Flawed Exports

As the East modernizes, Western architects need to evaluate what they build in lands and cultures different from their own.

December 31, 2006: Bangkok. It’s a steamy day in one of the most populous cities in Southeast Asia, and a few hours before eight bombs detonate around the Thai capital. Nearly ten million people are packed into this ancient city with an exquisite architectural history that attracts millions more visitors. But we could be anywhere, on our way to any mall. No, we’re not driving, we’re on public transportation—the efficient though ­handicapped-inaccessible Sky Train that runs some 15 miles over Bangkok, leading to a vast complex of condos, hotels, and shopping centers.

We’re about to enter a Future Mall in the sky. At this height we’re largely removed from the reality of life on the teeming streets below. From the train and the skywalk we spy the upper floors of other modern buildings with signage for everything from Samsung to 7-Eleven, yet we also catch glimpses of pollution-stained, wire-encrusted buildings where laundry hangs out to dry.

Surrounded by other tourists speaking the world’s languages, we enter one mall; it feels centuries removed from the polluted streets below. Sleek glass buildings display international brands in cool, well-lit shops along wide concourses. This bright and optimistic retail atmosphere with its small number of shoppers is in stark contrast to the dark streets where mom-and-pop merchants scratch out meager livings selling things for everyday use. All this makes me think of Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film Metropolis, where the upper regions of that mythical city are modern and comfortable while squalor and despair reside below.

The memory of Lang’s cautionary science-fiction tale makes me reflect on how destructive these vast social and income inequities are—and how we keep such thoughts at a distance in our own bright rooms. I think about Western investment and the architects it supports, and how the two together export high-rise technologies with a total disregard for uniqueness of place. I’m told that in Bangkok more than 300 tall buildings are either planned or under construction. But in this tropical monsoon climate there is not a ­photovoltaic or a windmill in sight; nor is there any indication that the architects have paid attention to solar gains. These buildings could be in Minneapolis, Dallas, or Tucson. But we’re in Thailand, where it’s 90° F on New Year’s Eve—and the average annual income is not quite $3,000. These two facts make it hard to imagine how our energy-guzzling architecture could benefit the Thais, not just those expats who land in air-­conditioned condos and offices for a few short years while awaiting assignments to other exotic places that are losing their exoticness rapidly.

My shopping spree turns mournful, my own capital unspent. Today I’m more skeptical of ­international investment and its professed good intentions than ever before. Can those living in a high-rise world truly understand the needs of local peoples who eke out their existence in the streets? Can architects convince investors to stop exporting our flawed system of building and come up with more appropriate designs? I think they can. But only if they make friends with the frenetic streets and understand that there lives a vital culture that needs to be nurtured, not eliminated, in the name of progress.

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