The art of being influential
By Christophe Chommeloux
2 May 2017
His stark, minimalist designs have won considerable acclaim and his fusion of art and creativity departs from the Thai tradition. Duangrit Bunnag, sometimes considered as Thailand’s “hottest architect,” is a multi-talented man who likes chaos and straight talking.
Duangrit Bunnag seems to be ubiquitous. Besides his work as a very demanded architect, he is involved in a bunch of activities such as the edition, music festivals or hospitality, as well as chairing the Creative District around the Chaophraya River.
Having studied at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, then taken his graduate degree at London’s Architectural Association School of Architecture in 1995, Duangrit Bunnag began being noticed when he came back to Bangkok and started his career at Architects 49, a prominent local firm for which he drew stunning contemporary homes and hip resorts, before going independent in 1998. From the start, he specialized in daring projects, such as X2 Kui Buri in Prachuap Khiri Khan or Hotel de la Paix (now the Sofitel) in Luang Prabang.
But his growing popularity really reached a new level in December 2013, when he relocated his activities along the Chaophraya River to the then not so trendy western side of Bangkok and opened the Jam Factory, a restaurant and studio complex in Thonburi. There he transformed a group of rundown warehouses into a complex housing his architecture and furniture studios, a stylish cafe and bookstore, an art gallery, and the Never Ending Summer restaurant. The complex quickly became a new milestone for arty Bangkok and will be followed by other such projects, like the soon to open Warehouse 30 on the other side of the river.
Australian David Robinson, a key actor in the creation of the Creative District Foundation, describes an unstoppable mover & shaker: “He’s a creative powerhouse, a unique mix of entrepreneur, artist and activist, with no shortage of ideas and new projects to get busy with!”
His recent surge of success may make Duangrit look like an overnight sensation to newcomers, but it is in fact more a kind of consecration for a creative talent who has long struggled to find the perfect path for his vision.
“He has definitely become an important public figure now, and not just because of his architecture,” says Pranitan Phornprapa, founder of the Wonderfruit Festival, an event combining music, design and arts with his own conservationist ideals and that Duangrit has supported from the beginning. “Usually Thais tend to be more shy!” Indeed, Duangrit Bunnag seems never at a loss for words, as we have experienced when meeting the man in his stronghold of Jam Factory.
What are you up to?
With my design firm we’re working on a hotel in India. This project is very interesting for me: we build it on the top of a mountain and it looks like a temple… On art development, we’re working on a project called Warehouse 30, a concept store and co-working space.
A new Jam Factory?
It’s gonna be a little bit different. Jam Factory has so many buildings in the space when Warehouse 30 is only one warehouse with everything inside, it’s a different strategy. Under the same roof, you will have a coffee shop big enough to be a studio as well, cocktails and wine bar, flower shop, design store, bookstore, fresh juice bar, theatre and co-working space. Freelancers will be able to gather there, work together, collaborate … it’s like a creative community.
Creativity is really the keyword for you?
It should be a keyword for everyone. I have never seen anything achieved without creativity. We have agriculture, factories, technology, but these things, at some point, don’t make money anymore. Nobody gets money by selling rice anymore. I ask what you can do for the future, what you gonna sell, what you gonna do? For me the idea of creativity or innovation is something we can harvest from our brain. If we try to train people to think creatively, it means we get endless resources to produce a lot of things and that’s the foundation of the new economy.
That’s a big joke! Thailand wants to support technology, but we are not very good at that, we are not an advanced country in technology. But we are really good on user interface, user experience. That’s a part of design or creativity. If you want to invest in technology and innovation, my question is: where is it coming from?
I think the education system in Thailand makes people think in concept and not in action. I never like to do things in concept, I prefer to take action! You can talk about things, sit down and have dozen ideas without doing a thing. Thai people are really good at that. They can tell you a lot on how things should be done, but if you ask them what they can do by themselves… In the rural areas they tend to do more than speak, but urban people tend to speak more than do.
For me this Thailand 4.0 will never happen. Instead of technology, I think the country should reinforce people’s ideas, mind and soul. Invent a new generation of people who think creatively, that’s the future of Thailand! The Ministry of Education is not providing anything good for the country, not only with this government, but also the previous ones. Our children are not getting any better with this education, they’re getting more stupid and we can’t move forward in any 4.0 or 2.0 or 3.0 or 8.0.
In what you’re doing, do you precisely keep in mind to educate people?
For me, it’s all about leadership. I don’t want to be a leader, but I want to show them how leadership looks like. I think it’s important for Thailand to have a leader, doesn’t have to be a Prime Minister, but a real leader who can teach people to think by themselves, lead their soul…
A part of my contribution to the community who created Creative District is for the people who live in the neighborhood. I think we are lucky that this district brings so many people with great minds, people who work in the gallery, TCDC… So I said: sit down together and let’s do something good!
You’re a print publisher as well?
I have 2 magazines already, the third one will be launched in may, hopefully. It’s a difficult time for the media now, any kind of media, because perception and consumption are changing. We have to adapt, but I still believe in print!