Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Srakaew Rama - Srakaew, Thailand

From a few choice vantage points the Srakaew Rama calls to mind a ruin from a lost civilization, abandoned to the jungle's verdant strangle. 

The Srakaew Rama resides in a mostly abandoned roadside development. 
While the ruinous aspect holds true at ground level, the more pedestrian reality is that the abandoned theater stands amid a failed edge city-type development, not an encroaching jungle. This was urban expansion on the heels of highway extension and the sky's-the-limit confidence brought on by automobile accessibility. Overbuilding at its finest is what it amounts to.

Thailand has no shortage of these kinds of blighted peri-urban cityscapes. They're nearly gratuitous in distribution, lining the edges of arteriole roads like warts on the fingers of civilization. This particular iteration originally housed a fresh market and the local bus station along with said cinema hall. Whatever order the collapse occurred in is unclear, but a mostly vacant business center is the clear result. 

But to dwell on the dingy aesthetic of this lapsed land would miss the point. In its midst lies a ghost of cinemas past that still bears some marks of distinction, and some architectural delights for those so inclined to venture in.  

The Srakaew Rama under morning sunlight. 

Had the Srakaew Rama been contracted in the years before developers went ape over projects that followed the highway, it might have been erected in the center of old Srakaew town, accessible by foot to a pedestrian-oriented population. The theater's architecture and scale are conducive to middle-of-the-block placement in a high density zone. One can imagine its bold signage and textured modernist facade serving as visual (and social) anchor to the traditional core of Srakaew. 

Even in its present run-down condition the Srakaew Rama is a sight to behold. Yet being removed from a practical location, conveniently accessed by motor transport alone, ensures that it remains a hidden secret to all except locals and visitors so recondite as to ask "excuse me, but does your town have any old movie theaters?"  

Ticket booth and poster boards

For those adventurous enough to seek out the secretive, the tomb of the Srakaew Rama makes for an elegant if grime-coated jaunt. 

Most notable among the leftovers is the handsome ironwork framing the ticket window and poster boards. These metal curlicues, painted a fading teal, add a loopy contrast to an otherwise streamlined concrete of the structure structure. 

"Coming soon"
While the lobby area may seem well preserved, venturing beyond reveals fewer visual delicacies. The auditorium, for one, has become a cave for bats, flying their erratic paths as they do. What seats remain were mostly ripped open, with their stuffing serving as breeding ground for all kinds of tropical fungi.

In short, surveying ended at about the ticket counter. Urban exploration, believe it or not, is not really my thing.
"Coming Soon" again

A mobile poster board with ornamental iron framing.

The writing on the door reads "Children taller than this line must
have a ticket to enter"

Even more than it's inconvenient location, the real reason for the Srakaew Rama's survival is simple neglect. The building's owner apparently took up residence in Australia years ago, abandoning the old cash cow for life down under. A more hands on overseer would have probably demolished it by now, or at least used it for some practical purpose.

Several locals remarked that it would be nice to see something become of the nearly 35 year old structure. A snack vendor operating a little stand nearby thought it would be nice if it were converted into a hotel, or lodging for itinerant workers. 

Whatever adaptive measures are taken to bring some use to this building, one thing seems certain: the Srakaew Rama will never show a movie again.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Sri Kabin Rama - Kabinburi, Prajinburi Province, Thailand

Most Thai cities, large or small, are connected to an extensive national highway system that seldom cuts through the city's older, pre-car urban core. The exception, of course, is vast Bangkok, the primate city, more than six-times the size of the second largest city. Numerous Bangkok neighborhoods have been eviscerated so that highways and expressways can wind their way through the jungle-dense metropolis.

But in the case of almost all other Thai towns, the highway was built around the urban core, with connector roads branching off onto narrow urban streets. This type of highway development is preferable to the alternative of ripping through the old town to bring traffic directly into the core. Old neighborhoods, saturated with history, have survived, if only in a stuffy coexistence with car traffic.

Despite being removed from the core, the highway system has managed to wreak havoc on Thai towns in other ways. While the town core may be structurally intact, they also tend to be economically flaccid. Thanks to the lifestyle shifts brought about by a rapid rise in car and motorcycle ownership, Thailand's "main street" economy, so to speak, has shifted to the peri-urban highway. There town dwellers and outside residents alike can easily drive (and perhaps more importantly, park) to take care of all their consumer needs. For all intents and purposes, the urban core becomes a bypassed zone, supplanted by national chain stores housed in boxy space-eating complexes. Aesthetic charms are at zero in these suburban behemoths. Sustainability is dubious.

Why the long introduction to the present state of Thai urban areas? Well, Kabinburi - home to the theater featured in this post - is perhaps the most obvious example a bypassed town in Thailand I've yet to encounter. It's present condition is a clear reflection of the Thai highway system's nefarious effect on dense urban cores.

Please bear in mind that this analysis is wholly observational. I will stop short of claims that the overall effect of the newer highway system is negative for locals. For all I know the economy might be better then ever on account of it. I'm simply saying that the economic pull of the highway has undermined the viability of Kabinburi's traditional urban core, where the streets are walkable, the architecture historic and aesthetic charms abound.  

Pulling into the Kabinburi bus station - appropriately located off the main highway outside of town - the first impression is of an interchangeable roadside pit. To reach the real Kabinburi requires a 5 minute-long song-taew ride away from highwayland.

Turning off the highway onto one of the several connector roads makes for an immediate change of scenery. The elevation drops a meter or so and the landscape goes from highway detritus to marshy and vegetated. To the trained eye, it is clear that the real Kabinburi has its roots in something riparian. Water was the fundamental nurturer of this settlement.

The song taew deposits passengers at the central market, just a stones throw from the train station, which in decades passed marked the most economically important part of town. Across the railroad tracks is the core of the town; the human scale agglomeration of shop houses, homes, banks, markets and, of course, a movie theater. The Sri Kabin Rama.

The now-abandoned Sri Kabin Rama nestled in its equally abandoned plaza - a victim of a car-centric economy, among other things.

Simple but attractive architecture, with it's neon-lit dimensional signage, so characteristic of the International Style. 

In small towns like Kabinburi, the local movie theater was often the most architecturally exciting building around. Eye candy for otherwise very ordinary, if not charming, little burgs. If it wasn't the architecture alone which caught ones attention, then it was the 2 and 3-story high hand painted billboards, festooned to the theaters facade, which lit up the street.

The Sri Kabin Rama, even in it lusterless post-life, is not surprisingly one of Kabinburi's architectural jewels. Set back from the street within an equally lifeless retail plaza, this asymmetrical dream palace pokes its head out from behind rundown shop-houses and lush vegetation.     

Its simple lines, asymmetry and signature sans serif dimensional lettering on the roof place this cinema relic firmly in the International Style school of architecture. The steel frame upholding the letters doubled as a structure to tie hand painted billboards advertising the film to. 

Left to decay

Fenced off lobby


As far as locals could recall - the owner included - it's been over 15 years since the Sri Kabin Rama last screened a movie. With its closure, so died the entire economy of the surrounding shop-houses, not one of which seems to have any activity today.

In a true sign of the times, the Sri Kabin Rama's owner is now focused on operating Tip Top Center, the anchor of an all-in-one strip mall sprawled out along the highway. He too followed the automotive trend towards the road to the detriment of the town. But for whatever reason, he has chosen not to demolished his old white elephant movie theater down in bypassed old town, Kabinburi. Good fortune for that. Its mothballed status will give future generations of Kabinburians a chance to decide a fitting reuse. Who knows, maybe some day the stand-alone movie theater will become hip again.