By: Korey White, AIAS – President, AIAS UC Denver
Culture shock is one of those things that just knock you off your feet. It’s an incomprehensible feeling. Like any shock, you are not sure how to handle it but know that you are privileged to be visiting a place so vastly different from your comfort zone.
This January I traveled to Thailand with a small group of students from UC Denver along with the Department Chair, Taisto Makela. Our travel itinerary led us through Los Angeles, Beijing, and finally landing in Bangkok after 43 hours of travel. Once in Bangkok we started our two-week excursion through Northern Thailand by visiting The Grand Palace in the heart of Bangkok. The Grand Palace was our first experience with Thai architecture, Thai culture, Thai weather and foreign crowds. Some would say it was sensory overload. Coming from Denver, the weather was about 90 degrees warmer and the city seemed as if it were 90% denser. It definitely took some adjustment to meander through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds while taking in the amazing architecture.
Throughout the next 14 days, we traveled north on a tour bus with 20 Thai architecture students and their professors from the school KMITL (King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang). This proved to be one of the greatest abroad scenarios. Not only were we visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, but were presented with the opportunity to ask questions to architects who had studied these sites and understood Thai Architecture in a similar way we understand and have studied vernacular architecture of Colorado and Frank Lloyd Wright.
We saw numerous Buddhist temples and learned the influences the Temples have on Thai people. We biked through the grounds of Sukhothai and stood before a giant Buddha. The Thai students ordered food for us. We weren’t completely sure what we were eating, but we knew that every new item tasted better than the previous.
Our journey led us through Sukhothai, Lampang, Chiang Mai, Saraburi, and finally ending with three days in Bangkok. Each place had its own distinct character, people and culture. We tried the foods native to the area while comparing the meals to the previous day. How was it different? What were the staple items? In a short time period we were able to decipher Northern Thailand architecture and food compared to Central Thailand architecture and food. We were stunned that walls didn’t require insulation. A wall in a home we visited was composed of just the wooden structure and the exterior finish. That was all.
We started to understand how their climate affected design decisions. Walls could be thin, heat was never required, large overhang provided protection from the heavy rains season. An ongoing joke was that there are three seasons in Thailand: hot, hotter and summer.
Most importantly, traveling throughout the country with natives allowed me to appreciate the culture in a new light. I learned the importance of the role of Buddhism in architecture and how religion had shaped the people. All of the Thai we encountered were gracious, caring and protective. They had our best interests at heart and had only known us for less than a week. I also noticed the change in appreciation of Bangkok after having learned the basics of Thai Culture. Upon initial arrival, I viewed Bangkok through a typical American lens. The infrastructure was lacking, the streets were dirty, and the planning of the city didn’t make sense.
I quickly learned how naïve and close-minded these assumptions were.
Bangkok has grown at an exponential rate and will only continue to do so. There are not enough resources for them to plan a city like a city in America would be planned. With 12 million people they are just trying to keep up with basic infrastructure such as roads, plumbing and housing. They are not concerned with having the newest technologies to wire underground, or replace dilapidated buildings. If the building functions and basic safety is covered, they will use the building. If windows are not needed, there will just be openings. The public space serves as restaurants, outdoor food markets, outdoor clothes markets, and people’s living rooms. No space goes to waste. The climate allows for this to occur and creates a dynamic urban environment of high density, constant movement and socialization of all people.
You can read articles and study different cultures, but to truly understand, it is pertinent to visit, to live as part of that culture. I had tried to understand upon immediate arrival to Bangkok, but it was not until I had immersed myself fully that I started to understand and appreciate the Thai culture. I find this is an important lesson for Emerging architects and those that have been practicing for years. There are lessons to be learned in the various ways people practice architecture. By studying and understanding why the Thai build a certain way, or the Parisians design for certain needs, we may start to think about our designs in America in a different way, through a different lens.