Soi Wat Umong House

The Soi Watt Umong House is a ‘Miesien’ composition of concrete and glass pavilions grouped around a courtyard and set in secondary tropical forest. The site is located close to Chiangmai University in Thailand’s second largest city.

The owners of the house are Rirkrit Tiravanija, an internationally acclaimed Thai artist, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1961, who spent his childhood years in Ethiopia and Thailand, and his Japanese/American wife Antoinette Aurell, a photographer who worked in Paris and New York before moving to Chiangmai. The couple live with Antoinette’s two children from a previous marriage, a boy who is studying at an international school in Chiangmai and a daughter who attends college in the US.

The design of the house originated from a physical model constructed by Rirkrit in 2005. Photographs of the model were sent to Neil Logan (of Fernland + Logan Architects in New York), an American architect and friend, who made modifications to the structure and designed built-in closets, kitchen shelves and stainless steel work surfaces. The drawings were later passed to Aroon Puritat, a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture at Silpakorn University, who resides in Chiangmai. The two had met while Aroon was researching his graduate thesis on contemporary art museums. In the process, he had examined works such as Pad Thai (Untitled 1990) by Rirkrit. He also worked with Rirkrit on The Land, a community of artists close to Chiangmai (1998).

The house was to be built without destroying any trees on the site so at the outset all the trees were marked. The other requirements included a workroom for Rirkrit and a photography studio for his wife. The owners consulted fengshui master Kochakorn Promchai to finalize certain details, such as the auspicious positioning of the entrance door. She recommended that ‘the house entrance be from east to west, that the kitchen should face north the person cooking should face north and that there must not be any water in the middle of the home’. Aroon adjusted the drawings to fit the site, the available materials and the capabilities of the construction industry in Chiangmai and then finalized the architectural drawings for submission to the authorities.

The design process included Paponsak Laor, who contributed jade green tiles for the bedroom and inner courtyard wall; Professor Kamin Lertchaiprasert, who produced large drawings of a dragon, intending it to be applied to the ceiling of the library and a phoenix for the ceiling of the carport; Sethatwut Pinyorit, who was responsible for various structural features, and Taneeya Yuktadatta, who advised on lighting design.

The collaborative relationship was by all accounts challenging as Aroon strove to reconcile his architectural training and the requirements for a coherent end product with Rirkrit’s desire for ‘incompleteness’ for the house. For an architect, a commission that invites experimentation at each step is rare. The result, as one writer has noted, is that the dwelling is, in a sense, a ‘new work’ by the artist arrived at through the medium of architecture. In an interview with Calvin Tomkins of the New Yorker on 17 October 2005, Rirkrit stated that many of the concepts behind his work borrow from Buddhism, where Doing Less is the same as not trying to embellish or make something more than what it is.

‘I am fascinated by architecture,’ explains Rirkrit, who in 1996 produced a 1:2 scale reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House at New York MoMA. ‘In particular, I am interested in modernism and the idea of self-criticism it contains [and] the conceptual problems relating to it.’

Towards the end of 2005, Rirkrit and Antoinette moved from the USA to Chiangmai to supervise the construction of the house although Rirkrit insists that the house was really ‘designed’ by the workers on the site and that it was a hand-made process, ‘closer to sculpture than architecture’.6 The collaboration between the owners and the architects continued with frequent emails from Neil Logan that were translated and implemented by Aroon Puritat.

Essentially, the house has an orthogonal U-shaped plan around a central courtyard. Soft dappled light penetrates into the heavily planted central court and a gentle breeze rustles the leaves. The house is remarkable for its silence. The structure is basically a concrete frame with concrete block and glass infill. The ground floor is lift ed one meter above the terrain typical of traditional Thai houses in order to avoid mud and floodwater aft er heavy rain and also vermin. In addition, it permits under-floor ventilation. A shaded timber deck runs around the perimeter of the central garden giving access to the various functions.

An ever-present character in the remarkable house is Harry the friendly offspring of a French bulldog and a Boston terrier that appears whenever a photograph is about to be taken, along with another less ebullient old dachshund named Torru.

The focus of family life is the open-plan kitchen and dining area adjoining the living area, which has a large square kitchen table, a smaller kopi tiam table and a sunken pit in the living space for gatherings of family and friends.

There is a distinct Japanese influence in the interior design, specifically in the master bedroom, which is based on the dimensions of a tatami mat, with futons spread on the floor. Sliding timber wall panels and the proportions of the fenestration also attest to a Japanese sensibility. Th e master bathroom was designed by Antoinette based on a traditional Japanese tub. The circular staircase up to the studio office was a direct copy from Charles Eames, while the office shelving was a modified copy of a Charlotte Perriand wall unit. Antoinette and Rirkrit selected all the interior and exterior finishes, including terrazzo, tiles and wood.

Guided by the expertise of a horticulturist friend, Stuart Rodgers, Antoinette was initiated into planting and gardening and has developed an obsession with tropical plants. In the northern corner of the site she has created what she describes jokingly as a petit trainon, an enclosed tropical garden that alludes to a space in the Palace of Versailles where her namesake Maria Antoinette and invited guests ‘could take light meals away from the strict étiquette of the Court’.
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