The Thai house, like other houses in Southeast-Asia, is a wooden structure raised on posts. Over many centuries it has acquired its own unique style. The distinguishing marks are an elegantly tapering roof and various finials and decorations that differ regionally. While architectural features vary throughout the four cultural regions, Central Thailand, the North (Lanna), the North-East (Isaan), and the South, the method of raising a platform on poles is common to all parts of the country. It offers protection from dirt, hostile wildlife, thieves, and most importantly from the monsoon floods which affect all of Thailand.
The traditional Thai house is ideally adapted to its environment. The open high-pitched roof facilitates air circulation. Open windows and walls in combination with a large central terrace provide ideal ventilation and offer relief from the hot and humid climate. Wide overhanging eaves protect the house from sun and rain. Rainwater runs off the steep roof quickly and falls through the permeable terrace and house floors. The use of wood and bamboo reflects the once abundant forests that provided these materials ubiquitously and cheaply. In the past, an agricultural society existed in relative harmony with its natural environment.
Unfortunately, things are different today. Uncontrolled development has led to poorly planned traffic-choked cities, vanishing forests, and overall environmental degradation. Thai architecture has changed, too. As canals have been filled; cars, TVs and air conditioners have made inroads, ugly rows of uniform, concrete shophouses and apartment blocks are now the norm. In recent years, however, people began to realize the negative impact of unbridled economic development. Zoning laws and building regulations were just introduced recently. One may hope that the tropical climate will do its part to rid the landscape of unsightly and poorly adapted structures and that the commencing rediscovery of the vernacular architecture will lead to increased harmony between buildings and environment.
The photos on the following pages celebrate the Thai house as an integral part of Thai culture. The houses range from simple country houses (ruen krueng pook) to large wooden mansions (ruen krueng sab) of wealthier people. In the past, land was abundant and thus people often moved, especially when couples married or when the political circumstances necessitated it. The Thai house takes this fact into consideration by being completely modular. The prefabricated parts of a traditional Thai house can be disassembled and rebuilt with relative ease, hence, people literally packed their houses and moved with them. Present concrete-based building methods don't allow for this mobility anymore. Yet, it is possible to unite contemporary materials and methods with traditional style. There are some forward-thinking architects in Thailand who have done this successfully.
Text by Thomas Knierim
All images copyright 2003 Thomas Knierim
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