Chatri Prakitnonthakan, The Art and Architecture of the People’s Party: Political Symbols in Ideological Aspect

[Sinlapa-sathapattayakam khana ratsadon: sanyalak thang kanmueang nai choeng udomkan].

Bangkok: Matichon, 2009. Pp. viii, 230; figs., notes, bib. In Thai.

In July of this year, construction began on a highway overpass in the Laksi neighborhood of Bangkok. The construction reportedly required the removal of a monument dating from October 1936. The Laksi Monument—also variously known as the Monument for the Suppression of the Boworadet Rebellion and the Monument of the Defense of the Constitution–commemorates the suppression of a 1933 royalist uprising against the People’s Party, the political organization that led Siam from absolute monarchy to constitutional government. Soithip Traisut, director of the Office of Policy and Transport and Traffic Planning in the Highway Department, said that the monument was an unsuccessful imitation that had nothing to do with religion. It was, she noted further, “only” a symbol of the struggle for democracy (1). Perhaps not surprisingly, it had been the site of protests by Red Shirt demonstrators in the months before its removal was announced.

Although the monument is still standing and it remains unclear whether it will in fact be removed, Soithip’s reasoning is indicative of contemporary attitudes toward the clean lines and simple geometry of the architecture of the decade and a half during which the People’s Party, and the Fine Arts Department that it reinvigorated, held sway over Thai culture and politics. In his latest book, The Art and Architecture of the People’s Party, Thailand’s most prolific and engaging architectural historian, Chatri Prakitnonthakan, tackles the misconception that structures like the Laksi Monument lack architectural and artistic value. Such attitudes, Chatri points out, have been ingrained in Thai public discourse since the end of the People’s Party era in 1947. He begins his book with an epigraph from Kukrit Pramot: “If one speaks directly and with appropriate love of the country, one must say that the art after 2475 was the worst decline in Thai art. There was no Thai art made during this period.”

Chatri argues, on the contrary, that although modern Thai architecture and art can be traced back to the fourth Chakri reign (2), the 1932 change in government marked a critical turning point in the history of Thai architecture. During the ensuing period a new kind of architecture was established on a stable foundation, developed, spread in wide circles, and became significant to Thai society at large (page 119). The architecture of this period differed clearly from that of the periods that came before and after it. Its purpose was to destroy the system of symbols that reflected the sacredness and loftiness of the institution of the monarchy, the center of power in the absolutist system (pages 6 and 124).

The Art and Architecture of the People’s Party offers examples of these attempts to change Thai architectural vocabulary. Among the clearest examples is the funeral architecture built by the People’s Party for the cremation ceremony of soldiers killed in the suppression of the Boworadet Rebellion. The ceremony took place on the Thung Phra Meru, the royal cremation grounds on Sanam Luang, in spite of protests by the Ministry of the Palace (page 76). The temporary structure that was designed for the cremation ceremony was notable for its lack of royalist ornamentation. Its streamlined shape differed dramatically from any funeral pyre previously erected on Sanam Luang. In place of the spire (or yot) that crowned most Phra Merumat (funeral pyres patterned after Mount Meru) was the national flag. The ceremony marked the first time in the 150 years of the Rattanakosin period in which the site was used for commoners (3).

Although pointing out the intrinsic historic value of the architecture of the People’s Party, Chatri refrains from uncritical celebration of that architecture. He notes the failure of the People’s Party decisively to break out of the larger narrative of the absolute monarchy (page 143). Rather than reject the architectural language of absolutism, the architects of the People’s Party simply created new symbols to fit old categories; the chicken meant to replace the garuda as a state symbol during the Phibun era was a case in point (page 147). The larger argument developed in Chatri’s research is that, while the People’s Party may have changed the appearance of both Thai architecture and politics, the fundamental structures of each remained intact. Take, for instance, the case of Wat Phra Si Mahathat (initially called “Democracy Wat”), the monastic complex built by decree of the People’s Party in 1940 as a new site of national religious importance. While the chedi that held Buddha relics was also designed to hold the remains of the leaders of the People’s Party, the essential spatial relationships of the complex, based on the cosmology of the Traiphum, remained unchanged.

Chatri observes that, in spite of its visual similarities to modern architecture in “the West,” the history of the architecture of the People’s Party does not parallel the development of modernist architecture in “the West” (page 207). The history of Thai architecture is more complex than a narrative of imitation allows; Chatri struggles to articulate exactly how it is related to larger developments in world architecture. Even if the ideological roots are the same, the conditions that gave rise to modern architecture in “the West” differed. Most obviously, Thailand did not experience the industrial revolution during the same period as Europe. It was not able to produce the steel and glass integral to the emergence of modernist architecture in Central Europe. Chatri regards it as a mistake to cast the architecture of the People’s Party as but pale imitation undertaken on the part of political leaders who only wanted to copy the modernity of “the West.” But his analysis is hampered by a retreat into depicting “the West” as a monolithic entity and a failure to distinguish its particularities. Perhaps the difficulty of articulating the relationship of the architecture of the People’s Party to the history of modern architecture more broadly is that, while it did not develop in a vacuum, the People’s Party’s architecture did not participate in a conversation with European modern architecture as either an equal partner or as a slavish admirer. Chatri suggests some of this complexity in his comparison of the imagery developed during the People’s Party period with the contemporaneous art and architecture of Soviet socialist realism and Italian and German fascist art, but he does not develop his analysis of their relationships fully. This area demands further attention from scholars of both modern architecture and Thailand, for it suggests that the history of each is more complex than official narratives allow.

While attentive to the political significance of the sites that he examines, Chatri takes care not to regard them simply as responses to the policies of the state. This latter view has led most historians to view the art and architecture of the People’s Party as little different from advertisements. Chatri seeks, instead, to examine the thinking and ideals that informed the architecture of the period. In attempting to probe the historical significance of the built environment to Thai society, Chatri’s work underscores problems particular to the discipline of architectural history: evidence, aesthetics, intentionality, and interpretation. Or, simply put, what to do with the building?

Chatri claims to “read” a building. Each of Chatri’s four books has been the product of careful and convincing archival work (4). His kind of architectural history reads more like a sub-discipline of history than an aspect of art appreciation. That is to say, its arguments are rooted in material evidence. Orthodox social historians should feel completely at ease with his methodologies. While an emphasis on archival material presents the risk of ascribing too much importance to the intentionality of the designer, the architect is a notoriously slippery character, particularly in the twentieth century. The German-born architect Mies van der Rohe notably sought commissions from both the Nazi government and American universities during the 1930s and 40s. Thai architects have proven no different. Nearly all of the country’s important architects during those same decades began their careers in the absolutist era and managed to prosper during the constitutionalist period as well.

In a recent article in the journal An, Chatri writes that architecture can be “read” in several ways, but the method that he favors gives weight not only to the intentionality of the architect. Instead, it also analyzes the conditions that make meaning in architecture possible. Just as a chapter in a work of literature has a life of its own, he argues, so too does a work of architecture speak for itself, independently of its creator’s control (5). Although Chatri’s argument here is seductive, it fails to acknowledge two concerns. First, the aesthetic language that we use to “read” architecture is itself subject to the vicissitudes of power and needs to be unpacked. Secondly, architecture is not “read” in a state of attention as one might read a text. Rather it is apprehended in a state of “distraction,” per Walter Benjamin, as one might experience a movie. Power operates through architecture, that is, by influencing human behavior and identity in ways that are not merely repressive.

In writing about the architecture of the People’s Party, Chatri can rely on the clarity of its leaders’ political pronouncements. Clear links connect political intentionality and the use of architecture as symbol. The words of Phibun, writing after the appointment of Luang Wichitwathakan as head of the re-established Fine Arts Department in 2477, reflected these sentiments perfectly: “The Fine Arts Department is an important part of the nation, but in the past citizens didn’t know the fame of this department. The reason for this is that the art work that the department has made has mostly been for elites or for business in royal places. In this period of democracy, the government wishes to restore national art and have it flourish. It therefore appoints Luang Wichitwathakan to proceed and improve art to make it appropriate to the present” (page 129).

While the ideologues and architects of the People’s Party sought to build symbols, the structures that they built had their own logic. This reality begs the question, can the architecture of Thailand–or any developing country–ever be read beyond its political symbolism? How do scale, materials, and ideas about space shape political reality? Can a history of modern architecture outside of Europe and the United States ever account for the complex relationship between the political intentions of builders and the actual use and effect of the built environment? Chatri Prakitnonthakan’s writing suggests that there is still much work to be done in finessing the ways that the discipline of history can learn from architecture and vice versa. In the meantime, his work exposes the instabilities of the seemingly solid foundations on which nationalism is built.

Lawrence Chua

Society for the Humanities

Cornell University


1. Mai son klum anurak tan rue anusawari! [Not interested in the preservationist group opposing the destruction of the monument!], Thansettakit newspaper, 25 June 2010.

2. Chatri indeed develops just such an analysis in the book based on his Chulalongkorn University doctoral dissertation, Kanmueang lae sangkhom nai sinlapa sathapattayakam: sayam samai thai prayuk chatniyom [Politics and society in art and archictecture: Siam in the era that Thailand adopted nationalism] (Bangkok: Matichon, 2004).

3. A second–and, so far, last–such time was the cremation of the civilians killed in the events of 14 October 1973.

4. In addition to the volume under review and that cited in note 2 above, Chatri has published Khana ratsadon chalong ratthathammanun: prawattisat kan muang lang 2475 phan sathapattayakam “amnat” [The People’s Party celebrates the constitution: political history after 1932 through the architecture of “power”] (Bangkok: Matichon, 2005) and Phraphutthachinnarat nai prawattisat somburanayasitthirat [Phraphutthachinnarat in absolutist history] (Bangkok: Matichon, 2008).

5. ”Prachathippatai thi tin khao (phrasumen) wa duai amnat khong phasa sathapattayakam nai akhan ratthasapha mai” [Democracy at the foot of the mountain (Mount Meru): on the power of architectural language in the new parliament building], An II, 3 (January-March 2553), p. 31; available at .