“Awareness Makes us Human”: In Conversation with Boonserm Premthada, Founder of Bangkok Project Studio
“It’s all about attitude and adjusting to the existing circumstances”, explains Boonserm Premthada, when asked about his conceptual process. Founder of Bangkok Project Studio, and one of today’s most influential Thai figures in architecture, Premthada has been the subject of Bêka & Lemoine‘s latest documentary, ‘Big Ears Listen With Feet’. The film highlights the personal story of the architect, unveiling all the events and happenings that shaped his unique identity and sensibility. “Deaf from birth”, the short movie looks at how the architect’s disability led him to listen in a different way, learning from elephants. who “despite their large ears […] perceive sound mostly through their feet.”
ArchDaily had the chance to talk with Boonserm Premthada, during Milan Design Week 2022 at the Daaily bar. Recipient of the Design Prize 2021|22 for social impact curated by designboom, the architect shared insights about his beginnings, his office as well as his creative approach, and his projects. Discover the conversation and watch the world online premiere of ‘Big Ears Listen With Feet’ from tonight November 25 (7pmCET) until November 27 (midnight CET) on desigbnoom.
AD: Can you please introduce yourself?
BP: I’m Boonserm Premthada, Founder of Bangkok Project Studio in Thailand. We have a very small studio, with 3 assistants and architects, as well as my wife, who happens to also be my partner, and I. We design an architecture that can be used, that people can understand and can be part of. My work is very much focused on the social aspect and the context. On the local level, we are always interested in doing something with people, not only as an architecture but also as a program that responds to their needs. An architecture that takes into consideration the environmental and natural resources, social structure, and at other times, the infrastructure.
AD: What is unique about Thailand that is part of your work?
BP: It’s more related to me and not to Thailand, it’s mostly linked to my background, to where I was born. I come from a working-class, and my family was pretty poor, living in slums. My inspiration comes from that upbringing, from how we learned to survive in these conditions, and from these experiences. Moreover, my inspiration also comes from the fact that I was born deaf. That was a struggle when I was a child, it led me to be stronger but also it directed me toward the arts and architecture.
AD: You recently completed a pavilion in the Versailles Landscape Architecture Biennial. What did you plan to show in that pavilion?
BP: With this pavilion, we want to open the conversation on how we live in the Global South, in South East Asia specifically. We have a huge population in Thailand, living in areas of natural disasters, and that is why it was important for us that the pavilion gains meaning, highlighting how humans and animals are living mostly elephants.
An elephant can “smell” water kilometers away, and where there is water, there is life, meaning that trees can grow in that area, and consequently elephants can survive. While working with Elephants World, I found out these animals drop feces everywhere as they walk, and villagers use it as “fertilizer for crop cultivation, papermaking, and bio-gas”. I was inspired to use these droppings to experiment with brick-making and construction materials. It’s a natural resource from Thailand, and now we are working more on developing this idea.
AD: This union between animals and humans is something that you have been developing for a while. How do you translate this in architecture? How can elephants and humans encounter each other?
BP: In fact, we learned that, a long time ago, almost 400 years ago, elephants and humans lived together. We are always trying to learn how they managed to live together, but I am sure that this was possible mainly because of love. Just like nowadays you love your dog, cat, or any pet, and do anything to provide for them, at some point in history, the same relationship was possible between elephants and humans.
AD: From your perspective, and after researching this material and being very connected with nature, what are your recommendations to young architects?
BP: Although I believe that it’s key to being a good thinker, and a good philosopher, I also think that attitude is much more important. It’s not about theory, nor philosophy, but about attitude, empathy, and human dignity. Throughout my career, I haven’t done any work in the city, my intentions were more focused on the local aspect, in places that lay in the middle of nowhere. My methodology was the result of my poor upbringing. We had no electricity, but we used candles and moved light everywhere, we had no water, but we went looking for it. We adjusted our lives. This is what I want to communicate to the younger generation: it’s about attitude and adjusting to whatever circumstances we are going through, taking something basic and making it valuable, and being aware of the public and all other species around us… Awareness makes us more human.