By exploring their own limits, the eight-strong team at Bangkok firm Supermachine – led by founder Jack Chaowakul – are challenging the boundaries of modern Thai architecture.
4 August, 2017
With his hectic daily schedule, I’ve arranged to meet Jack Chaowakul – founder of Bangkok-based architectural studio Supermachine – in a two-hour gap between client meetings. We’re sitting in Open House, a stylish combination of design library, high-end cafes and gourmet restaurants, full of muted shades of white, grey and browns, which occupies the top floor of the city’s glamorous Central Embassy shopping mall. It is, as it soon turns out, the complete opposite of Chaowakul’s preferred vision of modern design.
“I use architecture to criticise society,” begins Chaowakul. “Take for example my 10 Cal Tower.” A good place to start, this ingenious design for a playground in the small town of Bangsaen, 100 kilometres south of Bangkok, saw Supermachine win the 2015 Architectural Review Emerging Architecture Award. A tribute to the gravity-defying drawings of M.C. Escher, this 8.5 metre-high, rusty-red concrete staircase twists and turns, encouraging children and adults alike to explore. Importantly, it also gives them opportunities to meet.
“In cities like Bangkok, we most often meet friends in shopping malls – as we are doing now,” remarks Chaowakul. “When my brother takes his kids out, they go to indoor centres, where the children play while the parents watch, bored – playing on their phones instead.”
Chaowakul was raised in Ubon Ratchathani, a small city in Thailand’s vast rural northeast region known as Isaan, where his parents – both doctors – had moved from Bangkok. “My parents were very highly educated people, and they moved to Ubon for four years as part of their training. However, they liked it there so much that they stayed, and my mother still lives there.” After graduating from the Faculty of Architecture at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he gained his master’s degree from the Berlage Institute of Architecture in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, which is where he says he learned how to be ‘super critical’.
He brought this direct approach back to Thailand, where he has continued to challenge ideas and preconceptions ever since, while simultaneously heralding the ‘super ordinary’, as he explained in a charmingly low-key 2014 TEDx Talk, the ‘Beauty of Banality’. “I’m just a guy from Ubon who loves ordinary things and loves local life. I’m down-to-earth and into nature, and I like to travel,” he says.
The last statement deserves particular focus, because it goes some way to explaining the meaning of his philosophy. “For our last work trip, I took the whole office to Nepal and we trekked to the Annapurna Base Camp. Next time I want to go to Everest!” Every year, Chaowakul plans a holiday for his team of eight – including the accountant – and it is expected that will everyone attend. This year they’re headed to Europe to see “museum after museum after museum” and examine the works of Le Corbusier.
“At Supermachine, we’re more like a family than co-workers,” says Chaowakul. “On any day, I’m variously their boss, father and brother. I like to educate and challenge my team, give them responsibility, and show them that they’re capable of anything.”
Which brings us back to the idea of the super ordinary. “Through our work we hope that we demonstrate the extraordinary qualities of space and design – but through work by ordinary people.”
Photography courtesy of Supermachine Studio.
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