The resuscitation of old and abandoned buildings on the bank of the Chao Phraya gave architect Duangrit Bunnag of DBALP a chance to jumpstart a gentrification on either side of the mighty river. MARK PHILIP HAYES takes five with the renowned architect at the Jam Factory.
I CAME TO KNOW ABOUT BANGKOK ARCHITECT DUANGRIT BUNNAG from a friend and fellow architect in Singapore. I had been searching for notable design projects that reท purposed or adaptive1y re-used existing structures and Bunnag’s Jam Factory seemed a perfect example.
Opened in December 2013, The Jam Factory is an oasis of what the architect refers to as art+design culture. The collection of old and abandoned warehouse and factory buildings is in a low-rise working-class neighbourhood of Khlong San, on the rather unfashionable and less visited side of the Chao Phraya River. I should say ‘formerly’ unfashionable; new luxury high-wrises are under construction nearby and the site sits in the shadow of the Millennium Hilton where the 360 Rooftop Bar has a stunning view of the Bangkok skyline on the other side of the river. In the same way that some of the best views of Manhattan are from the New Jersey side of the Hudson, new towers in Thon Buri will boast the best views of Bangkok. As modern Bangkok matures and real estate values climb, property values along the riverfront in Thon Buri are also rising. The longstanding low-rise character of the area is surely beginning to change as Bangkok once again turns toward the Chao Phraya River.
Bunnag does not view himself as a ‘sustainability’ architect and eschews labeIling himself or his firm ‘green’, For him, to boast of being an architect practicing sustain ability is like a person who goes around town drawing attention to the fact that he breathes air or is in possession of a beating heart. Amongst the public and even amongst ourselves, what sometimes goes missing is the understanding and remembering that it is in fact part of our DNA as architects to want to create sustainable, energy-efficient buildings that respond to climate and that are location specific.
As we began discussing the process of creating this project, the architect was quick to point out that he has no specific process for creation. A specific process would imply a repeated strategy from the past and in his own practice; Bunnag would prefer, in the moment of creating new possibilities, to treat each new project as a blank. slate, wiping away preconceived ideas about the final result and not being bound by the successes and failures of the past. The project becomes about the context in which the architect finds himself. As he put it to colleagues at the Association of Siamese Architects Forum in 2014, “Working and responding to ‘context’ makes the work easy. The work becomes less about what you ‘want’ it to be, but rather what is best in that condition.”
In 2012, Bunnag’s design firm, DBALP, was in the process of seeking a new office space. In conversation with a college friend from his years at Chulalongkom University, he found out about a parcel of land that she owned, since abandoned and had fallen into disrepair. For various reasons, including preservation of views and maintaining a local scale in proximity to her own home, the owner didn’t want to tear down the existing structures, and so invited Bunnag to take a look at the property and see what the possibilities might be. As he walked through the ramshackle collection of old factory buildings and throw-away shanty shelters that included a warehouse, an ice factory, a battery factory and a pharmaceutical laboratory, he began to see the possibility for a complex that could become, with his office as an anchoring force, a centre of art and design culture in a neighbourhood of shops, low-rise homes, schools and the occasional abandoned government building – the old customs house, for example.
Bunnag and Jam Factory magazine co- founders Nontawat Charoenchasri and Sirima Chaiprechawit initiated a monthly publication that takes the Jam Factory into the area of ideas, spreading design culture and the Jam Factory brand beyond the physical confines of brick and-mortar.
Taking into account context – all existing conditions, including existing structure, neglected and crumbling buildings, as well as budgetary limitations – the development keeps an open eye toward possibilities. The design process is what the architect likes to call a dance: That dance embraces, improvises and constantly moves with the particularities of the project. Everything is context and every consideration is a dance partner. When asked if there was one part of the context that he found most challenging, Bunnag claims that he had to dance the hardest in the financial aspects of the project. It is perhaps fitting that his office occupies the former battery factory on the site – the energy seems to flow from there.
Bunnag attributes the success of Jam Factory to what he calls its authenticity. “People are fascinated and they fall in love with ‘authenticity’ and ‘with dancing’. It doesn’t get more real than this. Concrete floors, burnished and stained walls, and exposed structure create a pretty down-to-earth environment that is devoid of any kind of superficiality. Bunnag is we]] known for the simplicity of his design, which certainly does not lack. complexity. Sometimes the details that go into leaving something exposed are the most challenging. To Bunnag, it is analogous to haw one may fan in love with a beautiful woman precisely because she is not the kind to bother wearing makeup.
An extensive array of architectural models adorn the entry to the office that speak to the importance of what the architect calls ‘enrolling’ the client in the possibilities of the work. One where the client finds their needs met as a matter of course, but one in which the architect guides and inspires the client to the most creative and well thought out solution possible. A drum set sits in the corner ready to be played, as if I jam session could lake place on any given afternoon with Khun Duangrit and his team.
At Candide Books and Cafe, clusters of students, artists, writers and art-inclined people spend hours a day sipping coffee and tapping on their laptops and smartphones. Outside, the architects removed clusters of makeshift utility buildings and houses that used to occupy the space between the factory buildings and revealed an ancient tree in the complex that the property owner didn’t even realise was there. The during out of non-essential impromptu structures created a clearing for possibilities and revealed site amenities like the lawn that were unknown beforehand. An almost monastic environment for contemplation, study and quiet conversation makes for pleasant afternoon in the shade of the old trees.
At Never Ending Summer, the complex’s critically well-received restaurant, without walls counters and pass-throughs, the true nature of the space is maintained. The kitchen buzzes behind a full height glass partition with the Chef and crew preparing improvised riffs on the architect and his partner’s favourite childhood family recipes. Salvageable walls were maintained and bear the marks and stains of the building’s history. A new insulated metal roof was added to the repaired structural framework.
In an age when we consume so much raw material and energy through sheer wastefulness, laziness and, 1 dare to say, only occasional genuine need, adaptive re-use of existing structures can be a rewarding and resource saving exercise resulting in exciting and re-energised urban spaces.
Not only do such projects save raw materials and resources, they also save money in a way that is not often discussed. They salvage and sustain the vanishing cultural life and liveable scale of our communities. By looking honestly and clearly at context, the particulars of a given situation and designing from a point of clarity, without preconception or looking back, architects and their clients can create exciting new possibilities.