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Bangkok: Reinventing the Mall and the Museum

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DSC_0548 I headed to Bangkok in February hoping to escape the terrible pollution and winter malaise of Northern China.  The Thai capital is usually associated with crazy nightlife, sexpats, or exotic temples and monks.  But one of things I found most interesting was the handful of modern malls that form a kind of civic center of sorts in downtown Bangkok, around the Siam Square skytrain station.  Usually I tend to scoff at malls as ugly soulless imports from America, places of dreary conspicuous consumption and nouveau-riche excess.  But in Bangkok I found several malls that were unlike any mall I’d been to, for very different reasons, as well as an art center that seemed to combine aspects of the mall with a traditional museum.

Siam Center

Center of fashionable youthful Bangkok, Siam Square is packed with students in white-shirt uniforms after school as well as fashionable 20-somethings with funny haircuts and expensive handbangs.  But besides a Starbucks and a few other stores, most outlets are local fashion or design boutiques offering expensive but unique products.  The mall also houses small rotating art exhibitions and markets itself as an “Ideaopolis”, a place where new ideas in fashion and design will be exhibited.

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Terminal 21

Designed to bring the best of the modern airport-mall directly into the heart of the city.  On an afternoon layover at Don Meuang Airport I headed into the city for a few hours, only to end up here, at a mall trying to be an airport. Each floor is designed with a theme of different cities: Paris, Istanbul, Tokyo, London, and Rome.  Designer boutiques and restaurants occupy most of the floors.  It could have been painfully tacky but somehow Terminal 21 is so explicit and well-designed in its simulacrum of global urban environments that it actually comes off quite sophisticated and almost, dare I say, cosmopolitan.

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Bangkok Art and Cultural Center:

The museum, (along with the opera house, library, botanic garden, etc) is one of those great civic institutions that arose in urbanized, industrializing Western societies.  Many cities have built such institutions in emulation of what a modern city should have, but the question remains of how to keep such museums and cultural facilities relevant to a twitter-obsessed, increasingly fragmented public.  Not only in Asia but also in North America and Europe.  Bangkok may have found an answer.

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I entered this large building (located right across from Siam Center) expecting a cool and empty museum space with some mildly-interesting exhibits.  But only the top few floors of this atrium-centered space contain rotating exhibitions or galleries, such as one featuring street-photography of Bangkok.  The bottom floors contain art stores, bookstores, businesses selling sustainable recycled products or co-ops marketing locally-sourced food, as well as a few restaurants, and even a small space showing art-house films.  It was not quite a museum and not quite a shopping center.  On the upper floors, students studied together while the skytrain whizzed by outside.

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All of these spaces were a welcome change from China, where even the trendiest malls in Shanghai or Beijing are tiresome replicas developed by mega HK or Singapore property developers featuring the same stores and the same fashions.  It’s tempting but maybe simplistic to say this reflects the differences between democratic Thailand and top-down Communist China.  Some of these developments in Bangkok are at least the result of direct government efforts to develop a “creative economy”, ala Richard Florida’s pronouncements.  But both the Siam Center and the Bangkok Cultural Center are interesting examples of what could happen when cities begin to rethink the traditional categories and archetypes of until-now rigidly programmed spaces like malls and museums.

And because all of these facilities lie in the center of Bangkok at major transit junctions they have become some of the most public and easily-accessible spaces for the city’s middle class.

Blog, CitiesAndrew Stokols