The global COVID-19 pandemic has been utterly devastating, introducing uncertainty into every aspect of modern life. But for the urban poor in a dense metropolis like Bangkok, whose lives were already uncertain enough, the pandemic compounded, and amplified, that uncertainty. In many parts of Bangkok, tiny, one-room living spaces are often shared by many. Social distancing, as we have come to understand it, is simply impossible under such conditions, and many people have forced to live on the street, or in their cars, if only to keep their families safe. For too many, HOME is no longer a safe space.
At the peak of the pandemic, once it became clear that a major COVID cluster in one of Bangkok’s biggest hospitals was not being driven by patients, but by the hospital’s own service employees—many of whom lived in a crowded, informal settlement nearby—the long-ignored problem of affordable housing became visibly urgent. The majority of Bangkok’s housing is developed by the private sector, where affordable housing simply isn’t seen as profitable. This drives many workers to informal settlements in or near the city center, where most service jobs are located. Bangkok, of course, is hardly unique in this respect. Indeed, the affordable housing crisis and the emergence of informal housing settlements are challenges faced by cities throughout low and middle income countries the world over. With no realistic end to the pandemic in sight—and with other, future pandemics/crises on the horizon—the need for innovation in clean, safe, affordable housing has never been more urgent.
The COVID-19 pandemic, then, has prompted a radical reconsideration of certain traditional notions of what it means to make a “home,” and build a family. In much of the world, the standard of the nuclear family appears inadequate to the demands of pandemic living, absent the broader social infrastructures taken for granted as part of pre-pandemic life. This rupture, while traumatic in the extreme, presents an opportunity to revisit and reconsider architecture’s role in perpetuating a vision of home/family life now proven less than sufficient, if not wholly obsolete, in light of current crises.
By 2050 more than half of Bangkok could be under water. 50 years later, it could disappear entirely, along with many other coastal cities. In this context, mass migration could become a regular part of life for far too many of us. The very concept of “home,” to say nothing of “home ownership,” will be greatly challenged.
Bangkok’s tropical climate invites a range of creative approaches to cooling and ventilation, the sort of which will become ever more necessary, in ever more places, if the worst effects of climate change are to be averted. Many of these approaches are rooted in vernacular building traditions based in light construction and daily adaptability to quick and extreme changes in weather. The fundamental impermanence of architecture is especially evident in this context, where the built environment appears as but a pause in the constant flux and flow of the natural world around it, subject to the entropic processes of erosion, dissolution, and attrition. This demands of architecture—and of architects—a high degree of flexibility and adaptability. In such contexts, informality becomes less a symptom of marginality and precariousness, and more a matter of necessity. Like all things natural, architecture is shown to exist in a constant state of emergence and disappearance, construction and dissolution, solidity and ephemerality. A house, in this view, is not a fixed object, or thing unto itself, but a condition—an expression, perhaps—of living.
Considering the specter of climate change and the threat it poses to the viability of modern urban life, and the lingering impact of the global pandemic on human society in general, the adage that “you can’t go home again” may appear to hold true. What is “home,” after all, but a manifestation of the familiar, a way of organizing space—be it mental or physical—around notions of the stable, the secure, and the certain?
This studio begins by rejecting such assumptions, and will explore questions of house and home, family and community, architecture and environment, through the lenses of informality and impermanence. This exploration will be conducted in light of challenges associated with climate change and its impact on coastal cities like Bangkok, the realities of designing and building for a tropical/urban environment, and the ongoing trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. The studio will examine several aspects of affordable housing in high-density, tropical, urban contexts. We will be using Bangkok as a kind of case study, seeking to develop alternative models of mass housing and collective living capable of adapting to the radical uncertainties inherent in these current crises. To this end, we will be consulting and collaborating with representatives of the Bangkok Metropolitan Government and the National Housing Authority of Thailand, among other local institutions and stakeholders.
The world is changed, and continues to change at a bewildering pace. That in itself is nothing new. What is new is our collective recognition of that change, of change as a fundamental characteristic of the world at large, and of architecture’s need to change with it.
In the first part of the studio, the students will investigate and develop an individual approach to the question of “Home” based in a critical understanding of four key issues: Informality, Impermanence, Uncertainty, and Adaptability. The session will help the students to explore the studio’s conceptual framework. Then the studio will spend Travel Week in Bangkok to experience the actual situation with another set of issues: Site, Situation, Space, and Assembly. A ‘super block’ with mixed developments in the middle of Bangkok will then be explored as a potential site for the project. In the second half of the studio, students will develop their projects in more tangible form. The outcome of the project should be collected and presented into a booklet.