What is a 'Community Architect'?:
Perception and Perspectives

Somsook Boonyabancha, Director of CODI

One of the important issues we have now is about the new concept of the architect. We call it 'Community Architect' because it is a new field - especially when it comes to designing and planning communities in Thailand. A lot of people here still haven't heard of such a thing. So far, the only institute that is teaching this is the Ashram of Community & Environmental Architects (Silp Ashram). It involves having people planned the layout for their own community - with the involvement of the architect - so that they could determine how they want to live.

All this is still new in Thailand. And when I first proposed this idea to several of my colleagues, they've express some doubt as to the whether any architect would be able to do this or even interested in so doing. My colleagues think that architects do not understand people and the social issues involved in the community. But I disagreed with them. I think that architects, unlike many other professions, are especially well equipped with an impartial sense constructivism - they want to see improvement, they like to be creative; it's their inherent nature. No matter how bad the existing conditions are, they want to make changes.

We live in the world of changes so we must have the knowledge of how to do this. I'm sure their professors didn't teach them how to design the physical aspect of the environment only. So it's a good starting point to make change, to create a new social structure where the people could rest assured that they will be the ones who would be building their own community. Architects have an important role in synthesizing the knowledge they've learned from working with the people in the community. This new knowledge distilled from all the Baan Mankong Collective Housing projects will be very important for us.

For those of us who've work as social activists, you'd find that the knowledge we've learned from the Baan Mankong Collective Housing is quite new. New types of structures have emerged along the process. The community also wants fresh 'vision' to assist in their planning. Whether the architect's proposal is realistic or not is another issue, but it enables people to go beyond the old paradigm of saying 'that's the way it's always been done....'

The power to imagine serves as a bridge that could agitate and move people from their existing frame of mind to a new and more playful frame of mind. Once they get there, people would have fun in participating more in designing their own community. The architect's role is very important in changing this old paradigm. Social activists must also take a note of this.

When I was a young architect in 1982, I was working with a community of squatters on the issue of eviction. The squatters said that they've lived there for a long time; they have the right to be there. At the same time state officials were also equally adamant, saying the squatters were living there illegally for many years. So everyone thought he's right, and the other was wrong. But when we've arrived, we've found that our training as architects helped cut across the discourse of 'rights' and helped us move to a new level of discussion. We've found that this person wanted to live in such and such way while another person wanted to use the land in such and such way.

Conflicts exist in the theoretical realm. The concept of 'rights' could get people to kill one another. We must transform the theoretical concept of 'rights' into the empirical realm that is more tangible - having an actual plan and a detail solution. So we came up with the Land Sharing plan. All parties were more or less satisfied with the plan. The people, no doubt, could do this without the architects, but we've more graphic and visual techniques that could assist them in their vision.

Lastly, I would like to ask our universities to join us and start thinking seriously about creating a set of knowledge that's directly extracted from our communities. I want them to start thinking about it, and not just copying Western architectural textbook forever. Let's start thinking about designing specifically for people in Thailand including its social structure. Yes, we must go as far as that.