SEAARC Symposium Abstract 8: “Forgotten Memorials: The Democracy Temple and Constitutional Defense Monument in Bangkok, Thailand”

by Assoc. Prof. Koompong Noobanjong, King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang 

Throughout history, architecture of the state and public space had functioned as a grand symbolic device in mediating power for the ruling authorities around the globe.  The designs and meanings of these built forms, were shaped by–as well as shaped–the contexts that brought them into being, particularly the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions of their productions, consumptions, and circulations.

In Southeast Asia, despite the decline of theocratic regimes coupled with the rise of nation-states since the 19th century, religious structures had continued to serve the state via their associations with divinity and spiritual devotions, as evident from exquisite churches, mosques, and temples erected throughout the region.  In the 20th century, the constructions of the “sacred-cum-secular buildings” were accompanied by the commissions of public monuments by the ruling authorities under the guises of political ideologies.  Prominent examples in Thailand included WatPhra Sri Mahathat, Bangkhen (the Democracy Temple) and the nearby Anusawari Pithak Rattathamanoon (Constitutional Defense Monument).

Catalyzed by the aftermaths of the 1932 democratic revolution that ended the era of royal absolutism in Siam (which became Thailand in 1939) in conjunction with the 1933 abortive yet bloody Bovoradej rebellion to restore the monarchical rule, the practice of power mediation in architecture and urban space was vividly illustrated by the creations of both structures in Bangkok.   Their commissions of were intended by the post-1932 government to: 1) represent their political victory over the defeated royalists; and 2) symbolize their ideological vision for the country.   However, since the late-1950s, the significations of the temple and memorial had changed dramatically.  Today, their original meanings had in fact become merely a vague vestige in public memory.

Via discourse and iconographical analyses, this research presents critical and analytical inquiries on the temple and memorial regarding their roles in: 1) operating as means of power meditation for the ruling authorities; 2) signifying the national and cultural identities known as “Thainess” or khwampenthai; 3) expressing the ideological views of the ruling elites on Thai nationhood; and 4) acting as propagandistic tools for the state to prescribe political ideologies along with social practices for the populaces.

Informed by the critical and semiological theories, the study examines both structures through their politics of representations in constructing khwampenthai. In doing so, the paper essentially argues that the design together with meanings of the temple and memorial had been generated, inscribed, and re-inscribed by successive administrations during the post-1932 Thailand to serve their political agendum under the ideological pretexts of nationalism and democracy, thus lending legitimacy for their regimes.

In addition, by utilizing Thainess discourse as a mode of problematization, the upcoming discussions evolve around the themes of: 1) the Democracy Temple and Constitutional Defense Monument as a political form of architecture and urban space: the symbolic instruments for the ruling authorities to assert, legitimize, and maintain power; and 2) an architectural and urban form of politics: the manners in which successive administrations in modern Thailand have semantically re-appropriated these built forms to suit their own interests.

Biography

Koompong Noobanjong currently serves as an associate professor of architecture at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang, (KMITL) Thailand.  He held a B.Arch. from Rangsit University before winning a scholarship from the Royal Thai Government to further his education in the U.S.  He received his M.Arch. and Ph.D. in Design and Planning (Architectural History, Theory, and Criticism) from the University of Colorado.  Dr. Noobanjong has published books and book chapters on the politics of representation in architecture and urban space in Thailand, as well as research articles on critical studies of the built environment and global cities.  He has also lectured and presented papers on these topics in several international forums and conferences. His recent scholarly publications include “Rajadamnoen Avenue: Thailand’s Transformative Path towards Modern Polity” in Transforming Asian Cities: Intellectual Impasse, Asianizing Space, and Emerging Translocalities, eds. Nihal Perera and Wing-Shing Tang (London: Routledge, 2012, pp. 33-50); The Aesthetics of Power:  Architecture, Modernity, and Identity from Siam to Thailand (Bangkok:  White Lotus Press, 2013); and “The Royal Field (Sanam Luang): Bangkok’s Polysemic Urban Palimpsest” in Messy Urbanism: The Dynamic Landscapes of ‘Other’ Cities, eds. Jeff Hou and Manish Chalana. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, forthcoming in 2015). In addition to his academic career, Dr. Noobanjong is a licensed architect with extensive experience in professional practice both in Thailand and abroad.

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