SEAARC Symposium Abstract 2: “Modernism, Mistranslation, and Monumentalization in mid-20th-century Bangkok”

by Dr Lawrence Chua, Syracuse University

This paper examines the conjoined genealogies of modernism and fascism in Thailand during the tenure of the People’s Party (1932-1958). It argues that a critical form of architectural mistranslation occurred during this period that was integral to the process through which regional idioms became part of a universal modernist language. As Siam moved from an absolute monarchy to embrace the paradoxes of both a symbolic constitution and military leadership, Thai artists and architects drew on multiple historical trajectories in order to reconcile the militarism of the state with modernism’s utopian tendencies and sought to write their own narrative of modernity. A generation of Thai architects trained in the autonomous eclecticism of the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts and the Liverpool School of Architecture participated in both a project of nation-building as well as a trans-regional conversation on rationalism and “overcoming modernity” with their Italian and Japanese counterparts. Their global exchanges reveal something beyond what conventional narratives of diffusion and mimesis tell us about modern architecture and aesthetics.

Drawing on Thai- and Chinese-language archival materials related to the work of architects such as Miw Aphaiwong, Phra Phrombhichitr, and Phra Sarotratnanimman, this paper demonstrates how multiple trans-regional trajectories converged in several state building projects of mid-20th century Bangkok. It scrutinizes different uses of the dome to understand the ways that architects during this period sought to appeal to a universal concept of modernity while asserting the cultural and political sovereignty of Thailand. Forms like the dome, which were based on the measurements of the universal human figure, and concepts like “democracy” and “fascism” were not inherently universal but became so through use and mis-use in diverse contexts.

This paper questions both modernist historical narratives that begin within the industrialized centers of northern Europe and are assimilated mimetically at its peripheries as well as essentializing nationalist historiographies that allow architects at the peripheries to “localize” universal forms that were authored in the modern “West” according to the moods of various national regimes. Such narratives, fail to account for either the lack of a unified “local” vocabulary or the complex forms of agency and imagination that are produced through the global circulation of ideas, forms, and peoples in the 20th century. By taking seriously the idea that areas that have been deemed peripheral to the history of modernism are also the source of truth-claims and architectural knowledge, this paper suggests a different approach. Through the critical mistranslation of forms associated with ideas like universal suffrage and common humanity into a context that lacked either the industrial base or the autonomous bourgeoisie that gave rise to modernism in European contexts, Thai architects working in the mid-20th-century produced an important chapter not only in the history of Southeast Asia’s architecture but in the global epistemologies of modernism.

Biography

Lawrence Chua is a historian of the global modern built environment with an emphasis on Asian architecture and urban culture. His current research excavates the historical relationship between modernism and fascism in the architecture of Thailand, a nation that was never colonized by an imperial power and which aligned itself politically and culturally with the Axis during World War II.

Chua received his Ph.D. in the history of architecture and urban development at Cornell University in 2012. He was awarded an International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council for his dissertation, “Building Siam: Leisure, race, and nationalism in modern Thai architecture, 1910-1973” and was a Mellon Graduate Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University.

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