Sumet Jumsai Studio

Sumet Jumsai’s studio is a marvelous Le Corbusier-inspired weekend residence and painting studio. The off-form concrete structure is essentially a white box sitting in a garden of carefully mown grass against a backdrop of the ocean and sky. The form is generated by a 6 m x 6 m square ground floor plan extruded vertically, with an upper floor of the same dimensions and a fl at roof, accessed by a very steep external stair.

The studio was designed by the renowned Thai polymath for his own use. Sumet Jumsai is a direct descendent of Siam’s King Rama III, who lived from 1788 to 1851. Sumet was educated in France and England and was awarded a Ph.D. in architectural studies from Cambridge in 1967. Le Corbusier was a major source of inspiration when he was an undergraduate. Being conversant in English and French when Corbusier visited Cambridge, Sumet found himself briefly assigned as an interpreter to the modern master.

Sumet was also influenced by Colin Rowe and Buckminster Fuller, and he has applied contemporary European forms and technical innovations to buildings designed within the Thai context.

In 1969, he formed his own private practise. His best-known early work is the angular Science Museum in Bangkok (1977) in collaboration with Tri Devakul and Kwanchai Laksanakorn. But his most famous and controversial designs are the Robot Building (1986), the Bank of Asia’s headquarters now UOB’s HQ on Sathorn Road in Bangkok that was selected by Genova, the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2004, to be part of the exhibition ‘Arti and Architecttura 1990–2004’, and the Nation Building (1988). The latter, a distinctive tower block, is the headquarters of Bangkok’s leading newspaper. Sumet is also the author of Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific, a seminal book on the origin of civilization and architecture in Southeast Asia that grew out of collaboration with Buckminster Fuller.

Now the septuagenarian architect has retired from architectural practise and concentrates his energies on painting. He planned from the late 1989 onwards that he would build a studio on a 1,400-square meter plot of land purchased thirty years earlier at Sriracha, on the coast of the Gulf of Siam, 80 km to the southeast of Bangkok. It would be the ultimate scheme for what he has described as his ‘graceful disintegration’. Allegedly influenced by the political turmoil that engulfed Bangkok in 2006, he swiftly designed the small dwelling and construction commenced on the site in 2007. Eight months later, the studio/residence was complete and Sumet now escapes from the city at every opportunity to pursue his passion for painting. Sriracha is a one-hour drive from Bangkok and is a place where, unlike the metropolis, the skies are clear in the afternoons and evenings and the light is excellent for painting.

Sumet studied in Paris as a young man before going on to Cambridge University. In France, the works of the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso shaped his ideas. ‘Picasso was part of my generation in the early 1960s, plus Vivaldi and modern jazz.... I was drawing and painting from an early age,’ he recounts, ‘but my father didn’t want me to be an artist. So I decided to study architecture, as it was the nearest thing to art. But I discovered that architecture is art. It’s a very important form of art, and it’s also a form of poetry in concrete and steel, wood and glass.’

The architect’s love of European culture is immediately evident, for upon entering the studio the music of St. John Passion by Bach, sung by the choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge (his own college) is being played at full volume, and before long a bottle of Chianti is opened.

This is one of the few private homes he has designed. The lowest floor is equipped with a small kitchen, a food preparation area, dining space, a bathroom, a bed space and a library. The service entrance is from a sunken courtyard on the landward side of the house.

The upper floor is entered via a bridge over the courtyard. The bridge evokes memories of the entrance to Le Corbusier’s Mill Owner’s Association building at Ahmadabad, India, and Sumet confirms that this was the indeed the precedent. This floor is his painting studio—there are easels and a long bench facing the window and the Gulf of Siam beyond. There is a high ceiling in the studio, and a brightly colored red ‘samba’ staircase connects to the living space below. The studio is filled with paintings, on easels and hung on or stacked against the walls. All the works of art are rendered with intense color. In addition, there is a small, door-less bathroom separated from the room by a 1.5-meter-tall cupboard. The architect explains that it was designed this way in order to induce the most spacious and simple effect possible, in keeping with a lifestyle of simplicity where the main focus is on painting.

Projecting out from the studio on the seaward side is a broad timber balcony with views of fishermen tending their boats and mending their nets. It is a timeless place, and the view cannot have changed much for centuries. Access to the roof deck is gained from the balcony by the external stair.

‘This house has been designed for the use of one person,’ explains the architect/owner. ‘I come here to paint on weekends.’ Other than the homage to Le Corbusier, Sumet Jumsai’s studio also employs a color scheme reminiscent of Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroeder House or a Mondrian painting.

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