Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Design for the New Parliament - Manit Sriwanichpoom

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘The New Parliament,’ in Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, 12 – 18 March 2010.

If anyone should drop by the Bangkok Metropolitan Art and Culture Center (the Bangkok Gallery) at the Pathumwan intersection between now and 28 March, you can go up to the 7th floor and see the exhibition of competing designs for the ‘New Parliament’ arranged by the Office of the Secretariat of the House of Representatives. The winning design from this competition will be built on a 119 rai location belonging to the Crown Property on Taharn Road on the banks of the Chaophraya River in Dusit District at a cost of not less than 12,000 million baht.

The new parliament building will be used in place of the old one which is too small. The plan has been greatly criticized, the main reason being the cost in the ten thousands of millions. When you compare the investment with the performance of most of our politicians who are corrupt, self-serving swindlers, always out for themselves and their cronies, whether members of the House or the Senate, it is loathsome, indeed. The public has been quite unhappy about it.

Politicians are not stupid. They realize how far they have fallen in the public eye and that people have a critically low regard for this profession. That was the reason they chose the Sappaya Sapa Satarn, the design work of four architects from the Plan Group: Mr. Tirapon Niyom, Mr. Anek Charoenpiriyawes, Mr. Chatri Ladanlitsakul, and Mr. Piyames Krairerk. They won the competition handily because what their group of architects presented was more than a design for a building. They gave much more than that; their new design with its new characteristics was a ‘re-branding’ for the members of the House and Senate together. Even though other competitors tried to do the same thing, to find by all kinds of means something essentially Thai for their building plan, their approaches were indifferent and dated.

A word of explanation accompanied the plan for the Sappaya Sapa Satarn:

…The word ‘sappaya’ translates as ‘comfortable.’ In terms of Buddhist
practice, it means a place to do good deeds. Thus, before the country came
into a crisis, the king would build a place in which to find encouragement in
living a worldly life [but] above and beyond the world. The law of Dhamma
controls. Today, the country is in the midst of a moral crisis. We must uplift
the minds and hearts of our countrymen. So, using the principles of Thai architecture,
the design plan is inspired by the Buddhist Triphumi. The building at the summit is
the center of the design; it is a piece of classic Thai architecture.
This is a chance
to have a world-class design for a parliament and a chance to reawaken peace;
a chance to raise up and refresh the human spirit in the world of man by founding
anew the Phra Sumein Mountain in Rattanakosin.

You can see that this team of architects have thought a lot about this and truly wish the nation well. That is, if they design a parliament that looks like a temple, that has a sacred air about it, topped by a striking pagoda of shining gold which is visible from afar, it might help the representatives and senators and others who use the building to gather their wits about them, to be more mindful, to stand in greater fear of doing evil. They might stop lying and cheating and swindling the country and so on and so forth. If they did make it into a temple, there might be some real impact on these politicians. It’s better than doing nothing at all.

However, I’m not sure that placing a ‘temple’ (i.e. a religious symbol of nirvana) in the place of a legislative body (the world) is such a good idea, if politicians continue in the same kind of behavior as we see daily. In fact, using the symbol this way might even lead to its degradation and loss of credibility. That’s the way it has been. Some hotels in Chiangmai are built in the form of temples. People even lift their hands to pay respect as they pass, thinking these places actually are sites of worship.

Even in real temples we meet with crises of faith every day. Robbers wear the yellow robe and occupy the temple. They don’t come to their senses or feel shame at doing evil, acting like politicians in neckties and suits. Can a golden pagoda even catch the attention of these coarse and blackened minds and hearts?

If the Sappaya Sapa Satarn is to succeed, to create sanctity and myth which can uplift and correct the image of the legislature (the center of power, like the Phra Sumein Mountain), making the transgressors more sensitive to their sins, this is a process which is going backward in the direction opposite from the idea of democratic principles of participation by the people. Democracy emphasizes the reduction and dissemination of the power of politicians by opening opportunities for the people to take part at every level - in the legislature, in management, in monitoring, emphasizing good governance and transparency.

Instead of thinking to restore the essential image of the Thai Parliament, to make it acceptable to the public by turning it into a temple, a sanctuary, a place of awe, why not go in the opposite direction with something more democratic? For example, make everything bare, simple and stripped down. The people will be able to comprehend it clearly. (I don’t mean that the whole structure should be made of glass, but that the concept should be easy to understand.) It certainly shouldn’t be made holy in the sense that people need to kneel down and pay homage. It shouldn’t be a place for boastful seeking of honors, for coercing the common people. It should be a place where people come prepared to make sacrifices, where they come to work on behalf of others (for society). Thus, the design should not be elaborate but simple, something very functional and not tremendously expensive in the tens of thousands of millions of baht. It should rather be a model appropriate for all society.

There is another important point that shouldn’t be overlooked. Thailand is not altogether a Buddhist country (even if the majority is Buddhist). We also have numbers of Muslims, Christians and others. If one is Muslim or Christian, what does one think about the Sappaya Sapa Satarn? Would you be proud of it or would you feel threatened? As a member of a minority, you would have to enter a parliament which looked like a [Buddhist] temple. That suggests a good reason why ‘politics’ should be separated from religion, especially when the parliament is like a temple: such a thing pushes people into confrontation and conflict, greatly increasing the chances that Thailand could turn into a religious state [theocracy]. We have already seen attempts by right-wing Buddhist groups in this direction. It is a matter which requires the greatest vigilance.

I saw the work of another group of architects headed by Dr. Wimonsit Horyangkun. This design was among the 10 finalists in the competition. They tried to make the building suggest ‘public participation.’ Their motto was, ‘The people complete democracy.’ Acharn Wimol’s group designed a place for a people to gather outside the parliament building itself with stepped seats set up outside where people could look down at what is going on in the meeting rooms inside the parliament. (In actual practice, there would probably not be very many people who would sit under a hot sun in order to hear the representative playing their tongues for hours. But at least there were some architects whose designs reflect contemporary democracy.)

The problem with Acharn Wimol’s group’s design is the main building, a single structure that looks like a beehive cut in half with the center removed. It is a gigantic building, huge and scary, too scary for little people to approach and participate in politics.

As I was looking through the exhibition of competing designs for the new parliament building - most were elaborate, extravagant and awesome – I thought of parliaments which fail: when there aren’t enough members present; when both the government party and opposition party MPs lack responsibility. The battles expand, contributing to divisions in the country which are very costly. Many laws are stalled in parliament. The Thai parliament is a lame duck, hopeless. While I was looking, I heard the sound of Wasan Sittiket, that artist-anarchist, singing loudly inside my head: ‘Oh, parliament, dead and wasted. Gone. No way out. No hope.’

Then I thought of a Hollywood film which attacks ‘the state.’ It was directed by James McTeigue, V for Vendetta. In the final scene, the underground is used to deliver explosives against the English Houses of Parliament, which have become [in the film] a symbol of swindling and corruption. The audience gets satisfaction in seeing that place get blown sky high.
Maybe the attempt at ‘re-branding’ the Parliament is not going to help anything get better. It may only shelter the corruption and allow it to diversify, until at last, the only way out is violence and anarchy.

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