The Australian Embassy Bangkok, designed by BVN, explores the narrative potential of architecture through a visceral juxtaposition of Australian and Thai precedents.
The Australian Embassy Bangkok, by BVN, might be thought of as an island – a rectangular tract of land in central Bangkok with impenetrable edges and no physical relationship with what lies outside its boundaries. The architects therefore focused on cultural relationships, with their design conceived as a blending, or overlapping, of concepts derived from both Thai and Australian precedents. As is typical in traditional Thai architecture, both exterior and interior spaces are animated by water, with evaporation mitigating high air temperatures and sunlight reflecting off pools to brighten ceilings and the undersides of canopies. The chancery building – the centrepiece of the embassy composition – rises up through the surface of a square plane of water, across which bridges link to the Head of Mission’s residence and other support buildings, each of which has its own independent form, different materials and a different way of relating to the uniting water plane.
Given the difficult times in which we now live, this picturesque, peaceful enclave is obliged to function primarily as a fortress – the architects’ chief priority was the security of the staff and users. The chancery’s deeply recessed window slots expose the thickness of the walls, but, with their undulating forms and smooth red brick surfaces, these solid walls drape like weightless curtains, animated by the syncopated rhythm of the angled concrete planes that subdivide the window openings. Designed to confound and minimize the shooting angles of potential snipers, the concrete planes give every window in the building a uniquely framed view of the surroundings and different sunlight entry.
Red brickwork, now little seen in central Bangkok, was formerly a common building material, frequently used in the construction of temples to imply that the building was at one with the earth on which it stood. In the design of the embassy, BVN principal James Grose suggested a parallel relationship with Australian desert landforms. It is expected – even required – that a new embassy building will stand out architecturally, but without any suggestion of arrogant assertiveness. It must be a showcase – perhaps even a metaphor – for the nation that it represents diplomatically. That’s a heavy load for a building to bear, particularly in the case of Australia, whose cultural diversity resists easy generalizations. BVN negotiated this dilemma by inviting visitors to consider the rich complexity of the Australian landmass as the unifier of its many very different ways of life.
The forms of the main building are intended to reference particular characteristics of the country’s terrain – its unique shapes and colours and the lines “written” across the landscape by erosion, wind and fire. The red walls of the chancery rise up six storeys out of the vast, flat plane of Bangkok, with the parapet silhouetted against the sky in a way that evokes Uluru while making no attempt to imitate it. BVN also referenced the eroded canyons and layered sand dunes of wind-carved desert landscapes, the random patterns of bushfire lines and eucalyptus bark, the softly curved surfaces of river stones and the cracks in stone outcrops, none of which was replicated literally in the building, but which, together, formed the vocabulary of the building’s architectural language. The atrium, for example, emerged from the architects’ ideas of canyons and, inspired by such lyrical land scenes, they evolved the design’s three-dimensional, collage-like, “painterly” composition. Such an instinctive way of working and such strong design authorship are not common in recent architecture – we have tended to preference the rationalism of our program analysis and the efficacy of our algorithms. However, the “islanders” in the Bangkok embassy are enclosed within a security environment driven by the Australian Government’s pragmatic, protective strategies and protocols, to which BVN’s lyrical forms are an intriguing counterbalance.
One of BVN’s most complex tasks was to render the security arrangements unobtrusive in everyday use and certainly the embassy does not appear to be “hunkered down.” The casual forms of the buildings express a cheerful sense of calm, and the necessarily impregnable separation between the staff side and the public areas of the embassy is discreet. The two sides, separated by security-rated glass, face each other across the six-storey-high, six-metre-wide, glass-roofed central atrium and share its light. The atrium is a unifying rather than a separating space – a convivial place where staff meet and converse across the gap.
A sequence of exuberant gardens wraps the diplomatic buildings. The boundaries between the interior spaces and the gardens are less permeable than might be wished, but this is for reasons of climate as well as security – Bangkok is located in a tropical monsoon region. However, while the size and number of windows were restricted, the experience inside the building is one of brightness and openness. Close to the line of the equator, sunlight regularly enters the atrium almost vertically, where it bounces off the textured glass walls and the rippling surfaces of the ground-floor pools, animating the space with reflected, speckled light that melds with the white noise of water spilling over the pool. The feeling is of being outside.
Isolated from the intriguing hubbub of the surrounding city by protective security walls, expat enclaves of this type can often seem restrictive and bland. In BVN’s interpretation – with buildings and spaces of different sizes and materials and lush exotic gardens and lawns – the compound has the intricate sensual complexity of an Asian inner city. The site is already being engulfed in rapidly expanding tropical greenness and the perimeter walls will eventually virtually disappear from view.
In the design of this embassy, BVN explored the narrative potential of architecture and sought, in its interpretation of Australian and Thai precedents, a relevant and coherent grammar of forms, colours and textures that would combine in a rich composition legible to all. It is not necessary that Thai visitors recognize the chancery’s allusion to Uluru, nor that Australian visitors be familiar with Thai watergardens. It is intended that these juxtapositions will resonate on a universal and visceral level.
It is important, I think, to acknowledge the extraordinary physical quality of this building. Wherever you look, you see elegant, unpretentious, quiet detailing, knowledgeably conceived and apparently flawlessly made. Given the extreme complexity of the design, this is astonishing – all the more so because the logistics of this project were so daunting. Sometimes more than one thousand workers were present on site, with the bricklayers being coached in their tasks by skilled bricklayers brought in as teachers from Australia and Portugal. The bricks – similar to Thailand’s traditional it mon dang bricks – were sourced in Australia and 450,000 were shipped to site, including those that were fabricated in nine different radii to avoid the tiny but irritating facets – the “visual stutter” – that would have occurred if the undulating walls of the chancery had been faced in regular, straight-sided bricks.
Similar care went into the casting of the board-marked concrete around the base of the chancery, where formwork wood had to be imported from Canada because native Thai timber left an insufficiently clear imprint. The budget was a concern, as all budgets are, but Thailand is one of the cheapest major nations in terms of construction costs. Consequently, the short cuts and shortcomings in construction that we have come to accept as normal in our era are absent from this building. There is no clumsiness to disturb its sense of poetry. In the extraordinary perfection of its making, and in the unpretentious innocence of its charm, it seems like a building from another time.