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[Series] Dialogue with Architects from Southeast Asia: Bangkok Project Studio

photographed by
Spaceshift Studio
materials provided by
Bangkok Project Studio
edited by
Bang Yukyung

Architecture finds its origin in human needs, but the realm in which architecture is placed is always nature. We have become accustomed to human-centred architecture, but architecture cannot escape nature after all. Then, is it not architecture that improves the given environment and harmonizes with the surroundings? Is this not the architectural direction that is desperately needed in the future? I spoke with the Thai architect Boonserm Premthada (principal, Bangkok Project Studio) who is expanding upon this idea, around his representative work, Elephant World (2020).


interview Boonserm Premthada principal, Bangkok Project Studio × Park Changhyun principal, a round architects



Park Changhyun (Park): Elephant World, which is located in Ban Ta Klang, Surin Province, northeastern Thailand, is a project that has for over a decade created a place of life for elephants and the Kui people who raise elephants. It stimulates curiosity in that it is an architecture in which elephants and humans can coexist. I am curious about the background and progress of this project.

Boonserm Premthada (Premthada): The government of Surin Provincial Administrative Organization (Surin PAO) invited me to be the project’s architect. In Thailand, elephants differ in status from ordinary animals. Elephants also participate in royal ceremonies as sacred participants and are mobilised in various forms for long-distance travel, on construction sites, and in wars. People in Thailand consider elephants as part of their ‘family’, equivalent to people, not as pets or labourers. The Kui Village is one of the leading elephant habitats in Thailand. For centuries, people in this area have lived with elephants all their lives from birth to death. However, as industrialisation accelerated and machines replaced elephants, elephant and elephant owners were left destitute enough to beg for money or leave for other locations such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket and seek work in the forest. The project’s goal was to apply for a government budget to save and rebuild the area, to settle elephant and elephant keepers in the village, to discuss elephant abuse, and to promote the restoration of forests in order to revive sources of elephant food and water.


Park: It is very interesting that the project covers the Kui village, elephant hospitals, temples and cemeteries for both people and elephants, and that ‘people and elephants form a community together’.

Premthada: The Kui village is a village of elephant keepers more than 400 years old. There is a Pa A-Jiang temple in the village that performs religious ceremonies for both people and elephants. Elephant cemeteries are part of this temple, and when elephants die, they are buried here. There are young veterinarians who specialise in elephant care at elephant hospitals. A series of facilities have been in place even before the start of Elephant World. The project aims to create an economically self-sufficient community by first by preserving culture, second by restoring forests for feeding elephants and growing medicinal herbs, and finally by continuing to attract tourism respecting the elephant and Kui people’s lifestyles. In the near future, elephants from all over Thailand will gather here, floating in cities.


Park: I think the experience varies greatly depending on whether you focus the space on elephants, elephant keepers or tourists. What is the difference between a typical zoo or facilities for elephant tourism?

Premthada: I tried to focus on elephants because I have long been designing human-centred architecture. Zoos are spaces for the purpose of separating humans from animals and displaying the lived experiences and behaviours of animals. However, I wanted to learn how humans coexist with large animals in nature through ‘Architecture for Elephants’, and to learn how to recognise and sympathise with the values of humans and other creatures. The Kui people live for the elephants, and the elephants live for the Kui people. Therefore, Elephant World reflects ‘love’, the fundamental mindset of the village people who are fostering deep ties with elephants. The government pays the elephants that the Kui people are taking care of, but when the elephants die, their owners are not paid. So the Kui people give each elephant a name and care for it like their own children. When they have nothing to eat, they take the elephant’s food first, even if they starve. Its architecture emphasises the depth of this connection between humans and elephants and serves as a link to strengthen these relationships.


Park: The idea of restoring forests that were once rich and verdant is driven by the hope of helping the living environment, one both nature-friendly and humanistic, and so it is sympathetic. It seems like a very dry place, what are the characteristics of the climate there?

Premthada: In the past, investors damaged the forests and encroached upon land in order to grow cash crops in the national forests here. As a result, the Surin region suffered the most severe drought in Thailand due to water shortages and the year round extremes in heat. As it takes a long time to restore the forest to its former health, we chose to make the most of existing resources to build buildings. I dug a rainwater pond and made bricks from the soil and used it as material for major buildings, including the amphitheaters. The pond has become a source of nutrients for forests, elephants, and people. The new brick observatory will also help restore the forest by climbing on top of it and spreading the seeds of local vegetation to the surrounding area in the wind.


Park: When designing the Cultural Courtyard (so-called Elephant Playground), the Elephant Museum, and the Brick Observation Tower, how did you consider relating them to the terrain and existing buildings?

Premthada: Surin PAO had already had master plans and completed the design and construction of several buildings before I joined the project. I considered the elephant ‘walkway’ from the village to the three buildings as a key concept in the layout. The Brick Observation Tower is placed at the highest level of land and the Elephant Museum at the lowest level, and the two are divided into the Cultural Courtyard. All three buildings lead to surrounding forests and ponds, and the height, openness, and appearance of the building gradually decreasing are combined with the surrounding area to form part of the landscape.​ 



Park: The Cultural Courtyard is covered with a roof over both wings. The horizontally stretched structure gives a strong visual impression. What happens in this large yard surrounded by the hills?

Premthada: The Cultural Courtyard is a place for village￾specific religious and cultural events long held by villagers. Traditional rituals of the Kui people and events were originally held at home with relatives, neighbours, and elephants. The courtyard, where these events are held, contains the meaning of a huge elephant house where visitors can join and witness the daily lives of the Kui people.


Park: Since it is a space for both elephants and people, I think you must have been worried about the scale of the building. How do you find a balance between an elephant and a person? Also, how is the area separation performed to ensure safety?

Premthada: It is so amazing that more than 200 elephants lived in homes of people with large open spaces in the middle of the forest. By integrating the scales of places, people, and elephants here, the buildings become part of a familiar landscape, I sought to find a balance between the elephants and people and reduce the proportion of ‘people-oriented’. To this end, the way I interpreted this was to minimise the construction work and to secure as much space as possible. The Elephant Playground was designed to allow people to adapt to the daily rhythms of elephants. Open spaces, piles of dirt, and trees, as well as roofs without walls, are familiar structures to elephants. Elephants, like us, have feelings, parents and relatives. I thought that the priority was to create a ‘not cold’ space of familiar forms and materials to provide elephants with a comfortable environment. The soil on the ground is for elephants, and the basalt amphitheater is for humans. Both materials are readily available in the region. Since elephants know that they cannot climb rocks by instinct, they have distinguished boundaries through materials to harmonise with the environment.


Park: The outside of the large yard is not flat but consists of a curved pile of earth, allowing elephants to roll around. Since the river is more than four kilometres away, elephants need an area to play with water, so how did you come up with the idea of digging up soil, making hills, collecting rainwater, and making ponds?

Premthada: The Cultural Courtyard is a place in which elephants take walks and exercise to maintain their mental and physical health after eating and drinking, and where they relieve stress accumulated while staying at home for a long time. I thought both the amphitheater and the water space were necessary. Since it is a project carried out through tax money, the key was to solve the two simultaneously by using existing resources as much as possible. If a total of 8,600m3 of soil is dug up and a pond is built on the site, 207 elephants will have enough water for a month. In fact, I only designed half of the building. The other half is the work of nature, elephants, and the Kui people.​ 



Park: The design of the Elephant Museum is very constructive and evokes thoughtful sensibilities. It seems to be a completely different type of design from the courtyard we just observed. What was more considered in terms of a project that contained the history of a particular tribe?

Premthada: The museum has designed visitors to encounter unexpected spaces. It’s like entering the Kui village without knowing anything and finding elephants, or like walking in the woods and running into elephants. I also wanted to design this place to be a museum in the oral tradition, where the Kui people and elephants could possess and talk about their history themselves. I wanted them to talk about their lives and the 400-year history of the the Kui people, recounting their happiness, pain and hardship, including the situation of being displaced, struggling to survive, criticism from foreigners, returning home, and shouting for pride and strength in their way of life. The Kui people have never had a chance to talk about their lives. The ‘sound’ inside the museum amplifies the echo of the wall with different heights. The poetic element here is the sound of elephants, the language of sensation, not the functional language of humans. The sound of elephants and their voice will be settled in the hearts of listeners with the sound of ‘truth’ emerging from the other side.


Park: I haven’t been there myself, but if I imagine what you mention here, I can feel the synaesthetic amplification created by elephants, humans, and architecture itself. The museum with its geometric composition has its own completely independent form. It appears to be a somewhat closed structure in connection with or in relationships with the surrounding world, how does the museum correspond to the context of the site?

Premthada: The design of the museum attended to the creation of a space in which the interior and exterior coexist. The main passage leads to a chamber inside the museum and leads to four entrances that are connected outside the building. These entrances lead to different passages surrounding villages, ponds, forests, and buildings, respectively. The inner exhibition room where visitors stay is surrounded by a courtyard twice the museum’s indoor exhibition area. The courtyard contains a unique atmosphere created by sunlight, rain, shadows, wind, and natural sounds of the actual place, and all of these spaces are covered by brick walls. Through my design, I tried to wake up all of the human senses about the story of the Kui people and the elephant. Of course, due to the solid red brick walls that surround the building and connect it with the landscape to create unity, the visibility into other areas may be reduced. The elephants walking into the museum will give a sense of space as if they were outside.


Park: There are many interesting elements such as the shape of the Brick Observation Tower and the characteristics of the brick. On the journey up to the top floor, I think it’s going to feel different from floor to floor. What kind of changes did you hope to achieve?

Premthada: I wanted people to spend as much time as possible inside this small structure and to experience different moods depending on the time slot or height. As people go up the stairs, they will realise that they don’t have to run to the top like other observatories, realising that the observation tower is all facing different directions from floor to floor. Here people will have time to slowly discover small and delicate things and reflect on themselves.


Park: The Brick Observation Tower was built in a characteristic location to form connections across Elephant World. What was your intention?

Premthada: The Brick Observation Tower is located on the border of well-preserved and damaged forests. It also helps to restore the forest. At the top of the observation tower, it winds at 29 ‒ 38 km per hour, and seeds of several plants will be transported and scattered within a radius of 20m of the observation tower. In this sense, the observation tower can also be called the ‘first tree’ that produces the lives of other trees in the once-destroyed area. This tower was originally designed to help people avoid the body during the elephant’s rut. It is the only building in Elephant World that cannot be entered by elephants, and it was designed as an engineering structure with indoor space, ventilation and landscaping functions in itself.


Park: With the government’s budget, it would not have been easy to carry out projects of this cultural and historical background and scope. What was the most difficult challenge?

Premthada: The Kui people are poor, but money cannot seduce them. They will not sell elephants for the promise of financial gain like their parents or grandparents did. Nor will they betray their brotherhood with elephants by accepting offers from companies or organisations that want to make donations using their names. However, the Kui people have been accused of abusing elephants without the opportunity to argue their case because they are poor and poorly educated. For this reason, the villagers misunderstood me as a local administrative and government employee and did not believe me. So it was not easy to work in the beginning and it took more than five years to prove that my architecture is for them and that it could change their lives. With the recent spread of the Coronavirus Disease-19 pandemic, the area has become a tourist attraction. After instructions were issued to close major tourist attractions in Thailand and it has been revealed that there is a home for elephants here, more than a thousand elephants from all over the country began to return to Ban Ta Klang. With the influx of capital into the Kui village, Surin PAO is able to pay the elephants from the proceeds of admission fees. At the same time, Surin PAO did not allow new hotels or large buildings near the area, but instead encouraged residents to convert their homes into homestays or small restaurants or create souvenirs, crafts and YouTube channels as a community to boost the local economy and preserve local environment and cultural beliefs of the Kui. Through a series of encounters, I learned a valuable lesson from them: ‘Learning humanity from people and elephants’. The greatest impression is that these elephants remembered me. 



Park: If you deal with architecture of that attitude and communion, there will be more building projects related to elephants in Thailand. Could you tell us about your perspective on animal￾related architecture to be built in the future?

Premthada: Elephant World is an example of animals leading the changes in cities. In this project, architecture was built to help people cherish elephants while simultaneously reviving the village economy. If the standard for human quality of lifeincreases, the quality of life for elephants should also increase accordingly. As such, the more human-elephant architecture continues, the more green lights will be trained on the elephant’s survival.


Park: When I see Elephant World and your other works such as The Artisans Ayutthaya (2017) and The Walk (2020), I know you understand how art can be connected to architecture.

Premthada: To me, architecture is an art that is not bound by trends. Everything is made for reasons and need. Many people say that I am lucky to work in a country with lower standards and fewer regulations than them, but in fact, I have to face a lot of restrictions such as low-skilled workers, limited budgets and time, the perception of and enthusiasm for locality, and the attitudes of powerful people. These unfavourable factors require more attention from me in every aspect. Compared to boxing, this is like a boxer who fights without any rules and a boxing ring. Therefore, I think it is important to try to be strong on my own and approach it sincerely. Strength is the only weapon I have.


Park: You are promoting Thai architecture based on your work through seminars and forums held not only in Thailand but also internationally. I think this discussion is important in finding the identity of the country’s architecture and strengthening its foundation, and not one limited to individual work.

Premthada: I studied architecture in Thailand and graduated, which became an advantage. Thanks to this, my thoughts were not mixed with the ideas taught in overseas schools and I could be free from their influence. I am setting up a small studio with two employees. This working environment gives me freedom of thought and allows me to constantly move in new directions. It seems completely different from working for a big company. To make a self-review, I would call myself a wildflower which blooms beautifully and naturally.




Assist in interview: Ju​ Han Seul (Korea University, Department of Architecture) ​  ​ 




Boonserm Premthada
Boonserm Premthada was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts (interior design) with first class honors in 1988 and Masters of Architecture from Chulalongkorn University in 2002 and established his office named Bangkok Project Studio in 2003. He believes that architecture is the physical creation of an atmosphere that serves to heighten man’s awareness of his natural surroundings. His work is not about designing a building, but rather about the manipulation of light, shadow, wind, sound, and smells creating a ‘poetics in architecture’ that is a living through sense. Beyond the realms of theory and practice, his work also carries a strong socio-economic and cultural agenda as many of his projects have associated social programmes that aim to improve the lives of the underprivileged.
Park Changhyun
Park Changhyun did his M.Arch and at the Graduate School of Architecture, Kyonggi University. He is currently the principal at a round architects. He won the 32nd KIA Award for his SKMS Research Lab, the Seoul Metropolitan City Architecture Award for his Joeun Sarangchae, and the Kim Swoo Geun Preview Award for his Jeju Mujindowon. He is also the winner of the Iconic Award held at Germany in 2019 for his Jeju Seoho-dong Residence. He has taught students at Kyonggi University, Hongik University, and Korea University from 2002 to 2018, and he is currently leading a project mapping the Korean architectural landscape by interviewing about 60 architects from Korea, Japan, and Portugal.