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.


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