Bangkok Utopia: Modern Architecture and Buddhist Felicities, 1910–1973

Hardback: $75.00
ISBN-13: 9780824884604
Published: February 2021

Additional Information

296 pages | 70 illustrations, 36 in color
  • About the Book
  • “Utopia” is a word not often associated with the city of Bangkok, which is better known for its disorderly sprawl, overburdened roads, and stifling levels of pollution. Yet as early as 1782, when the city was officially founded on the banks of the Chao Phraya river as the home of the Chakri dynasty, its orientation was based on material and rhetorical considerations that alluded to ideal times and spaces. The construction of palaces, monastic complexes, walls, forts, and canals created a defensive network while symbolically locating the terrestrial realm of the king within the Theravada Buddhist cosmos. Into the twentieth century, pictorial, narrative, and built representations of utopia were critical to Bangkok’s transformation into a national capital and commercial entrepôt. But as older representations of the universe encountered modern architecture, building technologies, and urban planning, new images of an ideal society attempted to reconcile urban-based understandings of Buddhist liberation and felicitous states like nirvana with worldly models of political community like the nation-state.

    Bangkok Utopia outlines an alternative genealogy of both utopia and modernism in a part of the world that has often been overlooked by researchers of both. It examines representations of utopia that developed in the city—as expressed in built forms as well as architectural drawings, building manuals, novels, poetry, and ecclesiastical murals—from its first general strike of migrant laborers in 1910 to the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1973. Using Thai- and Chinese-language archival sources, the book demonstrates how the new spaces of the city became arenas for modern subject formation, utopian desires, political hegemony, and social unrest, arguing that the modern city was a space of antinomy—one able not only to sustain heterogeneous temporalities, but also to support conflicting world views within the urban landscape.

    By underscoring the paradoxical character of utopias and their formal narrative expressions of both hope and hegemony, Bangkok Utopia provides an innovative way to conceptualize the uneven economic development and fractured political conditions of contemporary global cities.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Lawrence Chua, Author

      Lawrence Chua is associate professor in the School of Architecture, Syracuse University.
    • Ronald G. Knapp, Series Editor

      Ronald G. Knapp, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, State University of New York, New Paltz, where he taught from 1968 to 2001, has been carrying out research on the cultural and historical geography of China since 1965. He is the author or editor of more than twenty books concerning the vernacular architecture of China and Southeast Asia.
    • Xing Ruan, Series Editor

  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • Bangkok Utopia is one of the most exciting books in Southeast Asian architecture and modern history I have read in years. It will become the standard through which we understand the evolution of modern Thai public architecture. Nearly every page offers readers a little-known fact or fascinating aside that makes the last 150 years of Thai architecture come alive. It provides a welcome and novel approach to the history of Thai politics through the built environment and emphasizes the agency of Thai architects and political and religious visionaries who did not merely borrow or mimic foreign (read: western) architectural techniques or trends but developed their own styles for their own particular public messages.
      —Justin McDaniel, University of Pennsylvania
    • Chua examines both the architectural and spatial aspects of buildings and sites and the unique conditions of these spaces and their intricate relationship with the city’s evolution over time. Referring to this approach as “urban humanities,” he explains how juxtaposing urban spaces against visual and literary representations is instrumental for understanding a building’s narrative qualities in the twentieth century. This makes both fieldwork and archival study fundamental to his methods—a two-pronged approach that engages a range of Thai- and Chinese-language sources and contemporary analysis of a building’s material context to reveal different interpretations and transformations of its rhetorical and cultural meanings. . . . Particularly in light of Thailand’s recent tumultuous political landscape . . . Bangkok Utopia offers a compelling argument for the significance of architecture and urban planning in the continuing pursuit of utopian nationalism in Thailand, as political actors continue to negotiate and integrate the realization of Buddhist felicities with the aspirations of a modern, development-driven nation-state.
      —Ian Tan, University of Hong Kong, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 81:2 (June 2022)
    • Lawrence Chua’s book on Bangkok beautifully illustrates how [independence from colonial rule] was articulated in Thailand’s capital city . . . The book’s most interesting contribution . . . is its offering of ‘an alternative genealogy of both utopia and modernism in a part of the world that has often been overlooked by scholars of both.’ This is particularly important because ‘the ideological framework of neoliberal capitalism denies that any alternatives are possible, let alone viable.’
      —Gregory Bracken, Delft University of Technology, Journal of Urban History
  • Supporting Resources