venture consortium of Hongkong Land, a member of the Jardine Matheson Group, and Central Group. 

The colonial-era embassy was built in 1922 in the reign of King Rama VI and considered one of the prime properties in the Wireless Road area.

Mahakan Fort, which was built in 1783 to protect the new capital from potential invasions and home to nearly 300 people who shared walls and pride in their history, has been turned into a public park. 

Tourists may know it as Bangkok’s “living heritage museum” due to each home putting up signs, posters, and newspaper articles on their doors, telling their stories.

The planned 14-kilometre-long Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade will be a major risk to the area’s environment, the river's ecology, history and culture, and to water transport. 

The construction of a concrete walkway out into the river would destroy its history and status as a cultural symbol of the country.

The Association of Siamese Architects under royal patronage (ASA) is bringing up the demolition of the British Embassy, the eviction of Mahakan Fort Community, and the construction of the promenade extension above the river – the most discussed issues on Facebook – in its “10 Most Controversial Topics” section of the 34th edition of “Architect ‘20”, the largest building technology exposition in Asean, which will be held at Challenger Halls 1-3, Impact Arena, Exhibition and Convention Centre, Muang Thong Thani, from April 28 to May 3.

“We will catch up with the 10 hot heritage issues on social media these days,” says Dr Vasu Poshyanandana, the chairperson of the Architect ’20 committee, during the recent press conference at Nai Lert Park Heritage Home.

Dr Vasu Poshyanandana

“We will help people to better understand heritage preservation and give them good and successful examples, so that they have a new perspective to find the wayout. When you are back home, you look for your heritage and think how you will keep up it and make it useful. We would like everyone to think that the heritage conservation is really useful for us. It isn’t just about maintaining old buildings.”

“Refocus Heritage” is the theme of this edition. It has been chosen to bring back the architectural heritage from the past, as well as the conservation and maintenance of heritage sites for the next generations.

Today, the conservation of architecture is the new mission of the association.

“This theme aims to raise public awareness and understanding on the concept of ‘heritage’ across several dimensions. Many might suppose that conservation and maintenance of heritage sites is limited to government officers or conservators, and therefore is not relevant to them. However, it is present in everyday life and concerns everyone regardless of the jobs and roles that we hold. The owner of an old house in need of a maintenance, for example, will need information on the right materials and construction to use, as well as the costs that will be incurred. Similarly, the renovation of an old building to create new business opportunity, can generate value added for the community and society, as we can see from the several creative communities that have risen from old quarters throughout the country,” says Dr Vasu.

“It depends on how we think of that word, heritage. I think that some people have the negative thinking of two Thai words, ‘boran’ (ancient) and ‘kao’ (old). If the ancient place is very valuable, we think that it is a far cry from our life and is the national treasure, which will be under the responsibility of the Fine Arts Department. We feel afraid of doing anything to that ancient place and end up by demolishing it. So, we would like everyone to forget those two words and look at heritage instead. The heritage is property that is passed down to an heir, and we will pass it on the next generation. But, how will make these heritages sustainable and useful? That is what we need to communicate,” he comments.

Architect ’20 will be spread over 75,000 square metres and divided into two sections. 

The first section houses exhibitions from more than 850 international exhibitors, while the other will be home to thematic exhibitions by ASA covering 5,000 square metres. The latter is constructed with environment-friendly materials and adopts a contemporary design, representing the forms of the past.

Visitors will enjoy different exhibitions, such as “Workmanship and Heritage Exhibition” where rare traditional materials and technology in construction are displayed. 

Curious architectural knowledge from the past centuries is also on show in this section. The film screenings section will show 63 heritage short films from 63 interviewees on the topic of heritage site conservation. The screenings will take place in a theatre made from bamboo – a local savoir-faire of the past.

“Heritage Crisis on Online Platform Exhibition” deals with the hot topics on social media including the dismantling of heritage sites, uninformed maintenance or renovation of temples. It aims to raise awareness of and invite the public to question the current heritage events, as well as provide relevant professional information.

“We will create a walking route to lead visitors more easily into several stories and information covering such topics as ‘What is the definition of ‘Refocus Heritage’?’, ‘What does Thai society think about the heritage?’and ‘How will we maintain and manage those heritages?,” says Dr Vasu.

The annual “Architecture Competition” for this event will be raised a level to the National Architecture Competition on the theme 

“Everyday Heritage”. The organisers aim to include every sector of the public, especially school students with creative ideas, and for the competition to serve as a platform for further development.

Other showcases at the event include “2020 ASA Award Exhibition”, where the works of ASA-award recipients are displayed; “Art and Architectural Conservation Award Exhibition”, whose criteria this year has been developed to align with the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards, and “Heritage in Danger Exhibition”, where local architecture students are given space to exhibit their ideas on the recovery and maintenance of existing heritage buildings in areas neighboring their schools.

Other activities include ASA Clinic (Mobaan ASA), where architects, engineers and other professionals are available for advice and information on design and construction; ASA Place, an activity area for the public, where talks and workshops are available in rotation throughout the 6 days of the event.

Demonstrations on the latest technology for conservation including 3-D object scan are also available.

Visitors, especially architects, can join ASA Forum for talks on the newest happenings in the international architecture scene. ASA Club returns as always for ASA members to gather and mingle. ASA shop and ASA Book Club are also back with the newest titles from all over the world and book launches.

The theme “Refocus Heritage” invites the public to look back on the heritage, as well as sharpen their vision and awareness on the topic. The theme also deals with the flexibility of the coexistence between society and the heritage sites, in order to preserve the values of the old buildings and the vivacity of their contemporary counterparts. 

The Expo aims to widen the public’s focus on architecture and lend dimensions to the vision of visitors of various age and background, encouraging them to re-consider their ownership of the heritage, and their contribution in the conservation and legacy of these valuables heritage of the future.

“The alertness of the heritage conservation in Thailand is still following behind other countries in Asia. The more we have our heritage buildings, the more they are destroyed,” concludes Dr Vasu.

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