In May this year, when TCDC (Thailand Creative and Design Center) reopened in the Grand Postal Building on Bangkok’s Charoenkrung Road, not everyone was delighted. “There goes the neighborhood,” sighed BK Magazine, anticipating the influx of dungarees and MacBooks. Certainly, in its previous home in Emporium Mall, cheek by jowl with the gourmet chutneys, TCDC could become impossibly congested with freelancers and design students by midday. And the neighborhood of Bang Rak, where the Postal Building is located, had hitherto escaped large-scale gentrification, in spite of hot-ticket organic restaurant 80/20 and bi-monthly ‘gallery hops’ to venues with names like Speedy Grandma. Would TCDC’s arrival mark the beginning of the end, or the start of something beautiful?
The design center’s move was part of a campaign to establish a riverside ‘Creative District’ in Bang Rak, which borders vibrant Chinatown and is replete with charming, tumbledown shop-houses. Concerns over the fate of Bangkok’s Chinatown have been widely reported, with particular hand-wringing reserved for Soi Nana 17 on which shop-houses have been converted to hepcat gin bars. But as TCDC’s six-month anniversary came and went, Bang Rak appeared as sleepy as it ever was, albeit with an increase in Dr Marten’ed footfall to the former post office itself.
Entrance, Grand Postal Building, Bangkok. Image courtesy of Laura Phelps.
TCDC now occupies five floors of the Grand Postal Building, which is as grand as the name suggests and dates back to 1940, a year after Siam became Thailand, when the People’s Party were throwing up monuments to the nation and themselves (a stroll down nearby Ratchadamnoen Klang Road reveals many more). While buildings from the Party era are frequently viewed as antagonistic, pulled down or left to rot, this fascist-deco behemoth by Jittasen Aphaiwong and Sarot Sukkayang has not only survived but was fully refurbished in 2013. It has since become something of a destination for fans of mid-century architecture, with its combination of Thai and Italian elements. Look up to see two red garuda gargoyles by sculptor Shilpa Bhirari; during the war they are said to have taken flight to protect their home from Allied bombing, although these days they seem quite content to roost.
The 340-million-baht renovations, by Department of Architecture, mean that TCDC benefits from a modernized space that it has filled with libraries of books, magazines and materials, a co-working area, exhibition and lecture rooms, a business advice center, and ‘Maker Space’, which contains the tools and technology to build product prototypes. Access to all of these facilities will set you back 100 baht (approx. SGD 4) per day or 1,200 baht (approx. 50 SGD) per year, with discounts available for students; access to the roof, which offers a clear view of the neighbourhood, and to temporary exhibitions is free to the public. Until 7 January 2018, the architectural exhibition ‘Insight’ reveals the underlying Buddhist-Hindu principles of royal crematoria, a nod to the recent passing of much-beloved King Bhumibol. This will be followed, from 27 January, with a series of events for Bangkok Design Week on three themes: City and Living; Wellbeing and Gastronomy; and Creative Business.
Library, TCDC, Bangkok. Image courtesy of Laura Phelps.
Moving through the different zones of TCDC Bangkok, the new library is a particular pleasure, with emphasized high ceilings and a criss-cross of white tubes suggesting interconnectivity (or a stock image of the ‘information superhighway’ from the early 2000s, but the effect is agreeable all the same). Department for Architecture aimed to create at TCDC a space that felt open and facilitated the exchange of ideas, playing up the permeable boundaries of disciplines within design and the arts. The library is where this manifests most strongly, though it is not clear whether the somewhat scattergun organization of an extensive book collection also aims to reflect this principle, or occurred by default.
As an aside, if you’re likely to travel within Thailand, it’s worth knowing that the northern city of Chiang Mai hosts an additional branch of TCDC with identical membership rates for a smaller, quieter space, though its library is every bit as good (and chaotically arranged) as its big sister’s. And Bang Rak residents may take heart from the fact that TCDC Chiang Mai has utterly failed to gentrify its surrounding area, the adjacent warren of wholesale fruit markets still unpenetrated by etched-glass coffee shops.
It remains to be seen whether the planned ‘Creative District’, centered around TCDC, will come to pass in Bang Rak. The public-private Creative District Foundation driving the changes lists as its main aim the preservation of riverside heritage while attracting creative professionals, which seems laudable enough, though a secondary aim of contributing to the tourism sector potentially undermines it. When heritage and ‘development’ collide in Bangkok the latter invariably wins out, as seen in the loss of the Dusit Thani Hotel, Hemingway’s Bar, and other iconic structures. The task of the Foundation will be to stand up for genuinely low-paid workers in the arts, and for vulnerable locals in the neighborhood they seek to rebrand, against the silver-spoon entrepreneurism that has fractured traditional communities elsewhere in the capital.
Getting there: TCDC Bangkok is at 1160 Charoenkrung Road, between Sois 32 and 34. The easiest way to get there is by car or motorbike taxi; ask the driver for Charoenkrung sam sip sorng. By public transport, it’s a 20-minute walk from either MRT Hua Lamphong or BTS Surasak station.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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