Outcry over loss of features on Bangkok’s landmark ‘robot building’

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The ‘robot building’ was originally designed for Bank of Asia and completed in 1986. Photograph: UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Outcry over loss of features on Bangkok’s landmark ‘robot building’

Campaigners criticize renovation and call for better protection for the city’s distinctive architecture

A Bangkok landmark known as the “robot building” has been stripped of its identity, heritage campaigners have said, as they called for the city’s distinctive architecture to preserved.

The building – in the form of a giant robot made up of stacks of cubes and inspired by the architect watching his son play with a toy – has loomed over one of Bangkok’s busiest commercial districts for decades. Its design included oversized bolts and antenna, and windows shaped like cartoonish eyes.

The building’s owner, the Thai arm of the Singaporean multinational United Overseas Bank (UOB), is renovating the structure, however, and its distinctive features have been altered or removed.

Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya

The building, which is mentioned in many guides of the city, was completed in 1986 and was previously the headquarters of Bank of Asia. The architect, Dr Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya, who sought to reflect the computerisation of banking, wanted to create a building that was futuristic.

“It’s a very important reference in Thailand and for the world,” said Pongkwan Lassus, the president of Docomomo Thailand, a non-profit that promotes the conservation of architecture from the modern movement. The building represents the transformation from modern to postmodern architecture and has been featured in architectural books and journals globally, she said.

“It tells [a story] about the history of the socioeconomics at that time, because it’s a [time of] economic boom,” said Pongkwan. “This is the most valuable [reflection] of the history of the socioeconomic situation in Asia at that time.”

The Society for the Conservation of National Treasure and Environment and the Association of Siamese Architects have also called for the protection of the building’s facade.

Pongkwan Lassus, the president of Docomomo Thailand

UOB Thailand acquired the building in 2004 and began renovation work in 2022. The building was previously covered in tarpaulin but is now visible, showing how the facade has been altered.

“It’s revealed how they [have] taken all the identity away,” said Ponkwan.

UOB Thailand said in a statement that the focus of its renovation was “on promoting environmental sustainability and enhancing employee wellbeing”.

The redesign is intended to reduce energy consumption by 15%, UOB said. “The thoughtful incorporation of an all-glazed exterior maximises natural daylight, minimising the need for artificial lighting and thus reducing associated energy consumption and carbon emissions,” it said.

The renovation will be concluded in 2025, according to UOB. It did not respond when asked if the key components of the robot would be preserved, but pointed out that the government had not classified the building as a heritage building.

Jarunee Khongsawasdi, the Siamese heritage trust manager of the Siam Society

Campaigners have urged the bank to find a way to improve energy efficiency while maintaining the facade’s unique design. They say the lack of legal protection for the building underlines the broader need for changes to how sites of special importance are identified and preserved.

Responsibility for conserving architecture falls under the department of fine arts, but the focus is on ancient monuments and sites, say campaigners.

Similar calls for greater protections were made after the 2021 demolition of Bangkok Scala cinema, which was famous for its modernist architectural style and art-deco interior. It was one of the last standalone cinemas in a city where most screens are in shopping centres.

Jarunee Khongsawasdi, the Siamese heritage trust manager of the Siam Society, said there was a need for greater education about the value of modern architecture. “[If the] public care about modern architecture, maybe it can help stop changes,” she said.

The robot building represents the transformation that happened in Thailand during the 1980s, she said. “Architecture can tell [us about] the period of urban development, social development. It’s a kind of memorial.”

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/aug/11/outcry-over-loss-of-features-on-bangkok-landmark-robot-building