23 May 2024

The demolition of the Scala theatre has broken hearts all over the city and for many different reasons.

The Scala theatre in Bangkok’s Siam Square area was more than just a movie theatre to all its fans. The stand-alone cineplex was where teens of the ’80s and ’90s hung out and the place of choice for many a first date. It hosted the shows of stand-up comics, university plays, and musicals, and was also a venue for the Bangkok-based international film festival.

Thais and also resident expats have fond memories of the beloved theatre. “Speechless, shocked, sad, gutted, weeping,” are some of the expressions people posted on social media as they saw the photos and videos of the beautiful building being demolished.

To Scala’s landlords – past and present the Art Deco cineplex was just a structure with a roof and walls. To them, there was no story worth remembering, no past lives or even cultural background despite the building, which saw the light of day back in 1969, winning the ASA Architectural Conservation Award in 2012.

Ironically, the building recognized by the prestigious Association of Siamese Architects in the conservation category has been torn down with nary a thought for its heritage. One has to ask if the conservation of old buildings means anything to anyone in Thailand.

It is even more ridiculous when one thinks that the landlord of the plot on which Scala stood (before the present owner won the right to lease and develop it) is the country’s top universitywhich is known for its teaching in the arts, architecture, communications, film and cultural management. They should have known better than laypeople like us.

To begin with, we want to keep something because we see its value – a tangible and intangible value in the case of Scala. We can save something if we have the ability and the willingness. We know that Chulalongkorn University has the ability, but as for the latter, we cannot say that the university ever expressed its willingness to preserve the historical building on its land.

Who should we blame this time? Obviously, from a legal standpoint, the public had no rights. The landlord didn’t have Scala’s conservation in its plans. When it leased the land without any conditions, Central Pattana Plc – the company that has the right to develop the plot as it sees fit.

The public might have fancied the idea of turning the Scala into a museum – something that was never included in the university’s original plan.  It seems a museum or indeed any old-style building does not fit with Bangkok’s inner city of today. When we talk culture, they talk money and business. It is just not worth keeping the building on land that is some of the most expensive in the capital.

There again, the trump card is money. Land prices are so high that the “development” which fits must be to maximize the space. It seems even the university’s management has forgotten the intention of the original landlords Kings Rama V and Rama VI when a huge land plot was given to set up the university.

Perhaps Thailand has too many ancient buildings and architectural gems that the powers that be see no need to preserve a historical building of the 70’s era. While many countries want to boast their cosmopolitan sides by keeping old buildings, countries like Thailand focus on adding more high-rises and new structures without trying to keep valuable ones. In a way, demolishing all the old structures and the architecture of each era clearly shows the world that Thailand is still behind many other nations.

Singapore, which is a relatively new nation-state compared to us, has so many conserved buildings that it makes the country look developed. The conserved buildings make the island nation’s history tangible and shape its identity as a nation. Anyone who has visited Singapore can see their efforts to retain the inherent spirit and original ambiance while keeping the city’s planning in place.

We don’t have that. We don’t have the ability to even try to preserve an old building and develop it into something commercially viable. We don’t have to look further than Singapore for an example. Soon we will send Thai children to Singapore to learn about old building designs and the ways of life of the ’60s, ’70s, and so on because Thailand has none left.

It breaks many people’s hearts to see such a historic building like Scala disappear because we all know it will not be the last. It breaks our hearts to think that the prestigious university does not care about preserving a valuable building. And it makes us sad that in the end what matters most in this country is money and it dictates everything, including the city we live in.

By Veena Thoopkrajae

Photo courtesy of Facebook @Auntiebudba