Monday, March 31, 2014

Thailand's two award winning theaters: does it mean anything?

As with many places the world over, architectural preservation in Thailand can be a haphazard affair. While there are indeed organizations which undertake preservation as part of their informal agenda (architecture faculties at a number of universities, for instance), there are few government or quasi-government departments that are charged with the task. For this reason, structures not included within the national narrative of "Nation, Religion and King" are often fair game for demolition, regardless of their architectural or social importance.  

As a result, Thailand is regularly losing good architecture. In particular, it is regularly losing good mid-20th century modern architecture, the same time period corresponding with a boom in movie theater construction.   

Basing architectural value almost exclusively on a national narrative, however, is short-sighted. The merit of structure with an outstanding design or rare construction technique can be equally as beneficial to a country as any building upheld by an origin myth might be. Fortunately for Thailand, the Association of Siamese Architects recognizes this fact, and bestows preservation awards on account of it. 

As of now, the ASA has granted their preservation award to two movie theaters, both of which are in Bangkok. 

The first award recipient was the Sala Chalerm Thani, AKA Nang Loeng Cinema, in 2011. Dating to 1918, the Sala Chalerm Thani is one of only several theaters left in Thailand dating from the earliest era of movie theaters in the country (1904 - 1932). It's age, wooden walls and timber frame make it an extremely unique architectural specimen. 

The theater's owner has claimed that the Crown Property Bureau, which is the landlord of the entire Nang Loeng neighborhood, has plans to restore the Sala Chalerm Thani, though a definitive time frame has yet to be given. If this happens, and the theater is returned to a film showing venue, it would constitute the oldest active, purpose-built movie theater in all of Asia.  

A recent survey by the SEAMTP found that a 4-story concrete structure was being erected on open space to the front-right of the theater, partially obscuring the theater's historic facade.  

The Sala Chalerm Thani AKA The Nang Loeng Cinema

Cornice detail and signage

Interior of the Sala Chalerm Thani Theater facing the screen.

Interior of the Sala Chalerm Thani, looking towards balcony.

Old wooden seats on display outside of the Sala Chalerm Thani.

In 2012, the ASA made Bangkok's Scala Theater the second movie theater to receive its prestigious architectural preservation award. 

The Scala is the last active stand-alone movie palace in all of Thailand. Many would argue that it's the most architecturally significant movie theater anywhere in Southeast Asia. 

Opening on December 31st, 1969, the Scala is a mid-century modern masterpiece designed by the once-prolific architect Chira Silpakanok. Its over-wrought lobby, featuring a 5-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 60-foot long wall relief above the auditorium entrance are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind spectacle. 

Distressingly, it took a proposal to destroy the Scala Theater before the ASA bestowed its award. In early 2012, Chulalongkorn University, landlord of the entire Siam Square neighborhood in which the theater stands, revealed a redevelopment plan which called for replacing all existing structures in Siam Square with a series of shopping malls.  

The announcement raised considerable objection from a broad spectrum of Thai society, after which the university decided to reconsider the plan. 

Most recently, rights to redevelop Siam Square were allegedly purchased by ThaiBev Co., the company that produces Beer Chang and Mekhong Whiskey, among other things. 

Plans for the Scala have yet to be revealed.

The Scala

5-tiered chandelier over the imperial staircase in the Scala.

Upper lobby of the Scala

Award for architectural preservation given to the Apex Co. for the mid-century classic Scala Theater, on display on the landing to the staircase.

Nocturnal Scala

The architectural preservation award from the Association of Siamese Architects should be the start of a formal preservation process. The end result should be a codification of preservation law, making it illegal to demolish or significantly alter the Sala Chalerm Thani and Scala theaters. Whether or not the awards will have any broader effect is yet to be seen. But it's a start, nonetheless.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

SEAMTP on Thai PBS for the 3rd time in 5 months

Thai PBS has been extremely kind to the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. This program is the third and longest feature they've aired about it to date.

Don't miss it!

Part 1

Part 2

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Mahachai Rama - Mahachai, Samut Sakhol, Thailand

The Mahachai Rama makes for one of the best terminated vistas anywhere in Thailand. What, you might ask, is a terminated vista? Well, it's exactly what it sounds like it is: a view, or vista, which ends, or is terminated, at another structure. The term is most frequently used in the fields of architecture and urban planning to denote a street view that instead of going on uninterrupted until it fades into the distance, ends by virtue of a physical entity - either man-made or natural - obstructing the thruway.

While it may have a negative ring to it, terminated vistas are considered assets. They give a definitive destination to the streets which they book-end. For instance, to see a terminated vista is to know that the given route has a discernible end point. A somewhere to go to. 

The Mahachai Rama is a prime example. Perhaps one of the most striking in any small town in Southeast Asia.

It must have been an amazing sight to look down Soi Baan Chao towards the Mahachai Rama 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, the bold dimensional signage would have been accentuated by neon lighting, not to mention the giant hand-painted movie billboard that would have been fastened to the theater's facade. This truly would have been the visual pinnacle of Mahachai. Even in its current run down state, it's hard to deny the beauty that crowns this sliver of mid-century Thai modernism. 

At the far end of this sightly street stands a modern movie palace with bold dimensional signage serving as a beacon to another world.

Up close with the Mahachai Rama. The signage on the facade is for a pub that used to operate out of a corner of the building. It was called the Pyramid Pub featuring the Pharaoh's Room. 

Ticket window with image of King Chulalongkorn in the background.

Dog in lobby

Poster case

Just too late to see the Mahachai Rama in its original condition

Auditorium preparing to undergo a conversion into a parking lot.

Beautiful dimensional signage; a signature of Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters.

As far as stand-alone movie theaters in central Thailand go, the Mahachai Rama managed to cling to life longer than most, staying in business until 2012 - a mere 2 years ago. 

The theater's extended life was the result of the particular demographic situation in Samut Sakhol - one of Thailand's most industrialized provinces, and the center of the country's food processing and canning industries. 

The vast majority of labor in those factories comes from Burma, and a good portion of them are in the country illegally. 

As low wage earners often living under tenuous circumstances, thrift is essential. But so is entertainment. The Mahachai Rama thus played the role of entertainment center for Samut Sakhol's Burmese laborer community, charging a mere 50 baht per ticket for a few hours of much needed escapism. That's roughly 200% cheaper than the standard multiplex ticket prices.

But trips to the movie didn't always have happy endings. A local shopkeeper recalled that once the police became aware that there were potentially illegal immigrants congregating in the Mahachai Rama, they would set up stings and round up undocumented Burmese for deportation, or more likely, extortion. Once word spread among the migrants that going to the movies could end badly, attendance dropped off and the theater shut down for good.

When I visited the Mahachai Rama late last year, it was in the process of being converted into a parking garage.