The innocence of architects and the scarcity of professionalism
Pressure is growing in Thailand for significant reforms that answer the real needs of society. Such reforms would create a higher quality of life and environmental sustainability. But a significant obstacle to this lies in the lack of professionalism in architecture.
Over the past 80 years, architects have witnessed a transformation of the urban landscape from horizontal cityscapes to vertical metropolises. This agglomeration of built environment reflects the increased complexity of today’s social, economic and technological systems. However, a “triple scarcity” of professional shortcomings is now undermining professional practice – namely its narrow individualistic vision, weak intellectual foundations, and a resulting professional and economic stagnation. These problems are in fact global issues. Nevertheless, in recent decades many developed countries have alleviated some of these negative implications through better knowledge-based practice, together with a greater sense of social responsibility.
Architects in general have been criticised for their self-centred character. More often than not, they are reluctant to modify designs in line with clients’ requirements, and offer distinctive products that prioritise individual imagination over broader social concerns. Many here have been honoured as National Artists, not as national architects, implying society’s recognition of architecture as primarily an artistic discipline – a “classical period” attitude.
Most architects, influenced by the education systems both at home and abroad, are guided by their own individualistic vision rather than a social/user-oriented approach.
In Bangkok, the outrages of imported designs during the 1980s and 1990s were strongly criticised as being equivalent to Disneyland and “AIDS” (Architectural Identity Disaster Syndrome), the latter a criticism by the author of this article. Negative social impact is also found in many luxury projects, mundanely encompassed by high walls adjacent to existing local communities. More thoughtful and positive solutions are achievable – for example, “green” fences and transitional spaces that emphasise openness and liveability. These approaches demonstrate a genuine commitment to corporate social responsibility.
Yet we also need to reorient attitudes upstream, at the universities and design studios where students are being developed into the next generation of professional architects. Education leadership should nurture a spirit of public engagement. The “Service Learning” programme at Thammasat University, for instance, is an excellent example of an educational activity that puts social responsibility at the heart of learning.
As a society’s vision broadens, innovation and changing social paradigms naturally follow. The shift of shopping behaviour in supermarkets to the self-service model that transformed retail business is one example. Nevertheless, though human society has long been knowledge-based, only in recent decades have we started to foster knowledge-based design. The intellectual basis is still subordinate to the prevailing aesthetic of professional practice. Frequent communication failures occur among architects in the design dialogue. For instance, the recent incident of a misplaced escalator in a shopping facility in Bangkok was basically the professional responsibility of the architect, rather than the engineer. It indicates a fundamental misinterpretation of society as a whole that we expect engineering – not architectural – solutions to today’s dysfunctional built environment. Similarly, in the case of the 2011 flooding in Bangkok, technical solutions were proposed. However, the key professionals should have been urban and rural planners. The scale of the damage in the 2011 flooding, particularly to the built-up obstacles along the royally-initiated floodway in the eastern region of Bangkok, only highlighted the failures of leadership in planning for flooding prevention. More critically, it is not simply a problem of water resource management or urban planning. At the national level, it is essential to plan for the whole country to sustain ecological balance and social well-being.
Designs ignore urban context
Because of the profession’s weak intellectual foundations, architects in general pay attention to individual edifices without serious concern for the broader urban context. The concentrated silos of shopping facilities at Siam Square demonstrate the need for a more liveable urban environment. These professional shortcomings reflect the intrinsic innocence of architects and planners. “Urban design” has yet to be promoted as a mechanism to attain liveability. This is itself a reflection of our country’s chronic inattention to the study and practice of the discipline. In the near future, Thailand may be obliged to seek design talent from abroad. Meanwhile, international educational programmes of urban design and disciplines of built environment should be established here.
Knowledge-based design has become increasingly instrumental to “green architecture” and sustainable development. The past decade has witnessed a number of prominent energy-conserving buildings, some of which have been honoured with awards by the Association of Siamese Architects and other energy saving agencies. Among them, the huge Government Complex at Chaengwattana should be singled out for consuming only about 10 per cent of the energy consumed on average by buildings of equivalent size.
Naturally, the creation of built environment requires a multidisciplinary approach and thus the integration of different knowledge systems. In many instances, urban design issues also require political manipulation and technical coordination, such as the improvement of informal settlements along khlongs to achieve a functioning urban landscape and a higher rate of water flow. Architects should have the integrative skills as well as the research abilities to explore the frontier of innovative knowledge-based design. It is critical that more government budget be allocated to support the nation’s research activities – not (as is currently the case) less than 1 per cent of GDP, compared with over 2 per cent among more developed countries.
Finally, the self-centred outlook and limited intellectual capacity of architectural practice only results in professional and economic stagnation. Though there may be several reasons behind the relatively low professional fee – representing only 2 per cent of the first Bt10 million and 1.75 per cent of the remaining construction budget for government buildings – obviously the justification is based on the quality of the architectural services. The low professional fee of government building design in general, including the private sector, imposes financial constraints on Thai architects. As the previous president of the Association of Siamese Architects, Thaweejit Chandrasakha, has pointed out, architects in general do not have sufficient capital to fund design research and development. More precisely, they are trapped in a closed professional cycle, where limited skills generate poor revenue flows and vice versa. This is despite the fact that tremendous efforts are currently underway to promote cooperation across the region with the approach of the Asean Economic Community. When this happens, Thailand must have both the professionalism and the social responsibility to present itself as a credible role model to its neighbours.
Thai architects must improve the quality of professional services by taking into account both local and regional social concerns. Positive design outcomes would have significant impacts on future professionalism. Architects must first collaborate to help create a better Thai society, before they can create truly rewarding architecture. Towards that end, architects, architectural education institutions and related professional associations should focus on creating solutions that serve to reduce social disparities, increase wellbeing and encourage environmental sustainability. “There are three big challenges with our interdependent world: inequality, instability and unsustainability,” said Bill Clinton recently. His optimism focuses on the positive movement towards equality following the progress of information technology.
In today’s increasingly integrated world, architects must redefine their roles in Thai society, Asean and the global community. In particular, its contribution to the “easternisation” anticipated by Professor Anek Laothamatas, with Thailand located in a key strategic position of transaction between China and India, should present more opportunities in years to come.
Professor Dr Vimolsiddhi Horayangkura, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Thammasat University.
Source : The Nation 1 November 2012