Bangkok Project Studio: “My architecture, founded on uncertainty”

Boonserm Premthada, founder of the Thai studio, talks with Steven Holl about the intrinsic uncertainty of the materials he chooses, an aspect extremely similar to human imperfection.

This interview is published in Domus 1079, on newsstands in May 2023

In this issue, we’re exploring the haptic realm. Could this theme characterise materials and details in your work? 
My designs work with natural haptic materials and details. I express the meanings behind my work through natural and handmade materials based on human instincts. Each work transforms otherwise neglected materials into different shapes to encapsulate the atmosphere of the place or serve as a backdrop for that atmosphere. Handmade materials exude a sense of humanity that is different from machines, a different side of being human. They give us a touch that evokes feelings of rawness, imperfection and error. These are the soul of my work, centring on uncertainty through the materials and details in each project. In Kantana Film and Animation Institute (Thailand, 2011), I expressed my view on the current situation of schools in general by pointing out that humanity is an essential lesson yet often overlooked. The education system today focuses on academic advances and excellence but forgets humanity. Kantana Institute was thus built on “atmosphere” to offer users “feelings” to be converted into “emotions” and safeguarded as “memory”. The handprints and footprints left on the bricks during the manufacturing process, and the wavy and porous brick walls create a sound of silence, a dim light, a breeze that carries the fragrance from the trees, and temperatures that touch our skin. These little things make us feel alive and human. The Back of the House (Thailand, 2023) features a brick masonry technique that gives the impression of an unfinished construction. Elephant Theater (France, 2022) uses elephant dung to make round bricks arranged in a curved wall. Plant fibres from the dung present in the bricks represent rawness. Old timber beams and planks from a barn were transformed into the Rice Tower (Thailand, 2021). The timber planks were “woven” for structural and ventilation purposes, but the unexpected result is a play between light and shadow where the real and the unreal overlap.

How would you describe haptic time?
To me, haptic time is about memory that takes shape when an architecture, any architecture, keeps its visitors there long enough to absorb the atmosphere gradually. Time spent will turn feelings into an impression to be registered in the memory forever. In The Woman Restaurant (Thailand, 2021), I embodied “forgotten things” like glass blocks, unpopular triangular shapes, the lives of senior women and the disappearing local cuisine into an architecture. There is a stark contrast between wood and glass blocks. Shorea obtusa is a popular local timber used for construction, while a glass block is an industrial material. The combination of the dry process masonry and the use of a wood and steel structure as a substitute for traditional mortar strikes a balance between natural and industrial materials. Light is a natural material that creates an atmosphere when it bathes the wall structure. The large windows bring in the scent of the river in the air. This is the “village atmosphere”. The repetition of materials, shapes, details and construction techniques gives birth to “memory”. The Wine Ayutthaya (2017) is another example. The principal construction material for the entire building is plywood, representing the memory of gradually disappearing wooden houses that used to be a common sight in the neighbourhood. The use of five identical spiral staircases for going up and down each platform extends the time spent in the building. The repetitive pattern in the brick structure also allows me to play with gaps as in the Brick Observation Tower (Thailand, 2020) or with the brick walls in the Elephant Museum (Thailand, 2020). Repetition produces memories to be remembered. This is haptic time in my definition.

Handmade materials exude a sense of humanity that is different from machines, a different side of being human. They give us a touch that evokes feelings of rawness, imperfection and error.

Boonserm Premthada

How do you think about space? Could you imagine haptic space? 
I think we should not differentiate between architecture, interior, landscape and structure because everything is created simultaneously. The Cultural Courtyard at Elephant World (Thailand, 2020) is an example of a haptic space free from enclosure. In that location, drought is the most severe in the country, so I dug a reservoir and used the mud to make an amphitheatre with a huge, thick roof over it to provide shade. I planted large trees to hold the mud together and provide extra shade. The Cultural Courtyard is a combination of architecture and landscape without boundary. Another example is The Neramit (Thailand, 2022). This large overlapping roof on wheels portrays an exchange between the interior and exterior spaces. The atmosphere of a space is changing wherever and however the roof is moved. This gives me the idea that haptic space in open space is possible. The next step in creating a haptic space is to focus on the atmosphere rather than solely on the building.

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