The distinct architecture of a region is an enthralling storyteller of the ingenuity of its people. In places of extreme cold, houses are built with steep roofs so the snow can easily slide off; while in arid desserts where there is little or no rain, buildings are built flat. Architecture is a testament to how people masterfully adapt to provide himself with a dwelling suitable to his way of living given the natural conditions of his environment, and not only that but his religion, livelihood, culture, and more.
Thailand is certainly no exception. The fascinating country is full of cultural riches and topographic spectacles that has resulted in a unique design identity and structural inventiveness.
Iconic Forms That Followed Function
Thai architecture is identifiable by certain features that can be seen in buildings both modern and old. Before these forms were etched into the heart of the country’s dwelling design and construction, they were mostly simple solutions to the daily obstacles of the people. Passed on through generations of artistic craftsmanship, they evolved into the iconic forms that we now know today.
Interestingly, a significant factor in the evolution of Thailand’s architecture is one humble crop: rice.
Thai people, like many Southeast Asian countries, largely depend on this hardy plant which easily grows as long as there is plenty of fresh water. Because of this, farmlands were close to rivers where flooding is an inevitable occasion, especially for a region that experiences 5 months of frequent raining each year.
Since their lives pretty much circulated around the rice they cultivated, they had to deal with the floods and so they had to adapt. The answer came in the form of stilts.
Typically tapered and made of stone or lumber, pillar structures raised houses several feet from the ground keeping them dry. In addition, the elevation also allowed cool air to flow into the interior through gaps in the floor helping occupants against the humid, tropical climate.
Today, a number of Thailand’s infrastructures are still built stilts, either for practicality or for decorative purposes in tribute to its historical importance.
Undoubtedly, the most iconic feature of traditional Thai architecture is the roof. The Thai roof is the offspring of a marriage between function and cultural artistry. During the peak of the rainy season, the region receives an excess of 30 centimeters of rain. Constructed with dramatically steep angles exceeding 45 degrees, these roofings made sure that rainwater does not collect and cause damage to the building. Since the houses are built without ceilings, the interior pocket also allowed space for warm air to rise and be diffused into the eaves.
Roofs were either made of grass or palm leaves, shingles, tiles, wood chips, or even iron. But what is most impressive is their often majestic forms which can be gabled, hipped, or a combination of the two.
To the Thais, the hipped roof design usually signifies the house of royalty. The ‘panlom’ or the bargeboard is the most decorated element attached at the edge of the roof’s gable. The impressive pointed spires that rise like horns are a favorite feature and is still prevalent in modern buildings.
The Thai sala is a classic open pavilion and is considered a national symbol of Thailand. Wanting to have a place to rest and escape the heat of the sun, farmers tending their rice fields were the ones to start building the first salas. Eventually, the structure was also adapted as waiting for sheds along riverbanks since the most common means of transportation was by boat. The first salas were cleverly built entirely out of wood and could even be assembled and disassembled, serving as temporary structures.
An example of a modern Thai sala following the traditional layout
The sala is also considered as an embodiment of Thai hospitality. Being a structure intently built without any enclosures, they were open for communal use. Hence, they became places where village folks would socialize, brought by a sense of sharing the same shelter.
Despite their simple origins, Thai Salas later developed into more extravagant versions and serving more important purposes such as a venue for religious activities. Many Thai-inspired homes still incorporate the sala usually as an open pavilion for social gatherings located on the terrace or beside the pool.
The typical Thai house is often not a single structure but a cluster of several cabins interconnected by terraces and walkways. Open spaces were crucial to the Thai people’s way of living. On wet seasons, they needed areas where they can dry linen, crops, and other necessities.
Terraces, which are called ‘chaan’, are a common feature of their houses and covers almost half of the floor area. These are basically covered or uncovered decks that span around or in between the buildings. The alternating allotment of closed and open spaces was also strategic to the ventilation of the house for it allowed cross breezes to pass through.
Influences of Religion and Superstitions
Part of the Thai people’s rich culture is their strong inclination towards superstitions and traditional beliefs. As to any group of people, their religion influences almost every aspect of daily living even including the construction of houses. In fact, it is said that for one to build a house, a Thai person needed the aid of two professionals: a carpenter and a Brahmin priest.
The entire process of erecting a building had to strictly follow a ritual as directed by the astrologer priest. For example, columns are positioned and raised one by one in accordance with certain guidelines in relation to their calendar. Additionally, the layout of the house including the number of windows as well as the number of steps on the stairs also had to follow rules.
A large portion of the house is also allocated for their religious images and as room for worship and other rituals.
Use of Pre-fabricated Elements
One key identity of the Thai’s method of construction is the development of a pre-fabrication system. Instead of building a house entirely on site, many of its elements, such as the walls, are constructed in the carpenter’s shop and then later transported to the building area. This made the work relatively quick and easy for the people who had come from neighboring villages to help with the construction.
This technique may also be crucial since many of the places where houses were built were probably surrounded by bodies of water and working on site would have been quite challenging.
Traditional Thai Architecture In Modern Luxury Villas
Some of the best examples of the modern adaption of traditional Thai architecture can be seen in Thailand’s luxury villas. Despite incorporating western design concepts, many of these exquisite homes remain faithful to the country’s classic structural beauty.
The luxury villas of Cape Yamu in Phuket are all built in a uniform concept embodying the iconic Thai roof. With its laid-back island setting, Koh Samui is also home to many luxury villas that were designed to express traditional Thai architecture. Filled with state-of-the-art facilities and luxuriant amenities, these private villas still bear iconic features that have served as everlasting testaments to the resourcefulness and artistry of the Thai people.