High-End Hip Hotels Fuel Design Innovation in Thailand

Alila Cha-AmCHA-AM, Thailand ~ Duangrit Bunnag scans the murky white high-rises that sketch Bangkok’s haphazard skyline, despairing of the drab view from his architecture firm’s clean and minimalist office.

“The question I am always asked is which building do you like? And then I look around, and even though I live on the 28th floor, I look around and cannot find one building that I like. It is a very unfortunate thing,” he says.

While other Asian metropolises such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Beijing all boast cutting-edge new buildings recognizable around the world, one would be pushed to name a famous modern building in Bangkok.

Duangrit blames this on what he calls the “old guard” of Thailand’s architecture scene: inward looking, outdated, afraid to try anything new and kowtowing to unimaginative clients.

“There are many architects that are talented but again they have to fight a long way with the old guard,” he said. “So it’s a long fight, and it’s a heavy fight for them. Maybe another 10 or 20 years you will see something good come up.”

So in the meantime, the modish darling of the industry is turning his attention to Thailand’s beaches, where his visions of distressed concrete and stone structures melding into their surroundings are being realised with the help of young and daring Thai and foreign developers.

One of his recently completed projects is the on a beach south of Bangkok and near the resort town of Hua Hin.

Catering mostly to Asia’s hip young middle class, the resort boasts geometric blocks of rooms, boxy villas, large open courtyards and dazzling marble surfaces.

A wall of thousands of loose stones lines a reflecting pool, beneath which a spa is bathed in distorted light and the shadows of the rippling water.

Inside, rough concrete walls contrast with Portuguese sandstone.

“There is a growing trend to attract people with architecture,” says general manager Urs Aebi. “Thailand has been renowned for good service and nice beaches forever. Now you have some quite funky places.”

Aebi says he thought it was quite a leap of faith for the developers to choose Duangrit, but adds that slowly Thailand is turning away from bland traditional Thai-style resorts and embracing the designer hotel.

“The young and well-educated Thais, having studied overseas, spent a few years abroad, travelled, they are coming back and they dare to do that,” he says.

Boonthida Amatyakul, 30, is the managing director of Dune in Hua Hin, a sliver of a hotel with five rooms behind a grey, industrial-style exterior.

It is Latin American salsa beats, not Thai traditional music, that pump out on the wooden restaurant deck with a glimmering pool lined with metallic tiles.

“My inspiration is from Mexico. I went to Playa del Carmen and they had small hotels with different styles,” she says.

Since Dune opened in December 2006, Boonthida has seen many more design resorts spring up.

Another that is winning plaudits is The Library on Samui island, where cool minimalist white and glass buildings and playful sculptures have attracted the attention of magazines including Wallpaper, Elle Decor and Harper’s Bazaar.

Brian Mertens, co-author of “Architecture of Thailand: A Guide to Traditional and Contemporary Forms,” says, however, that Thailand needs more than a boom in chic tourist resorts to fuel a strong architectural culture.

“Thailand has great potential, but architects here want to see a boost in enlightened public and private sector patronage of new construction, together with conservation of heritage up through the 1970s,” he says.

Duangrit, who studied in Thailand and has spent most of his working life here, says a government ban on non-Thais designing buildings in the kingdom means there is a lack of creative exchange.

He designs his buildings – in particular a new chain called X2 – to mimic the traditional Thai house by making use of the relationship between the outside and inside spaces and air flow.

He despairs of the overdone pseudo-Thai villas which seem to spring up on every stretch of available sand.

“The Thai culture has been used and misused. Not for the sake of the culture, but for the sake of the marketing. It becomes like a tourist Disneyland,” he says.

Mertens agrees that many modern buildings have tried unsuccessfully to mimic the elements of the past.

But he says attitudes to architecture will change as a younger generation more open to new ideas asserts itself.

“Perhaps 50 of the leading 500 Thai corporations and families are commissioning significant architecture. But the numbers will rise as the generation now in their 30s and 40s takes charge,” he says.

And while not expecting a sea change any time soon, Duangrit also remains hopeful.

“I am always optimistic for the future, pessimistic for the present.”

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