On a recent trip to Thailand, I enjoyed a rare opportunity to experience traditional responses to local design challenges, unique architectural expressions of place. Upon arrival, one of the first things you notice is the very hot tropical climate. Then, as you explore, you start to notice the particular cultural responses to this climate – that there is a recognizable characteristic, developed out of necessity, present throughout regional design traditions.
There is a continuous theme of architectural techniques that respond directly to climate with a simplicity and completeness of expression, especially evident in visits to some of the many magnificent Thai temples.
Approaching the temples, there is a sense of grandeur as bright sun shimmers off of the brightly colored tiles, among an array of sweeping roof structures and light exterior surfaces. The journey of enlightenment begins with this first glimpse of the temple complex, and continues inside with a smooth progression from the bright outdoors, through shady verandas, to serene interiors.
The temples use deep overhangs and verandas to provide vitally important shade, in response to the direct sun and persistent hot weather. These elements mediate the tremendous brightness contrast, while at the same time, acting as a threshold to solemnize the moment of entering the sacred space.
Inside, surfaces are defined by dark wood, in less reflective colors and textures. This transition has a phenomenological effect of coolness, and establishes your focus on the gleaming Buddha that reflects indirect daylight from the windows. The dazzling reflections emanating from golden surfaces are a beautiful visual expression of the Buddha’s spiritual magnitude.
The traditional Thai temples are filled with only a subdued sense of natural daylight, which is an interesting contrast to contemporary thinking, but the dark walls and ceiling are not perceived as blank planes; there is just enough ambient light to pick up ornate, glossy details which define the structure. The effect, though subdued, creates an inspiring, pleasing atmosphere.
During my travels in Thailand, there were many new experiences, but throughout them all, what I enjoyed the most was this collaborative expression of daylight and transition, and the harmony with which the local architectural style transcends necessity.
Photo Credits: Fai Dechavas (1,4), Amber Hepner (2, 5, 6), Truly Asia (3)