11 July 2024

Bangkok’s landmark “Robot Building” on Sathorn Road is under threat. The heritage building erected in 1987 is likely to see its internationally acclaimed design come to an end if its current owner continues with ongoing renovations.

An alliance of cultural, urban design, and building conservation organizations have expressed their disagreement with the Robot Building’s owner United Overseas Bank (UOB)’s renovation of the iconic Robot Building, once the headquarters of Bank of Asia.  The group said at its press conference on Friday that the renovation would bring an end to the unique design of national artist Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya.

Sleepy Robot (Photo courtesy of Foto_momo)

SCONTE (the Society for The Conservation of National Treasure and Environment), Docomomo Thai,  an NGO dedicated to the documentation and conservation of buildings, sites, and neighbourhoods of the modern movement,  and a group of people who love the Robot Building jointly held the press event to release a statement that calls for an end to the ongoing renovation that will harm the Robot Building.

Docomomo Thai’s chair Pongkwan Lassus said that the new design did not recognise the value of the original architectural design at all. “The building isn’t ordinary but one that is known internationally. It represents Bangkok, the development of the city, and the period of modernist design,” she added.

The architecture of this building is evidence of the acceptance of international standards. The Robot Building was selected by Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art as one of the 50 seminal buildings of the 20th century. The building also earned its designer Sumet an award from Chicago’s Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, the first such award given to a Thai designer.

Earning its nickname Robot Building thanks to its robot-like shape, the building “enhanced the world’s recognition of modern Thai architecture” according to Stephen Sennott’s Encyclopedia of 20th Century Architecture. Now, the building is the last example of modernist architecture in the city.

Sumet designed the building to represent computerization in the world of banking as requested by former owner Bank of Asia. He was inspired by his son’s plastic robot toy.  The 20-storey building narrows on certain floors to create the robot’s body. Circular windows on the top floors depict lidded eyes where the meeting room was located. The eyes were also the windows for looking out at the view of the Sathorn-Silom area. The sides of the building are decorated with robot-like components such as nuts and bolts.

Prior to the press event, Sumet wrote to UOB and asked the building owner to keep the look of the building. Docomomo Thai also requested UOB to reconsider its plan and keep its authentically unique look as it is part of Thailand’s architectural heritage. The Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) wrote to the management of UOB, asking them to consider a proper renovation that will leave the identity of the building intact for the next generation to enjoy.

Sumet Chumsai – the man who designs “The Robot”

Docomomo Singapore also threw its support behind the Thai office. It stands with Docomomo Thai in calling for UOB to respect the significance of the Robot Building in Bangkok and sensitively preserve its iconic exterior. “The Robot Building by prominent Thai architect Sumet Jumsai is undoubtedly one of the most important Postmodernist buildings in Southeast Asia. Any insensitive alteration of its memorably whimsical exterior would be irreparable damage to the modernist built heritage of Thailand and Southeast Asia…”

In Singapore and Thailand UOB is known as a patron of modern art and architecture. “It goes against UOB’s remarkable record of art and architectural patronage to insensitively alter and irreparably damage the exterior of one of the most important modernist buildings in Southeast Asia,” reads the statement of Docomomo Singapore.

Sadly, the joint efforts by various organisations had no effect and the ongoing work on the building is nearing completion. Some bolts have been removed and put on the ground. The bank responded that the renovation focuses on environmental issues and the well-being of staff. Obviously, the legacy and heritage value of the Robot Building has not been taken into account.

“It was painful to see that the person who signed  off (approved) on the design was a well-known Thai architect and was not concerned about this heritage,” said Sumet.

The event also received attention from Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt as well as the Siam Society, which is active in protecting Bangkok’s heritage. The Governor said that in the long term there should be a listing of heritage buildings in the capital to avoid any repetition of the dismantling of the Robot building.

Robot Building Now. (Photo Courtesay of Save the Robot Building)

On the action front, Docomomo Thai’s Pongkwan said that her group is sending a petition to the Secretary-General of the National Legislative Assembly. Many people have been asking whether they have the right to intervene with private buildings, so they cited the Constitution to demonstrate their points. “According to Article 43/1 of the Constitution, individuals and communities have the right to conserve, restore, and promote local and national intellectual, artistic, and cultural heritage, as well as good local customs and traditions. In addition, Article 50 paragraph 8 states that people have a duty to cooperate in supporting and protecting the environment, natural resources, biological diversity, and cultural heritage. They are citing these articles as a basis for their action.”

Whether the building is a heritage or not, SCONTE’s vice president Weeraphan Shinawatra said that the statement of significance as studied by SCONTE’s team of architects clearly demonstrates that the Robot Building is an archeological site not because of its old age but its importance.

The Robot Building is evidence of the adaptation of Thai architecture in the modern and post-modern era, particularly in the  1980s. It stands out as a unique characteristic in the Asian region, using design methods that reflect the advancement of computer technology in the office sector.

“The building uses large long-span truss beams to transfer the weight from the upper floors, reducing the number of columns on the ground level and creating a column-free banking hall with prefabricated glass walls from factories and aluminum-clad extending beams, which was a first in Thailand. White ceramic wall tiles were developed to reduce heat from the outside, and a wall-mounting system was introduced for the first time,” said Weeraphan.

The building also pioneered energy-efficient building placement and decoration, which was a significant step toward the development of tall buildings in Thailand. It serves as evidence of the application of historical lessons and studies of architecture, including those taught in many architecture schools throughout Thailand.

However, all the iconic interior, and especially the façade is in danger. The renovation will turn the iconic building into an ordinary building that has nothing left for society.

Members of the public wanting to join the group in voicing opposition to the plan can sign their petitions at Change.org or show support for the group at Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/robotbuildingbangkok/

By Veena Thoopkrajae

Iconic part, bolt, is removed. (Photo courtesy of Save the Robot Building Group)