Thai architect Patama Roonrakwit was in Delhi recently for WADe Asia, a platform for women architects, artists and designers.
Thai architect Patama Roonrakwit, 49, has been working in the slums of Bangkok for over two decades. In 2015, she received an honourable mention at arcVision Prize in Milan in the Women and Architecture category. The jury called her “an architect of hope”. She set up her studio, Community Architects for Shelter and Environment (CASE), in 1997. Roonrakwit was in Delhi recently for WADe Asia, a platform for women architects, artists and designers. Excerpts:
On her first project: It was a community improvement plan for people along the canal of Songkhla, Bangkok. It was my dissertation project while I was a student with Oxford Brookes University in England. The people said they didn’t have money, and I had to tell them, you don’t need money, you need a plan. I asked them to build models of their dream houses, and they had to place them on the plot on paper. I knew they wouldn’t even be able to open their windows, because they were thinking about themselves and not their neighbours. Then I cut off roofs and walls to make place, and told them, you’re lucky it’s just paper, imagine if you were to build like this. They saw they had to make rules, and suggestions came from the people. So, I only ask questions and play games.
On education: Nearly 10 years ago, I was invited to Cornwall at the Eden Project, which is about the environment. The workshop had student architects, who had to build pop-up homes using recycled materials. They were given a small plot, which would have 10 houses, and discarded timber, ropes and nails to build. They ended up fighting for the prime place on the plot and for the ‘best’ material. Finally, when they did build, the final year students built nice-looking houses, while first year students went by instinct. Now they had to stay the night in these houses. That’s when the seniors figured their homes were ill-equipped to withstand the cold winds, and they ended up huddled with the freshers. It was very telling of what they had learnt.
On slum redevelopment: Slum rehabilitation, if sensitively done, can accommodate the needs of everyone. In a project in the centre of Bangkok, we have to rehabilitate 78 families. So I asked them what they wanted in the new space. I gave them coloured chalks and pumpkins at the workshop. While one person had concerns about feeding the monks, another worried about his stall of barbecue chicken and his customers.Through questions and games they figured out solutions. In Min Buri Market in east Bangkok, what was a dumping ground was turned into a playground for children. From there, we worked with the community to build a common library. Now, people have vegetable patches there, and the elders engage with the youngsters so that they keep away from addictions and crime. I don’t believe I can do everything and save the world, but I allow people to think for themselves, and be their own catalysts.
On her childhood: I had a big colouring box, and my mother allowed me to draw on two walls of the house. My story books would turn into two-dimensional doors, and even while I was in primary school, I would use broomsticks and newspaper to make simple structures.
On the economics: Once somebody from a slum community called me after telling me their need, asked how much I charged. I learnt they have 2,000 people. I asked if each person could pay me five baht for one meeting. So, in one meeting, I got 10,000 baht, and if I did four meetings with them, I got 40,000 baht. That’s what any senior architect would get. So there is always a way to work out the money. But if you don’t do anything, nothing is going to happen. And I also get paid in kind, with the best seafood because most of my clients are fisherfolk.
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