An Itinerant Architect in Bangkok


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

Does the column have to be square?

‘Does the column have to be square?’ [1]
A Review by Nina Shen-Poblete on The Second International Conference on Flexible Formwork in Bath (27-29th June, 2012)

Anne-Mette Manelius: Detail

Anne-Mette Manelius: Detail

Introduction & brief overview:

Flexible formwork is a relatively young technique of casting concrete. The earliest patents appeared at the very end of the 19th century, and the first decades of the 20th century. With the exception of James Waller, who in the mid 1950s enjoyed commercial success with fabric formwork, most practices remained privately held techniques [2]. Amongst pioneers such as Miguel Fisac and Kenzo Unno, Mark West is considered one of the ‘father figures’ of the last resurgence of development in flexible formwork, which began in the mid 1980s. And since then, and perhaps as a consequence of, research interests sprouted spontaneously and globally, establishing organisations such as ISOFF, which stands for International Society of Fabric Forming.

The conference in Bath is the second organised event, engaging a confluence of just under a hundred delegates from various disciplines, ranging from architects, researchers, contractors, artists, engineers, to textile specialists. The three-day proceedings were hosted by the department of Architecture & Civil Engineering on the campus of Bath University, and an intensive series of theoretical presentations were sandwiched between practical workshops and social events. The academic papers were delivered in a tight succession but in a genuinely convivial atmosphere, and lively discussions often spilled out into the interval space. A great proportion of the participants were also presenters, and despite the fact that one could regularly rub shoulders with eminent professors and experts, I was taken by the lucidity and openness in their manners of speech, their indisputable intellect and sincerity when engaged in conversations.

To summarise such widely divergent interpretations and techniques of flexible formwork from the conference proves almost an impossible task – one that has to be attempted and contested, nevertheless. Speaking in a very broad sense, the speakers roughly divide into five difference categories.

The first group approaches fabric formwork through material theory and practice. They are theorists / practitioners who sought to find formal expression of concrete through a process – set up to make visible the dynamic interactions between the structural behaviours of fabric, and the chemical forces of concrete when setting – Mark West, Remo Pedreschi, Walter Jack Studios, Alan Chandler, Katie Lloyd Thomas and Anne-Mette Manelius. They share another common ground, that is of their preference to low tech, craft techniques in concrete casting, making the technology more widely available to low capital building cultures and a design methodology relying partly on intuition.

The second group of speakers focused on formwork’s flexibility in the process of form taking and de-forming, with this end they developed alternative materials other than fabrics. They are industrially orientated and market driven researchers who aim at finding the correct balance between the efficiency of formwork fabrication, re-usability and control. Their techniques are innovative, deploying technologies ranging from cad controlled tools to domestic utensils: point-controlled non-porous membrane; wax; pneumatic shell structures with segmented flat sheets; vaccumatics (a vaccumed sac filled with expanded clay); flexible grid shells; flexible rods and ice sheets, so on and so forth.

The work of Heinz Isler stands in a category of its own. Isler was a Swiss engineer who developed sophisticated shell structures and precise sets of construction procedures at the time when digital technologies were unavailable. He experimented with various techniques: mount dug from a ground, wet hessian draped over reinforced mesh, latex rubber, until finally settling on a way of using timber lathes supported by an elaborate structure of timber falsework. The lecture was delivered by Professor John Chilton, who is currently authoring a larger and more comprehensive book on Isler.

Amongst others there were also contractors who developed a specialism in using fabric formwork, and were able to deliver difficult project on tight budgets exploiting the economy of fabric formwork system and its adaptability in difficult site conditions.

The last category comprises of experts who specialises in computer modelling and analytical programmes, and highly complex systems of calculation.

The ideas presented by the first group relate most closely to the set of arguments developed in my own dissertation on rigid formwork, thus I have expanded these lecture notes into an extended review.

Critical Review of Group 1

Conditions of Fabric Formwork

Mark West: Hanil Visitor Centre Guest House

Mark West: Hanil Visitor Centre Guest House

Mark West relates that learning how to use fabric formwork relies on building an intuition of what the fabric can and cannot do – the flexibility of the material and how it offers form [3]. ‘Buckling is a natural phenomenon associated with compression’ [4], and West experimented with the structural possibilities of the ‘pull buckle’ and the ‘push buckle’ [5]. Reflecting on the process, West attempted to distinguish the structural from the decorative, and this is never straightforward. In concrete casting the fabric performs two structural functions – first it rigidizes in tension providing supports to the wet concrete mix as it sets, and second it gives concrete a formal structure which can potentially optimise its strength. The example Mark gives is the creation of a scissor column by shifting the angle of one side of the formwork, constructed out of a piece of fabric hung between two flat sheets of timber. This results in a hydraulic torsion along the vertical axis of the column [6].

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

Mark West: Woman's Hospital Manitoba

West hints at a kind of unknown intelligence, or a ‘wildness’ present in material nature – ‘in a material world, it does its own thing’ [7], which could be articulated through careful design. ‘ The push and pull between looseness & restraint, thus become an intellectual problem that challenges the designer’ [8]. The balancing between exerting control and letting go of it, takes place both in the planning and at the stage of execution. Professor Remo Pedreschi says that ‘ if the process of design requires a particular level of precision and repetition, it can be controlled relying on technologies such as laser cutting, in order to set parameters for the un-controllable aspects’[9]. More so than rigid formwork, the stage of fabric formwork design and manipulation extends beyond the drawing board to the site, where pre-anticipation gives way to a more intuitive, in-situ response. Unlike rigid formwork, where the design of the form and formwork making are often separated practices, the use of fabric formwork demands a greater understanding of the casting process from the designer. In many cases the designer is also the maker, who engages directly with the fabric, the restraining devices and concrete to complete the formal design. This open-ended process offers huge potentials in generating forms with geometrical complexity in their geometry previously unpredicted.

In my view, fabric formwork forces us to conceive of concrete, its mould, and the set of techniques for using it as a system. Prior to establishing this system, the individual components such as the concrete and fabric have reached a level of sophistication in their individual domain: the late development of concrete has been a gradual refinement of the mix that ends in self-compacting concrete and spraycrete; and materials such as geotextiles, latex rubber, pvc, etc. have been widely used commercial products. However, these knowledges exist as separate entities ‘working without knowing each other’ [10]. As such the initial appropriation of materials and techniques in fabric forming can be described as the ‘abstract stage’ [11], using the theory of the French philosopher Gilbert Simondon, where the placing together of the separate parts is hesitant at the beginning and create the zones of imperfection that provide the conditions for innovation and technical evolution [12]. The controlling techniques are gradually refined and specialised materials are further developed to that effect. The process of individuation of both the techniques and the material weaves in many different types of knowledges, and such was demonstrated by Professor Pedreschi in one of his student’s attempt at casting a complete spiral staircase using fabric formwork. The design of the process is extremely complex, as each component of the staircase – the treads, the risers, the balustrades and structural supports requires a different fabric cutting and sewing technique, as well as a different pouring position. Nevertheless the process integrates craft skills and digital technology, and human beings remain the tool bearer.

Remo Pedreschi: Disruptive Technologies 02

Remo Pedreschi: Disruptive Technologies 02

A Disruptive Technology, A Subversive Practice

Fabric formwork as a technical innovation has many advantages over traditional construction methods. According to Pedreschi, these attributes include 1. a fabrication method that can exploit digital tools, and not always relying upon skilled labour such as carpentry to achieve precision and control; 2. the optimisation of formwork re-use which results in reduced material cost; 3. the flexibility of form. These qualities make fabric formwork a ‘disruptive technology’ [13] that does not always bode well in the construction market. A disruptive technology, describes Pedreschi, is often cheaper, smaller or more convenient than those established technologies that dominate the market.’ [14]

One of the main difficulties with fabric formwork, is the transfer of knowledge – what language would be most appropriate for its documentation and specification? Fabric formwork is a technique, a series of actions choreographed by intuition and craft knowledge, and as Pedreschi puts it, ‘it is a piece of sticky information that does not translate. How do you specify that to the contractor?’ Lloyd Thomas provided the example of annotated sketches in the casting of Wall One for the Chelsea Flower Show, produced by Pedreschi and Chandler with their students. Manelius rigorously categorised the experiments according to the typologies of the elements (beam / slab / wall / shell / column / arch / other) and then the different types of formwork principles including the framing (rigid back / frame) and the role of textiles (hung / embraced/ etc). Whilst the former uses a direct visual language communicable to both the architects and the makers, the latter begins to develop a system of codification. Both methods however, face difficulties in its acceptance when the technique is inserted into the rigid codes of existing building practices and conventions. Furthermore, most architectural practice and construction process cannot accommodate the open-endedness in practices such as fabric formwork, as it requires greater flexibility from the client, architect and contractor than conventional procurement routes. Experimentation and knowledge production in fabric formwork find fertile ground in an educational environment as a process lead approach to design and research, where the students become lead users and inventors of formwork practice.

Fabric formwork leaves on the concrete surface an extremely expressive language, which sometimes can become problematic in a public context. West uses the anecdote of the canopy he designed for the Women’s Hospital in Manitoba, where the form of the columns and the fabric’s ‘buckling’ effect accidentally generated an eroticism that was considered offensive and irrepressible by any subsequent remedial actions. At the end, parts of the columns had to be buried – edited out, which was in West’s opinion a more powerful political and aesthetic/poetic gesture.

Does the column have to be square?

Fabric formwork experiments are radical in ways in which they directly challenge and probe the accepted codes of practices and aesthetics. The effects of which allow fabric formwork to be deployed under specific context to push the boundaries of social etiquettes. The tensions they set up bring to light the fact that building forms and architectural language are constricted and codified by established procedures and knowledge, and raise questions that would otherwise be muted by rigid formwork.


[1] Pedreschi, Remo. ‘Smart Processes, fabric formwork as a disruptive technology’, 2nd International Conference on Flexible Formwork, Bath, 27-29th June 2012.
[2] West, Mark. ‘How Flexible’, Ibid.
[3] – [8] Ibid.
[9] Pedreschi. Ibid.
[10] Simondon, Gilbert. ‘I: Abstract Technical Object and Concrete Technical Object,’ Chapter One, The Genesis of Technical Objects. On the [11] Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Paris 1958, trans. by Niniam Mellamphy (1980) p. 18
[11] Simondon, ‘II: Conditions of Technical Evolution’, Ibid. p.22
[12] Ibid.
[13] – [15] Pedreschi.

Nina Shen-Poblete studied at the Glasgow School of Art and furthered her architectural education at the University of Westminster, where she was awarded a first class masters degree in 2012. Her dissertation aims to establish a cultural history of concrete formwork, and parallel to becoming an architect she is also pursuing a career in researching, writing & teaching.

Journal of Modern Craft 4.2



The second issue of 2011 casts us back to craft futures of the past.


Editorial introduction

Corporate Craft: Constructing the Empire State Building by Ezra Shales

Coal-powered Craft: A Past for the Future by Ele Carpenter

Crafting a New Age: A. R. Orage and the Politics of Craft by Adam Trexler

Primary Text

Politics for Craftsmen by A. R. Orage

Statement of Practice

Technology and Hand Skill in Craft and Industry by Robin Wood (pdf)

Exhibition Reviews

  • Ballets Russes: The Art of Costume Reviewed by Sally Gray
  • Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art Reviewed by Dana E. Byrd
  • Circuit Céramique aux Arts Décoratifs: La Scène Française Contemporaine Reviewed by Alison Britton

Book Reviews

  • Cone Ten Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand, 1945–1980 Reviewed by Grace Cochrane
  • Cultural Commodities in Japanese Rural Revitalization: Tsugaru Nuri Lacquerware and Tsugaru Shamisen Reviewed by Sarah Teasley