Asian Wall Street Journal (interview)

A Hidden Oasis in Bangkok

Amid urban bustle, a lush compound offers gardens, traditional architecture

By Stan Sesser

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Buried in the fashionable Sukhumvit district of this bustling city, amid the high-rise buildings, bumper-to-bumper traffic and pulsating nightlife, sit 1.5 acres from an earlier era.

Wood and stone paths lead over a big pond and through a virtual jungle of ferns, trees and orchids. Surrounded by ponds and gardens are nine hardwood houses, some on stilts, all bearing the soaring peaked roofs and extensive wooden decks that are Thailand’s cultural signature. With their impeccably polished dark wood, the houses look as if they’ve sprouted from the ground.

They’re also very rare. Commonplace a few decades ago, these contemplative, lushly landscaped plots of land that once housed the city’s elite have all but disappeared, replaced with sleek high-rises so upscale a couple of them offer a swimming pool for each unit. An official of the Siam Society, which keeps tabs on Thai history and culture, says the only other compound he knew of in the Sukhumvit district was recently sold and torn down after its owner died.

From the hutongs of Beijing to the shophouses of Singapore, the bulldozing of classic dwellings is a phenomenon that extends throughout Asia. Alex Kerr, who wrote two books extensively discussing the issue in Japan, says the country has razed tens of thousands of traditional homes in Kyoto, a historic center of arts and culture, leaving very few standing. And over the past two or three decades, Singapore has lost virtually all of its shophouses, store-cum-residential homes with distinctive peaked roofs, says Randolph Langenbach, an American consultant to Unesco on historic preservation.

“The problem with Asia is that economic development has taken a Western approach, and out goes tradition and culture,” says Mr. Langenbach, who calls what’s happening in China “development on steroids.”

The Sukhumvit compound is safe for now. The land alone is worth $10 million, by the estimate of one developer. But its owners say they aren’t selling. “The developers tried a lot, but they’ve given up by now,” says Rolf von Bueren, who with his family runs a business that sells high-end jewelry and decorations.

Originally from Germany, Mr. von Bueren moved into the soi 23 Sukhumvit compound 37 years ago. He lives there with Helen, his half-Thai and half-Scottish wife, whose family owned the compound.

Once ubiquitous, Thai compounds like this one are a rarity due to Western-style development.

“Psychologically for a Westerner to live in a Thai house is a fantastic initiation to the Orient. You walk barefoot on a beautiful floor,” says Mr. von Bueren, who looks at least a decade younger than his 68 years. “When you sit on the floor, it’s a different perspective on life; everything looks different.”

The problem with Thai wooden houses: They were designed for a lifestyle that has long ago vanished. In a previous era, cooking was done outdoors, the woods served as the bathroom, and a family’s few possessions and their bedrolls would be stored in a corner of the room. Built on stilts to protect against floodwaters and snakes, the ground beneath the house could be used as a workshop, playroom and shelter for the animals. The floorboards would have gaps between them for cross-ventilation.

That’s hardly a ideal setup in an era of air conditioners, indoor plumbing and Western kitchens. Mr. von Bueren has attempted to resolve the problem with a series of compromises that make his houses more livable for modern times, yet maintain their integrity.

The bathrooms are tucked away behind wooden walls and have wooden cabinets that match the rest of the house. The ground floors of the houses are enclosed to accommodate air conditioning. Aluminum sheeting under the roof tiles keeps the water from leaking in.

There are still hassles — such as the need to walk through one of Bangkok’s drenching rainstorms to get from the bedroom to the exercise room to the office. The old wood requires constant maintenance; 15 people come and go. In an average month, Mr. von Bueren estimates he spends $600 to $800 on maintenance, although every five years or so a major repair bill will cost up to $50,000. “It’s all possible, but when you’re constrained by tradition, you have to compromise,” Mr. von Bueren states.

Few Thais are willing to make such compromises. “The modernization of Thailand has happened so fast that Thais have abandoned what looks by contrast to be an unmodern way of life,” says Philip Cornwel-Smith, author of “Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.” “It’s part of the throwing out of the old culture,” he adds.

The nearby condominiums in the neighborhood, which are marketed to foreign residents and some upper-income Thais, offer a very different lifestyle. Selling for around $200,000 to $800,000, depending on size and degree of luxury, they offer kitchens, bathrooms and walk-in closets that would easily pass muster in California. But there’s little about them that relates to Thailand or Asia.

For Mr. von Bueren, it’s the old culture that enhances his life. Eating, reading and other activities take place on the floor, although, as a concession to age, he has bought some low chairs and cushions. His elaborate gardens are tended using mulch from the fallen leaves and other plant debris as fertilizer. He has given up suits and ties in favor of informal clothes.

And Mr. von Bueren has passed down his love for traditional Thai culture to new generations. Years ago, the family purchased traditional houses from rural areas and moved them to the property. Now he shares his compound with his two sons and his two blond-haired grandsons, ages 10 and 8, who attend Thai schools.

“I think my sons were so embarrassed by their parents that they forgot to rebel,” Mr. von Bueren jokes.

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