With more than 20 years under his belt as an architect, Khun Duangrit Bunnag, Architect & Managing Director of DBALP Limited, this eloquent gentleman knows a thing or two about what it means to design a modern building. Having graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Architecture with Honours from Chulalongkorn University and then post graduate studies at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London, he worked as an architect in ARCHITECTS 49 LIMITED and experienced various design projects such as private residences, high-rise condominium, shopping centres and office spaces. In 1998, he established his own company and discovered his true calling; hotel and resort design.
With projects in Cha-am, Kui Buri, Luang Prabang in Laos, Bali, Colombo, Sri Lanka and London, England, Khun Duangrit reveals that many of his Thai clients are now looking to expand their property portfolios overseas given that the exchange rates are now so very favourable for the Thai Baht. But he can’t simply walk up to a project and begin sketching, no this talented architect needs to open a dialogue first.
“Architecture is an art and for us art can be inspired by history. You have to be inspired by the context first and each project speaks for itself,” he says as we relax in his air-conditioned office perched 28 stories above a sultry Bangkok. “I don’t have any preference with regards to design. If we are hired to design small houses we will do it. We look at the client and if it is worth serving them and if they understand our architecture, we will move forward.”
“Every project is like a marriage between us and the client, so we never work alone, we always mix with our client. I will listen to them and then present my ideas and point of view. We look to open a sophisticated dialogue on architecture. We don’t look to the style of a property at first. We have a conversation with nature. It depends whether we have a house on a hill, then we have a dialogue with the hill, but if we have a house by the ocean, then we have a dialogue with ocean. Likewise, if we have a house on a hill overlooking the ocean, we have another dialogue,” he says.
The types of dialogue Khun Duangrit and his team have depend very much on the context of their project; most of the time the context is nature, but sometimes it is the city. It is interesting how beachside resorts have emerged in Thailand over the past decade. Previously villas were built around the concept of a Balinese or Thai style as developers were trying to sell the culture to Western tourists who were coming to Southeast Asia for the first time.
“In the last ten years the dialogue has changed – around the time we were developing Costa Lanta on Koh Lanta, a modernist architectural language on the beachfront. It was one of the first in Thailand and it became a big momentum that changed the development of resorts and hotels. Now the dialogue of hotels is moving towards modernist, a kind of contemporary, more than traditional or cultural. Some resorts continue with the cultural theme and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is another branch that’s coming out that you may call modern architecture. It is developing into a sanctuary type; recreational, totally peaceful.”
“Every Thai architect has Thai designs embedded in their subconscious. No matter the language of architecture we use, we always deliver a hidden agenda in terms of living in a Thai way. A good example is a project I did for Alila Cha-am. We designed the lobby, a completely open-air lobby, which contradicts the traditional idea of a lobby where you go into the air-conditioning with space and nice sofas. Ours was completely open and at 18 metres it had a wooden structure on top but no columns. It looks out on to a reflecting pond and 100 metres to the ocean. It is a magnificent view,” he says.
“So I think there is something about the notion of Thai elements in the space and not in the vocabulary of architecture. In that sense, we can talk about Thai architecture in a different way, not because of the roof, not because of the columns, not because of the amount of wood, but because of the space and the way we integrate architecture to be relaxed and how we negotiate the treasure of the interior and exterior space and make that clever. This is the whole idea of Thai architecture in the modern vocabulary.”
In terms of green or eco-friendly developments, Khun Duangrit and his team try to integrate ecology in several ways from an energy and materiality standpoint. From the latter, they try to use recycled materials where they can but remain aware of the amount of energy that needed to transform recycled waster into a building material. This continues to be a complex problem for many architects and Khun Duangrit is the first to admit there is no rule of thumb to apply.
“The most eco-friendly material is wood because you can grow trees and trees taken from a managed-forest can be replaced. The energy embedded to transform the wood into a construction material is small. Wood is very eco-friendly in that sense but only if it is not cut from pristine forests. We also use manufactured teak and pinewood but bamboo is the best. We’re only lacking the technology to preserve and fire-proof this abundant material and if we have governmental support is would be much better,” he states.
“When it comes to renewable energy from solar panels, the proportion of electricity you can produce from present photo-voltaic panels is still relatively small. So if you want to build a house that only uses solar energy you would have to embed every square inch of the house in solar panels. Another 10 years and I think it will be more logical, practical and cost-effective.”
Thailand – and especially Bangkok, could soon suffer the same fate as many Western nations whereby salaries are not increasing as fast as the price of materials needed to construct urban condominiums. In the future, only the rich will be able to own such properties because other people are not getting rich fast enough. The present price for premium downtown condominium space can run as high as Bt300,000 per square-metre, far beyond the reach of most salaried workers.
“I don’t believe in iconic architecture. I love architecture where you can walk in and feel good about it. I’m the type of architect that touches the heart of people not the type that wants to put his statue on the table and say ‘look at me’. I’m not interested in that type of dialogue.”