The Aesthetic Citizen: catachresis, fascism, and the global circulation of modern architecture in Thailand, 1932-2000

 Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Photo: Lawrence Chua

Wat Phra Dhammakaya, Photo: Lawrence Chua

This research project will result in a book-length monograph that examines the conjoined genealogies of modernism and fascism in the architecture of Thailand, a nation that was never colonized by an imperial power and which aligned itself politically and culturally with the Axis during World War II. This history was driven by the non-mimetic circulation of images, forms, and ideas between Thailand and Europe. Thai architects, artists, and ideologues like Jitrasen Aphaiwong, Silpa Bhirasri (né Corrado Feroci), and Luang Wichitwathakan played an active role in the construction of a universal modernist idiom by appropriating these images and actively transforming their meanings. As the country moved from an absolute monarchy to embrace both a symbolic constitution and military leadership under the People’s Party (1932-1958), the state sought to create an aesthetic prachachon or citizen, by engaging the human subject in a historical dialogue with an imagined past through images and the built environment. Modern architecture gave embodied and structural form to the “imagined community” of a racialized state by generating the aesthetic forms of cultural modernity without their social substance. These forms drew on a familiar vocabulary of images, idioms, and materials that were part of a universal history of modernism, but they were deployed in ways that were quite different from European and North American contexts. Catachresis—the rhetorical term for the abuse or mis-use of language[1]—became a critical step in the universalization of the concept of modernity and its cultural expression, modernism. This project demonstrates that modernism became a universal architectural idiom not because there was something inherently universal about its forms or the conditions that gave rise to it, but because it could be mis-used, appropriated, and infused with new meanings in diverse political situations. Freed from their regional context in central and southern Europe, ideas like fascism and historicist forms associated with Europe’s Classical, Renaissance, and Gothic periods found fertile grounds in Siam where they produced an aesthetic relationship between architectural space and the bodies within it that transcended class-based affiliations. The historical legacy of this exchange has persisted into the 21st century. 

A chapter from this project appears as "The Aesthetic Citizen: Translating Modernism and Fascism in Mid-Twentieth-Century Thailand," in Questioning Southeast Asia's Architecture: Epistemology, Networks, and Power (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2018).

 

[1]Quintilian, The Orator’s Education, ed. and trans. By Donald A. Russell (Cambridge: Loeb, 2001), Book 8, Chapter 6, 445.