Final Thoughts on Bangkok: the Role of Urban Practioners, Promoting Change on Small & Large Scales

Before our final presentation in London we were each asked to state a few sentences of what we learned from the field experience in Bangkok.

I learned the limitations of design. I saw that design strategies cannot stand alone, they must be linked with both top-down and bottom-up processes that are working to address urban inequalities. It became clear that even the most inspired design strategies must be supplemented by municipal policies that expose obstacles and address vulnerabilities, at the local and metropolitan level. In order for transformation to take place we must always close the loop through policy change.

While my reflection from Bangkok is accurate — I feel that my initial response was a bit naïve. I did not acknowledge a very serious obstacle in the relationship between the role of design and the process of transformation. Yes, it is true that design cannot stand alone. And, social and spatial transformations cannot take place without design. However, the points of insertion or the room of maneuver for spatial interventions to be significantly influential or even fully involved in the continuous process of urban transformation is highly limited. In Bangkok and within the larger context of urban practitioners it is difficult to determine how it is possible for the participation of architects, landscape architects and urban designers to be fully embedded in the processes of urban change.

All around the world we find an overabundance of design ideas and spatial manifestations of human ingenuity relating to the topic of housing. Yet the implementation of design and the knowledge transfer of these ideas is highly ineffective. In citing an example from Bangkok — we saw how interstitial spaces could be used as an untapped resource of land for the urban poor. The use of interstitial spaces under the flyovers would increase the provision of housing and the productivity of space within the city centre. Yet the implementation of these potential design ideas is confronted by an endless list of challenges on a multiple scales (e.g. on the part of private owners, government policies, global economic pressures, ect). In examining these challenges it is important to ask — who is meant to be responsible for overcoming all of these obstacles in order to make it possible for the greater empowerment of design?

In examining the case of the Baan Mankong Programme —the conflict between design and transformation is especially evident. It was that clear social mobilization was essential to their process of urban transformation. The determination of both individuals and group collaborations created networks of knowledge share around the allocation of secure land and housing for the urban poor. However, their process of transformation lacked the continuous presence of architects, builders and experts of urban infrastructure. In consequence, there was an overemphasis on the design of individual housing plots with little connection to communal space or existing resources. The role of architects at the community and metropolitan scale could have facilitated much greater flexibility of housing typology and efficiency of land use approach. A greater empowerment of design is essential not merely for aesthetic or productive purposes, but because design thinking teaches people to reinterpret existing problems and develop solutions that were previously inconceivable. Like the multiplier effect created through social mobilization and the production of knowledge — I argue that design thinking could re-shape normative ideas of knowledge share or how spatial transformations are taking place. Perhaps, developing this balance between design thinking and social mobilization is difficult to implement. But it is clear that the process of reaching scale cannot be achieved without this balance.

My field experience in Bangkok gave me an understanding of the multiscalarity of urban challenges, particularly relating to the allocation of secure land and the provision of housing for the urban poor. However, I am still searching for a clear definition of the relationship between the practitioner and the mode of intervention. Within the context of Bangkok and beyond I continue to question —

Can the practioner help to facilitate a greater balance between design thinking and social mobilization amongst the various actors involved in the process of transformation? As practioners how are we meant to shift our spatial strategies to better respond to more embryonic programmes versus programmes that are much more mature and have been part of urban processes for many years? And, how is it possible for the practitioner to be part of propelling long-term sustainable change when the design intervention is only taking place a specific point in time?

For me, the limitations of the field experience in Bangkok and the course at large surround the topic of the role of the practitioner. The challenge of implementing change on small and large scales calls for a responsiveness that is currently inconceivable in many existing legal, political and economic frameworks. These limitations make it clear that the role of the urban practitioner is evolving. But it is still uncertain of how those responsibilities are being defined and what is the meaning of working at the juncture of design and development in cities like Bangkok. I am leaving this experience with more questions than answers. But perhaps more importantly — the course has led me to develop a perspective of urban processes that is more critical and probing in nature. I look forward to discovering how this will inform my work over time.

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Where to start or end?

To reflect on the Bangkok trip I first try to go backwards from now: The last report includes our collective learning from the trip and so does the post-fieldtrip presentation; the trip itself was eye-and-mind-opening  in many ways (group, bangkok and project) and all the reading and knowledge we were trying to gather and analyse beforehand started making sense in an easier and clearer way on the ground while of course building on the theory. Then the trip is also building on the two presentations before and the sessions by DPU staff and other practitioners as well as on the other two terms of the MSc that the trip is connected with. There is also another trip to Bangkok a while ago and other places that I travelled to which I catch myself comparing to in terms of communities’ living conditions, climate, history and culture and speculating how this program or another CODI could work there. So right now, there are a a huge amount of connections between places, times, people, ideas and decisions made during the process that need to be filtered more and synthesized.

To go forward from now: there is still the interview this week (not to mention the dissertation) and answering the question for myself of how to work after this year.

The last remarks of Soomsook – after a whole range of quote-worthy ways of expressing how CODI and the B.M. program works, with a talent of making things sound so simple – were intended for us as transforming/becoming practitioners and the freedom she sees in the development process that we witnessed:

“This demand driven, community driven process is (…) a very powerful process. I have been thinking many times [that it creates a new freedom to let the people lead the development process.] But it becomes like a loosing battle because the whole world is dominated by the development concept in which the supply side plans (…) for the people. [The way we do things is liberating. (….) It’s not only about housing, but all about being creative in all kinds of development goals. (…) And it’s very natural; it’s easier, I tell people, than supply side planning. It’s simpler, easier and big scale. The only thing we have to think about it how the system supports this huge amount of energy and mechanism: finance, planning, land, whatever. If we understand that new technique, instead of us defining a technique and getting the poor to follow our technique and system (…) then we let people start and design a system to facilitate this. It’s a simpler and more exciting kind of development and its real. If we want to solve poverty in a big way, hopefully these 2 weeks will open up a new freedom of how to do things in your own system (…) in your country.” (Soomsook, concluding remarks @ CODI, 22.05.11)

House no. before/after B.M.

I found this very inspiring when I heard her explain. Upon writing it down I am now wondering where in this the architectural profession fits in? Yes, there is the community architect movement, which for coconut-group triggered some questions about possible limitations mentioned in earlier blogs.

Architects are working in a process of listening and trying to understand the system of a community, firm, institution, family or city, how a space is being used and how to change or build one that facilitates the aspirations of the users and then coordinate and make it real. Additionally, through knowledge the amount of adaptations and iterations necessary for testing a pilot or innovative idea to become mainstream can be reduced. What else is needed to design a system to facilitate what people do (as Soomsook says)? For myself I am adding (for now) thinking in the necessary scale, in terms of networks and including freedom.

And also, if we are taking her suggestion literally to multiply change and take this or other approaches into our own counties: Design a finance systems, find powerful partners, raise a fund, mobilise people, get people to take real or perceived risks they wouldn’t normally take, convince others to do things that they think is impossible and to join a vision beyond their day-to-day. And probably a few other things.

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(This post was written in my notebook. It is from ages ago.)

Yesterday in the nightclub I thought about how sound has a space dimension. Sound can be really physical and our perception of the space change complete according to its sound. Then I thought of Baan Bard community, the community in Rattanakosin Island that makes monks bowls. The first thing that I wrote in my notebook about this community was ‘sounds’.

The eight communities visited in Rattanakosin Island has the same characteristic of being hidden, they are located behind shophouses or big walls and the entrances are a narrow paths. One of the communities we entered by passing a door, it was really weird, entry a public space through a door, like ‘alice in the wonderland’ but behind the door it wasn’t the wonderland.

The production of the monks bowls echoes beyond the community. Sound is free and can travel to different places as smells do. The sound of the monk bowls reveals the importance of the community that lives there and can be the tool to cross physical barriers.

The community livelihood is being threat by industrial production of bowls, the manual technique is being forgotten. Physically both look exactly the same, you can only distinct the hand made one from the machine made by its sounds. Therefore the sound is the proof of their production and what guarantee their quality. Sound can be used in different manners.


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Being exposed to Bangkok:

First impression ofBangkokwas combined with a nostalgic feeling of home with the high-rises in the background and its skyline where there was little sign ofBangkokat first glance (excluding the cockroaches that looked familiar, specially the ones that could fly). ‘Venice of the East’ was the phrase that kept echoing in my head when we arrived to Bangkok which was more overwhelming by the amount of highways observed and the lost spaces in between. After a few days residing inBangkok, I noticed that the city is growing against its water base fabric, also the fact that this is parallel to the ratio of urbanisation. As a result the greater the urbanisation becomes the water base characteristics also become less apparent.  BangBuaCanalcommunity as we visited in the first week of our arrival shows their dual characteristics of road and water base housing, but as we went aroundBangkokit was obvious that road base buildings are more dominant in the process of urbanisation. The second week was even clear to me in terms of the fact that the canals and canoes are no longer in use and the water base culture is rapidly fading away. The communities I visited were in the Bang Khen District which most of them have a strong spatial bond with the canal. The first day of our arrival they took us to the different communities next to the canal with a boat they bought themselves with the profit of selling trash. At this point it was clearer why the water base activities are getting weakened, where we were stuck in the canal for 30 minutes due to the amount of pollution in the motionless water of the Canal and the other moment was when I became aware of the road base activities in terms of economy. These two factors were the main points which resonated in my mind for the underlying reason of declining water base activities. During the days at Bang Khen, it made me realise that the popularity of vehicles and roads, gives a feeling that the ties and relationships of residents on either side of the canal is being destroyed.  But on the contradictory note the communities are trying to maintain their waterfront culture by linking the residents closely to the canal by the means of a 3 meter public pathway and also as a way to bring back the aquatic ways of living where for example at Bang Bua they were planting vegetables in the Canal and in another community they have an aspiration for a floating market.  To maintain the life style and culture of water base activities, some initiatives should take place like improving the quality of water where the communities next to the canal are in the process and also strengthening the canal base transportations. Adding on this there needs to be raising awareness of people in order to protect the canals further and etc ….  (I would like to add here the ineffective role of the municipality by the imbalance responsibilities that is being enforced on the communities and over burdening them with aspects that should be covered by the municipality itself)


Digesting BM programme:

The program makes room for poor communities to reawaken the lost art of citizen involvement in Thai Cities.”  This quote explains more or so what stroked me the most through the whole process of studying Baan MaanKong, which is very rare in many countries around the world and how they can be the catalyst for policy change like the new building codes for urban poor under governmental projects which act like an annex to the main building codes. This has been achieved with the effort of the community itself and it proves community strength and union in every aspect of life.  On the site we could see that the process of one community had inspired and motivated others in more ways than simply building upgrading. It has a multiplier effect. The empowerment of the community was both organizational and financial and this was a much more significant catalyst for transformation than the physical upgrading of the community. (Noting here that before going toBangkok we as group were looking for the ‘engine’ that keeps the actors in momentum for the whole process and as we came back it was obvious that the communities are the engines of this whole process)

Moving from the power of policy change to design in communities, where it lacks and falls behind the social aspects that the community itself is creating like the local construction workers. When having a lecture by the community architect in the first week, they talked about vernacular and indigenous techniques which there were no sign of in the communities visited and the construction was done in a very conventional way. One of the points that would come across here is the process of gentrification that might occur in the future in these communities which have been considered by the community by the means of minimizing vehicle access to the sites as it is tied to middle-income vehicle driven life style and the effectiveness of this is also a big question in my head. Moving from the notion of gentrification, the longevity of the building’s quality of construction and design may also not be desirable in the future and may perhaps not fit into the future vision ofBangkokand would develop to a future slum in relationship with the progression of people and city developments around them. Also the program is about development progress where some issues like sustainable development, longevity of materials and buildings or even political drivers are being unaddressed.

 There is an endless list of concerns that I can write about, but I would stop here and rewind my memory and think about the fact that I was lucky to have a chance to journey across these communities as a lot of people around the world don’t even know such places as ‘slums’ exist in their cities, not excluding myself; as it was also my first expereince.

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The one and only…post

We have been working in the Bangkok project since last February. After all the readings, the analysis , the discussions, the presentations, I went to Bangkok with a lot of information and analysis in my head that would help me to maximize the potential learning during the few days that we were going spend in the field.
Our team worked in 6 different sites –two of us in one site each; trying to build and conceptualize a scenario of transformation in the “local” and the “global” scales. That was a challenge: the practicalities of the fieldwork –the specific requests of the communities, the amount of places visited, etc- were a factor that sometimes made our work to be more focused in the local than in the global or viceversa. In my case, the site visited was Khlong Toey, located in central Bangkok , where we were exposed to 8 different communities without having a specific task from them, that make our task slightly different from the rest of the teams (you can read more about the site in Farida`s or Sadiqa`s posts)
In the field, all our readings and discussions of abstract concepts and actors before Bangkok were “materialized” in different scales: community, district, city and metropolitan levels across the 6 different sites, across at least 4 central issues –land and house construction + finance and funds + community building/mobilization +partnerships. It looked complicated but it wasn`t! (Nevertheless it was actually a lot of work) Finally, our team managed –or at least I think so- to have a good level of understanding of the full picture- both local and global.
Back in London, we were able to articulate this understanding in the final presentation of the project, and afterwards, we did the same for the report. In the elaboration of the report, it was very helpful to clarify relations, positions and alliances between actors addressing issues in different scales the exercise of spelling out both the scale of the root of the problem in the diagnosis, and the scale in which the strategies and actions have to be implemented. Also it was crucial to this clarifying process the elaboration of how the synergies of different actions will address one or several of the issues arose in the diagnosis, which are intertwined with a full range of actors that –again, of course- are in different levels: community, district, etc.
Last week, when I was looking at the project report before the deadline, around 7.30 am when all the things were in place, pictures, graphs, etc, I was reflecting in ONE of the things I learned through this process: how different my understanding related with actors and scale is now, after Bangkok. Now I can see clearer than before the packed -and unpacked- actions/ actors/ issues that are multidimensional in its effects and impacts in the different scales. Before Bangkok, looking at the programme, we were doing assumptions based in our interpretation of what was going on in Bangkok. Seeing the reality help me to put all in place and make more clear connections between actors, issues and outcomes of the programme. The process of elaboration of the report, where we needed to explore our abilities to synthetize the information we gathered in the field + our previous knowledge about the case to elaborate the diagnosis and strategies in a clear and concise way was fundamental to build this new understanding I mentioned before.

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Reflecting on the Bangkok experience; so what next?

The last few months have been a rollercoaster of intensity. It began with a slowly-slowly build-up approach that progressed rapidly into continuous cycles of head-banging discussions and muted scream-out-loud periods of frustrations sandwiched between calm-down phases of the Bangkok journey.

In the statement of entry into programme I wrote that “I wanted to help…people affected by atrocities… [using] architecture as the medium and not just a glorified vocation.” I also stated that my aim was to “qualify as an architect and use my skills and knowledge to help rebuild the lives of people requiring assistance however small a step it may be.” Slightly idealistic one may say but this is something I still hold to albeit a little less naïve.

Through the analysis of the two cases of Mumbai’s Dharavi and Bangkok’s Klong Toey, I have come to realise that there is a gap within the development sector for architectural professionals to share their knowledge and expertise. The role of the architect has been highly contested in heated discussions during the course of the year. Many members of the group who are not architects felt that the course alienated them. I disagree to an extent as there were many social, economic and political issues raised from the word-go that an architect alone cannot contend with. Regardless of hailing from an architectural background, I felt intimidated by the intensity of such issues as contending with socio-economic and political problems per se does not come naturally to me as a person. I have always shied away from such topics.

The roles of the architect or the development practitioner once again arose during the field trip and the analysis of the Baan Mankong Programme. Community participation in the upgrading, relocation, reconstruction and re-blocking projects is without doubt vitally important. However in order to reach city scale and beyond the importance of the architect’s role cannot be denied (Somsook Boonyabancha, 2011). The architect’s experience within the urban field draws upon critical expertise that planners and development workers may not necessarily have. Planning alone cannot make the programme a success, practitioners who can implement and bring a human element to the planning process are vital. I observed how the housing schemes where the architect was involved tended to have better quality constructed finishes and detailing than those without. For me the architect’s role is not merely to draw plans and disappear, the entire process from start to finish needs an architect’s involvement albeit taking on roles as an advisor, enabler, facilitator etc. at various stages. This level of engagement can build trust between the various actors involved.

Having said that it is not only an architect, the involvement of the engineer (structural, mechanical and services), the planner, builder and others within the design and construction industry are just as important. As is the engagement of the state and institutions who can shed new light and perspectives to cross-cutting issues such as land, housing and construction, community mobilisation, partnerships and finance. A multidisciplinary team is more likely to be successful than a ‘one-man-band’; a more holistic overview of the scheme can be achieved.Then again it needs to be said that the process of involving the community in the development is fundamentally important to allow them to mobilise becoming more educated in voicing their concerns and asserting their rights as urban citizens. It was apparent after talking to people that, although many communities may not have perfect living conditions and the process of entering and participating in the programme may be long and drawn out, the most important thing to remember was the fact that it is the communities who are initiating and driving their developments, albeit stemming from the common threat of eviction or calamity. As Somsook says, “people are the scale”.

Walking through the various Klong Toey communities I noticed how they were much cleaner they were than the informal settlements I had visited in Delhi and what the desk research had revealed of Mumbai’s Dharavi. I couldn’t help but compare the cases. The uses of communal spaces were at once very different. For instance the inhabitants of the Delhi settlement used communal spaces in front of their houses for human excretion as well as washing, cooking and socialising.  This was not so in Klong Toey. Perhaps this was partly due to the fact that many of the Klong Toey communities incorporated toilet and washing facilities within individual dwellings, whereas this was not possible with the dense settlements in Delhi. It could be a case of cultural differences, yet I felt there was more to it than this. I didn’t feel the density of the Klong Toey communities we visited so much as I did walking down the streets of the Delhi settlement. Perhaps it was the fact that the Delhi community was located directly on an open drain whereas this was not the case with many of the Klong Toey communities despite their proximity to the canals. The problems felt by the communities in Klong Toey were not merely a case of infrastructural services but the issue of over complicated land contestations which are imminent. This led me to conclude that each region has different levels of complexity in the treatment and perception of the urban poor. The strength of the state government makes a huge contribution to safeguarding policies for its people.

If anything the one thing I cannot forget (and I know many of my colleagues would concur) is how much we as a group have learnt to work in a team of diverse people, each with his/her own set of ideologies. The challenge in this case was not so much finding a way to amalgamate all the different thoughts into one coherent group movement. It was more one of listening, acknowledging and appreciating other people’s thoughts thus allowing for a sense of ownership to discussions. I suppose it’s natural for the most outspoken members to direct brainstorming sessions according to their ideas. However I’m not too sure how much I agree with this notion as to me it seems rather unjust as those with quieter voices when they are able to contribute bring daylight into a discussion that often looks as though it’s heading towards a very dark and narrow tunnel. In this sense I will always be a supporter of raising the voices of people who remain quiet for the sake of keeping a discussion moving forward as opposed to challenging and asking questions for a more holistic view.

Many people may think that this is a very banal issue but it is very important that one learns how to listen to and acquire the best out of people within a group. “It is the province of knowledge to speak. And it is the privilege of wisdom to listen” (Oliver Wendell Holmes). Everyone has something to contribute whether their preference is to be out on the main stage or backstage behind the scenes; each is as important as the other. Therefore in my opinion it is crucial that an architect or development practitioner acquires the ability to listen to others otherwise undertaking developmental projects will become very difficult. I guess it’s still something I am struggling with as I do admit that once I become passionate about a topic I really go for it losing track of other perspectives. This I didn’t realise until a workshop session in our BU2 class early on in the academic year when Alex Frediani noted how the two opposing sides were airing their views without actually realising what the other was saying. This just goes to show that people’s “inability to communicate is a result of [their] failure to listen effectively” (adapted from Carl Rogers).

Chawanad Luansang’s seminar about the role of the ‘community architect’ in the Baan Mankong Programme was perhaps the most interesting ones for me. The perspective of the architect for me personally was crucial in providing me with an entry point into the development field. One of the most crucial points conveyed was that need to have an understanding of the people for whom they are working and the inclusion of people from the start. Looking at some of my notes from the seminar, I noted that the community participation is an opportunity for the architect, development practitioner, and the community to develop mutual understanding of each other’s roles, needs and perspectives. For the architect or development practitioner, it will enable them to find out who the poorest members of the community are. In doing so it will become apparent what the community like, see the problems and opportunities from their point of view, how they live, and what is important to them. It is crucial in the design process to have a clear understanding of the people for whom the outcome or process is targeted. Therefore it is important to allow them to initiate discussions so that in the future they can continue and adapt the process and are involved in activities within their communities.

The experience in Bangkok was eye-opening for me to question my personal role within the field. I will obtain my architectural accreditation within the next couple of years but how to enter the development field? What are the gaps and what is the reality of an architectural contribution? How can I as an architect use the skills obtained from the many years of study to practice them in the development field? The questions aside, the one thing that I will remember is that the art of listening can work wonders at finding information that is not always apparently visible.

Thanks for reading my blogs!

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The incredible canals (a late Bangkok post)

One of the strong images I keep of Bangkok is the black water of the canals. Seen from far, the water is so dark it looks heavy and almost perfectly mirrors the communities who live along the edges as if it was a solid surface and it’s actually a beautiful sight (from far). It is also reminding me of crude oil, and an installation of Richard Wilson at the Saatchi Gallery. The connection is probably just a visual one, but something unsettling about both.

From close the problem gets clear through the breath-taking odour; the pollution is obviously severe (at Saatchi you can actually go waist deep safely and unpolluted). We were told the BMA is planning to “flush” the canals by pushing water through and catching all the things that might be down there at sift-type gates that are to be installed. In Bang Kehn this is supposed to happen after the communities have all moved one step back onto land, but some have been part of Baan Mankong for 10 years before they were ready to build. Before, the pollution and proposed cleaning of the canals actually triggered the mobilisation of some communities and gave them negotiating power as the protectors and not the polluters of the canal; Bang Bua Canal community even financed the boat with which they showed us around by collecting the rubbish and selling the recyclable pieces. Pathways are now being built along the edges; they unite the communities spatially, make a firm edge for cleaning but also cause new evictions.

The canals are connecting Bangkok as a larger organism; only the city doesn’t seem to be able to act to save it.

(Image of Robert Wilson installation accessed on

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