A story of DIY craft in interior design responding to a south-east Asian environment
I am a student and plan on remaining so until long after I graduate. I’m also a self-declared ‘itinerant architect’, and during the past couple of years I have travelled to a number of countries as I develop my craft – and passion – of architecture. I have explored these different cultures as a way to understand the role of architecture and craft in a contemporary society – the chosen topic of my current graduate architecture thesis. My most recent foray into foreign territories found me in Bangkok as I began the fourth instalment of my two year degree, after having spent time in Europe, South America, and Canada. While in Bangkok, I developed the latest chapter of my thesis narrative which is essentially a documentation of the design and craft of a series of interventions that serve as a means of understanding my transient environment.
I began the Asian component of my thesis in Bangkok, and invariably began to compare it to Lima (Peru), both of which I had chosen to spend time in as the challenges of these foreign environments offer learning curves not readily available in the comforts of Canada or Europe. Bangkok made a great place to start for a number of reasons, including the large international airport and a relatively low cost of living, and so I looked forward to starting work in the city. I would describe Bangkok as a relatively easy city to navigate as it has some incredibly friendly people, a highly advanced public transit system, a great (and affordable) cuisine, and a shockingly low crime rate for a metropolis of its size. As I am interested in understanding culture through craft, I was eager to get started, and before too long I found myself in the district of Dusit. Situated north of the city centre and east of the Chao Phraya, Dusit has a network of canals that are reminders that a vast expanse of wetland once existed under the tonnes of concrete we now call Bangkok. The majority of the existing canals are no longer used as they feature black water that is far too polluted to be of much use, and in my exploration of these canals I caught a glimpse of an environment in which the craft involved in the informal housing typology deserved a closer look. Makeshift bridges and gates in various stages of disrepair spanned the terror of the canals below and had me cringe whenever someone dared to venture across. The building materials of choice ranged from cheap corrugated galvanised iron plates to beautiful weathered timbers, and as is the case in many of my interventions, I decided to allow the latter to inform the materiality of my ninth project.
My ‘client’, or ‘host’, depending on one’s perspective – perhaps I’ll just call him my friend, as this is now certainly the case – was one of Thailand’s top fashion designers, and had transformed his apartment into an atelier. It featured a plethora of clothes, sketches, and material samples, and I truly enjoyed the entirety of my twelve days here. Of particular interest to me were the two balconies that adjoined either end of his living space and faced north and south; they were critical in bringing in the summer breeze during the swelteringly hot days of mid-April. Although the north-facing balcony featured several plants and a quaint seating arrangement, its southern counterpart was comparatively hot, sunny, and arid to such an extent that the southern windows, which actually received very little direct sun, had been covered up, leaving the balcony largely forgotten. And so, in accordance with my thesis ambition to realise the fullest potential of designed space by means of an intervention, I decided that this balcony needed to become integrated once again into the main living space, and that I would utilise the qualities of reclaimed wood as a means for achieving this.
The ensuing design was simple (it often is), and yet infuriatingly complicated (it always is). I decided to compliment the ‘wet’ daytime northern balcony with a dry, evening-oriented southern counterpart. A key component to this would be the lighting system, and how I could use this to highlight the reclaimed wood I would soon obtain. As I had no tools aside from a hammer, drill, and a rusted antique saw that I obtained from a neighbour, I had to meticulously plan everything in advance as I would need all the pieces measured and cut prior to bringing them back to the apartment. I set out one morning armoured with a lavish amount of sunscreen, my sketchbook, and a few key phrases in Thai to help me in communicating with those who lived alongside the canals.
Although I had seen a lot of promising wood in my days of exploration, it somehow seemed to vanish as soon as I went looking for it. The amount that I did manage to come across was either rotten or critically important to the residents as they simply weren’t selling. I had assumed that wood would be relatively easy to find, but it turns out that the supply of wood in Thailand is shockingly low. The current king, who has now reigned for over sixty-five years, has driven the economic growth of Thailand through the expansion and export of agriculture. As a result however, many of the forests in the country have disappeared, and as of 1989, a complete logging ban has been in effect, although it does continue illegally in some regions. This has increased the cost of wood accordingly, and has made reclaimed wood a popular (and aesthetically pleasing) choice for many builders. Although there are several areas just outside Bangkok where one can obtain large quantities of this wood at a reduced rate, I didn’t have this luxury, and had to find something local. And as my day of material sourcing proved fruitless, I turned to local wood suppliers, where convenience begot inflated costs. It turns out that reclaimed wood is also very expensive (close to one hundred USD for a single timber that would suit my purposes), and so again, I had to make sacrifices and decisions as my options dwindled. I opted to source plywood for 80% of the project, a glulam board for the ‘highlight’ piece, and an old Venetian blind to provide the textural quality that the balcony needed. Many of the measurements had to be adjusted, and I managed to resize everything appropriately with one exception (that took one frustrating hour with the saw to remedy). Although I didn’t end up with the end result I had envisioned, the craft involved in working with unexpected challenges and assembling a kit of parts from a variety of sources yielded a product that is far more valuable to my evolving thesis narrative.
This Bangkok intervention was the ninth in a series that has driven my thesis narrative to date. Designed as a space activator, it is successful in improving the spatial quality of the associated living space while maintaining as nominal a footprint as possible. This is a perfect example of how minimal my constructions are, and yet are crafted to have as large an impact as possible. The balcony garden is but one of my interventions that achieves this, and in doing so, I impart upon the owner a greater understanding of the value of craft in a contemporary environment that is ripe with misguided attempts to improve daily life.
Gordon Hunt is a graduate student currently researching his thesis at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture in Canada. Originally from Hamilton (Canada), he has lived in New York, England, Sweden, Italy, Australia, and Peru. He is now writing from Asia, the fourth and final continent of his two-year global trek as an itinerant architect. You can follow his thesis travels at www.gordonhunt.tumblr.com.