Bangkok (1890-1910)/ King Chulalongkorn (Rama V): the Thai Monarh, the Aspiring Modernist

Figure 1. photograph of King Chulalongkorn © 1896, Robert Lenz in Singapore

Photograph of King Chulalongkorn © 1896, Robert Lenz in Singapore

 

The modernization and westernization of Bangkok was a direct result of Thai monarchy’s engagement with the western dominated culture and technology. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Thailand as the only independent country in Southeast Asia was threatened by colonial powers in its surrounding areas. The monarch initiated the top-down modernization process not only to improve the social-economic condition of the country but also in the hope that a self-modernizing country could be able to evade the direct colonial control and preserve the independence of the nation (Askew, 2002). They were both the patron and the planner for the construction of a modern Bangkok. The progress came to its peak under the reign of King Chulalongkorn (b.1853- d.1910) (fig.1), whose proposals profoundly shaped the urban environment of Bangkok. A dualistic developing vision that incorporate the indigenous Thai identity and the western technology and ideology was adopted by him.

Influenced by his father and under the education of a private British teacher since childhood, King Chulalongkorn was willing to accept all the things modern and western and applied to his own country. His architectural and planning view primarily originated from his travels to the colonial districts around Thailand and two trips to Europe. From 1871 to 1907, he made nine trips to colonial Singapore, Malaysia, Java, etc. (Lim, 2009). Meanwhile European consultants took a place in every department of the government attending the plan of Bangkok during that period of time. The royal projects proposed by the king in the 1900s included the construction of new western style palaces, the establishment of Dusit district, a new political center, and the new road projects, which all demonstrated clear references to the western. These will be elaborated further in the following posts.

As the monarch of the old Siam, Chulalongkorn did not forget to reconcile the western ideology with the indigenous context. After his visit to Europe in 1907, he stated that “I am convinced that there exists no incompatibility between such acquisition (of European modern science) and the maintenance of our individuality as an independent Asiatic nation.” (Wyatt, 1984). Instead of rebuilding the whole city, the old fabric of the sacred city center was preserved. The new city extended into the suburban areas where were farming lands. New palaces built in the 1900s were usually in a style that combined the western architectural language with the Thai tradition.

The role King Chulalongkorn played in the making of a modern Bangkok could be compared with Hoffman in Paris and Moses in New York, or even more crucial as he had not only the power to plan but also to realize. His vision of Bangkok as a dualistic city that assimilated the western technology and ideology within the local context determined the future developing pattern, whose influence could be discerned in the city context even now. His vision on one had successfully promoted the modernization process of the city through infrastructure and institutional projects. And the traditional Thai characteristic were mostly preserved. Yet on the other hand a segmented urban condition was emerging due to the imposition of the modernity from the top-down monarchy class. The following blogs will investigate into this respect more.

 

References:

Askew, M. (2002). Bangkok, place, practice and representation. London: Routledge.

Lim, P. (2009). Through the eyes of the King : the travels of King Chulalongkorn. Singapore : Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Wyatt, D. (1984). Thailand : a short history. London : Yale University Press.

Lim, P. (2009). Through the eyes of the King : the travels of King Chulalongkorn. Singapore : Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

One comment on “Bangkok (1890-1910)/ King Chulalongkorn (Rama V): the Thai Monarh, the Aspiring Modernist
  1. Katy Cheng says:

    I think this post gives a clear background introduction to the modernization of Bangkok. Although monarchical implementation may be dominant and controlling, it is a forceful way to actually put the planning into execution. Only through such way can the social economic condition be improved. Compared this to our own research of Manila, I realized that it is crucial for the planner to be the authority itself in order to carry out the plan.

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