Architecture of Thailand
The architecture of Thailand is a major part of the country's rich cultural legacy and reflects both the challenges of living in Thailand's sometimes extreme climate as well as, historically, the importance of architecture to the Thai people's sense of community and religious beliefs. Influenced by the architectural traditions of many of Thailand's neighbors, it has also developed significant regional variation within its vernacular and religious buildings.
As the moniker “Thai stilt house” suggests, one universal aspect of Thailand’s traditional architecture is the elevation of its buildings on stilts, most commonly to around head height. The area beneath the house is consequently used for storage, crafts, lounging in the daytime, and sometimes for livestock. The houses were raised as a result of heavy flooding during certain parts of the year, and in more ancient times, predators. Thai building and living habits are often based on superstitious and religious beliefs. Many other considerations such as locally available materials, climate, and agriculture have a lot to do with the style.
Thai houses are made from a variety of woods and are often built in just a day as prefabricated wood panels are built ahead of time and put together on site by a master builder. Many houses are also built with bamboo, a material that is easily constructed and does not require professional builders. Most homes start out as a single family home and when a daughter gets married, an additional house is built on site to accommodate her new family. Although the house is built with prefab panels that are easy to rearrange there are taboos against rearranging a house.
A traditional house is usually built as a cluster of physically separate rooms arranged around a large central terrace. The terrace is the largest singular part of the home as it makes up to 40% of the square footage, and up to 60% if the veranda is included. An area in the middle of the terrace is often left open to allow the growth of a tree through the structure, providing welcome shade. The tree chosen is often flowering or scented.
It is important for the Thai people to draw in their natural surroundings by placing potted plants around the terrace, however, in the past there were strict taboos regarding which plants could be placed directly around the house (in current times these are often ignored for the sake of aesthetics). The level of the floor changes as one moves from room to terrace, providing a wide variety of positions for sitting or lounging around the living areas.
Furniture is sparse and includes a bed platform, dining table and loose cushions for sitting. Sleeping areas are set up so that the beds are aligned with the shorter end of the room (as sleeping parallel with the length is similar to lying in a coffin). The direction that the head points towards can never be the west as that is the position bodies are laid in before cremation.
A Kuti is a small structure, built on stilts, designed to house a monk. Its proper size is defined in the Sanghathisep, Rule 6, to be 12 by 7 Keub (or 4.013 by 2.343 meters). This tiny footprint is intended to aid the monk's spiritual journey by discouraging the accumulation of material goods. Typically a monastery consists of a number of these buildings grouped together on a shared terrace, either in an inward facing cluster or lined up in a row. Often these structures included a separate building, called a Hor Trai, which is used to store scriptures.
Thailand features a large number of Buddhist temples, a reflection of the country's widespread Buddhist traditions. Although the term Wat is properly used to refer only to a Buddhist site with resident monks, it is applied loosely in practice and will typically refer to any place of worship other than the Islamic mosques found in southern Thailand.
Sala Thai is a distinctive design of an open pavilion used as a meeting place and to protect people from sun and rain. Most are open on all four sides.
Cultural use of Thai domestic space
The sanctification of Thai domestic space
Houses are one of the essential factors in people’s lives. According to Nuttinee Karnchanaporn who wrote the article called Fear in the Contemporary Thai Domestic Space , “The house always has been the first line of defence against dangers and threats” (77). She also argues that how our houses are built and how we live in them can reveal a lot about our “cultural fear” (77). Definitely, concepts of fear vary from one culture to another. The Thai notion of fear centers on the “spiritual world” such as “ghosts, unseen forces and evil spirits” which is probably different from the western concept of fear (77). Because of the fear of those spiritual beings, Thai people heavily rely on “supernatural powers” for protection in the domestic area (77).
Thai traditional houses are built following the rituals divided into three methods: “material preparation, construction, and dwelling” (Phraya Anumanrajathon qtd. in Karnchanaporn 80). For the first method, material will be carefully selected such as site orientation, the taste and smell of soil, and the names of trees that will be used to build houses and so on (80). Second, the process of construction has to be thoughtfully done. For instance, only a person with an accepted spiritual power is allowed to perform a ritual for the time when the first column is put into the ground. Also, the time for that ritual needs to be precisely calculated and fixed. The guardian spirit house and the housewarming ceremony are also necessary (80). The third method is a proper behavior in the house. Some of the examples are that the threshold is believed to be lived by “a household guardian spirit,” therefore, it is prohibited to step on it. If residents of the house do not follow the instruction, the spiritual protection will disappear. Another good example is that if someone sleeps under the girders, it is believed that they will encounter a difficulty in breathing caused by ghosts. Thus, all the mentioned rituals are done to serve the purpose of making houses as a sacred place and pleasing the spirits in order to receive their protection against all the bad ghosts.
In modern days, building houses following the traditional rituals is not popular anymore because of the western influences (82). Nevertheless, Thai people in the modern time still recognize the concept of making domestic places as sacred ones (85). Karnchanaporn explained that in the past, the rituals were normally practiced and the ways of performing them were passed to younger generations. Therefore, the house owners in those days did not feel anxious with all the complicated traditional practices. In contrast to the ancient people, modern people believe that “improper ritual can pollute spiritual protection” and thus, can lead to the disaster of the house. Therefore, some people try to change the rituals to fit their lifestyle. For instance, one owner does not use the guardian spirit house but instead decides to use the threshold as an alternative choice for offering to the spirits. Another owner does not perform any rituals at all. She is afraid that doing the rituals improperly might cause her a big trouble. Instead of that, she just prays to the spirits for recognizing and showing her gratitude for their protection.
All in all, Karnchanaporn argues that the domestic sanctification is a “double-edged” which can both benefit and harm people. On the one hand, it comforts people for their fears of unknown forces. On the other hand, it falsely encourages people not to take responsibility for bad consequences caused by their own actions in their houses.
- Karnchanaporn, Nuttinee (2001). "Fear in the Contemporary Thai Domestic Space". หน้าจั่ว : วารสารวิชาการคณะสถาปัตยกรรมศาสตร์มหาวิทยาลัยศิลปากร (18).
- Ruethai Chaichongrak. (2002). Thai House: History And Evolution. Weatherhill. ISBN 0-8348-0520-0