Heritage in Danger: The Robot Bank building in Bangkok, Thailand
Docomomo Thai is raising alarm on the iconic Robot Bank building in Bangkok, Thailand. Widely regarded as one of most important Postmodern Architecture in Thailand, this building is now under renovation, with its original appearance and characteristics severely under threat. You can read the full report from Docomomo Thai secretary, Pinai Sirikiatikul below:
The Robot Building, Sathorn Road, Bangkok
Assessing the Value of the Robot Building
Location: South Sathorn Road, Bangkok, Thailand
Building Type: Extra-large office building, high-rise building, 20 floors (86 meters)
Usable Area: 23,506 square meters
Structure: Reinforced concrete structure with concrete raft and pile foundation.
Original Owner: Asia Property Co., Ltd.
Architect: Sumet Jumsai Architects Co., Ltd.
Description: Designed in 1983 by Dr. Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya with construction completed in 1986, the Robot Building served as the headquarters of Bank of Asia. Then, the building had its own distinctive character that was at the time different from general high-rise office buildings not just in Bangkok but in all of Asia. Since its inception, the building has always been highly influential and animatedly discussed thanks to its symbolic architectural statement. It’s even created a media frenzy through the decades with ranging reports by international news outlets. It went on display at international design events and exhibitions worldwide, including the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. Sumet’s overwhelming architectural oeuvre assured him of a place in an exhibition entitled ‘50 Leading Architects of the World’. He was nominated and eventually selected as Thailand’s National Artist in 1998 in the Visual Arts (Architecture). Since 2017, Sumet’s collection of 337 architectural objects, including models, drawings and sketches, photographs, and archival documents of the Robot Building, has been held in the archives of M+ Museum, Hongkong. The Robot Building’s drawings and models are still on display there. Docomomo Thai considers the Robot Building as one of the most distinctive modern architectural masterpieces in Thailand. It has been featured in every architectural guidebook of Bangkok.
Architect: The Robot Building was designed by Dr. Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya, one of Thailand’s internationally acclaimed architects. A graduate of the University of Cambridge where he studied under the supervision of Mr. Collin Rowe, Sumet is not just an influential architect and Thailand’s National Artist, but also a painter, author, newspaper columnist, urban-planning advisor, and an opinion leader spearheading the drive to preserve Thailand’s architectural heritage. Since 1969, he’s founded and headed several architectural firms (DEC, SLT, SJA, SJA+3D). The Robot Building is one of the most well-known projects carried out by his firm, Sumet Jumsai and Associates.
The Robot Building marked the 1980s economic boom and the arrival of Postmodern Architecture in Asia
In the competitive atmosphere of the 1980s when every bank aspired to have its own distinctive and modern head office, Bank of Asia was clearly one step ahead of its rivals as it commissioned Sumet to take charge of designing the bank’s new headquarters. Sumet was very fortunate to be given a free hand in designing the building thanks to his client’s blessing. He and his SJA team took bank office design to new heights with the introduction of computerization trends and tech-savvy characteristics to architectural design. The design of the building was conceived to uniquely convey the sophisticated state of the banking institution advancing toward a hi-tech future. With its banking services fully computerized, Bank of Asia definitely led the architectural trends in Thailand of the 1980s, and hence its robotic manifestation.
Inspired by the Japanese toy robots of his young son, Sumet was personally fascinated by the intimate relationship between man and the machine. He then incorporated the machine’s elements into his design, making it thoroughly domesticated as part of human relations, and not something alienating. He theorized that the relationship between man and the machine will be a vital aspect of futuristic architecture.
“The machine as we know it in this century has to be exorcized. It must no longer remain a separate entity or elevated on a pedestal for worship. This exorcism has been completed in the Robot. Now the machine, this robot, is no longer a “big deal”, so it has become a part of our daily lives, a friend, ourselves.”
Sumet’s concept aimed to satisfy the bank directors’ desire for a building that reflects the bank’s fully computerized services, introduced for the first time in Thailand.
Delighted and friendly in appearance, with the abstract eyes, arms, knuckles, chests, legs, and, of course, the famous nuts – then, the biggest in the world – made of glass-reinforced concrete, the Robot Building was unique without precedent. Its joyful characteristics remain etched in the memory of many people, especially children. In France, the Robot appeared in a children’s cartoon magazine called Maximum (September-October 1998).
The former Bank of Asia is a unique type of building that expresses itself through its unusually literal appearance as a robot. With a total of 20 stories and a gross area of 23,506 square meters, the Robot Building has its floors decrease progressively in size on the fourth, eighth, 12th, 16th, and 18th floors. This staggered shape, reminiscent of a robot’s shape, indeed contributed to the setback regulation on Sathorn Road, which requires an 18-degree incline from each side of the property line.
The fact that the building focused more on the images, signs, and symbols than the consideration of functional, technical aspects of the building, as was customarily the case, prompted historians to regard the building as the forerunner of all postmodern buildings in Asia. In Bangkok by Design: Architectural Diversity in the City of Angels (1995), British author John Hoskin explained:
“…emphasizing a symmetrical balance of form, the final building design came to display Dr. Sumet’s fascination with high tech and the relationship between man and the machine. The building is one of the most effective of the or style of architecture, in which the construction takes its form from that of another object.”
In addition, Brian Brace Taylor, an American architectural historian, praised the Robot Building in the book Sumet Jumsai (1996) as follows:
“The architecture might be classified as Post High-tech in the sense that it is the Post-Modern treatment of the ‘Machine’ The ‘machine’, as embodied by the robot, does not exhibit its mechanical parts. Instead, it is a finished product wrapped in a stylized body. The eyes, arms, knuckles, chest and legs of the robot are abstract (but not inhuman), while the nuts and bolts and caterpillar wheels, instead of being a faithful reproduction of the “machine’, are mere abstractions of the mechanical parts.”
Being relevant to the study of architecture and architectural history in Asia
The Robot Building is a prime example for students not limited to architecture alone, but also related to the arts, history, and economy-related fields for a good understanding of their past society through its built environment. It is significant as a historical landmark depicting the transition from Late Modernism to Postmodernism, exemplifying both the ideas that shaped the 1980s economy, and the building technologies employed.
In terms of structural daring, long-span reinforced concrete transfer trusses are adopted on the third floor to transmit the load of the floors above and make the hall below totally clear of spans. On the side elevation clad in white ceramic panels that reduce heat, there are nuts and bolts, the biggest in the world made of glass-reinforced concrete, symbolizing the aesthetic of the machine. The eyes of the Robot located on the top executive floor functioned as panoramic windows offering a superb panorama of Bangkok. The rooftop hosts two communications antennae that double as lightening rods, as described in Sumet Jumsai as follows:
“Special lighting effects were originally designed for the eyes to ‘wick’ at night, with aircraft landing lights operated by automatic dimmers and high-power strobe lights. The glowing and dimming, as well as the free play of the high-power strobe lights, were meant to give a repeating rhythm to the tune of an electronic composition called ‘the Robot Symphony’.”
Heritage in Danger: As of early 2023, UOB Bank (Thailand) owned the building, with Design 103 International Limited appointed as the principal architects tasked with carrying out renovation work according to a plan that’s already in place. But this comes without any consideration of the architectural value of the building being recognized. The proposed exterior redesign shown to Sumet on March 16, 2023 in a private meeting did not retain the original iconic features of the Robot at all anymore. As a result, this world-renowned work of modern Thai architecture will therefore risk losing its cultural significance and protected status as it’s about to be turned into yet another office building.
Since then, Sumet and DOCOMOMO Thai have been calling on the CEO of UOB to reconsider this decision, recommending this iconic built heritage be maintained. We are deeply disappointed at UOB’s April 4, 2023 reply to Sumet and DOCOMOMO: “Our redesign prioritises people’s wellness and environmental sustainability. It includes natural lighting, recreation spaces, and collaborative areas to promote our people’s well-being. We also plan to redesign the exterior, featuring an all-glazed skin to reduce carbon emissions and promote eco-friendliness.”
With this remodeling scheme set to get underway, the special character of the Robot Building will completely disappear.
Conservation proposal: Following the loss of other significant architectural structures in Thailand, such as the old Supreme Court building and Scala Cinema, and with many more, including the Robot Building, under threat from new developments, it is imperative to call upon the Board of UOB to take further time to reflect on the implications of the renovation scheme, plan with what exists and reconsider the professional opinions of those who can help the bank’s management balance their current needs whilst respecting the building’s heritage status.
• To bestow on the Robot Building a degree of cultural and architectural significance and proceed to treat its remaining original features according to internationally accepted standards and procedures of heritage conservation.
• While the interior may be remodeled to meet the present requirements and standards, the exterior, especially the building frame, as well as the original robotic elements, should be preserved as they are since they are the elements that show the outstanding architectural, artistic, and cultural merit of this structure. With Sumet’s proposed scheme, the building would retain the evidence of the success of a Thai architectural wonder, which was recognized and discussed internationally in the 1980s.
International media coverage on UOB (Thai) Building, or “Robot Building” Bangkok (1986-2012)
Contemporary Architects, edited by Muriel Emanuel, Macmillan, London, and St. Louis. James Press, Chicago, 2nd ed. 1987
Contemporary Architecture, Vol.9 1987-8, Editions Anthony Krafft, Pully-Lausanne / Switzerland
Contemporary Asian Architects, by Hasan-Uddin Khan, Taschen, Cologne 1995
581 Architects in the World, TOTO Shuppan, Tokyo 1995 Dictionary of 20th Century Architecture, Editions Hazan, Paris 1997
Secession-Cities on the Move, book for the exhibition in Vienna and at Cap Musée d’ art Contemporain de Bordeaux, Hon Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Verlag Gerd Hatje, Vienna, 1997.
Cities on the Move 4, The Asian City of the ’90s, January 20 April 21, 1999, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Tutein & Koch, Copenhagen 1999.
World Architecture 1900-2000: A Critical Mosaic, Volume 10: Southeast Asia and the Oceania, Kenneth Frampton and others, China Architecture & Building Press, Beijing 2000/ Springer Vienna, New York 2000
The Paradox of Architecture (Lowe Lectures Series at the Bartlett), Academy Editions, London 2000
30 Years After – The Future of the Past, Udo Kultermann, Architecture and Art, Budapest 2002
1000 Architects, Vol. 1, The Images Publishing Group, Victoria, Australia 2004
Architecture & Arts – 1900/2004 A Century of Creative Projects….”, ed. Germano Celant, Skira, Milan 2004
A+U, Japan, Feb. 1985
Architectural Record, USA, May 1985
Mimar 23, Singapore and M.I.T. Press, USA, March 1987
A+U, Japan, April. 1987
Architecture Créé France, Sept. 1987
Expression (for American Express members), Thai ed. June-July 1999
Other publications on the Robot
As soon as the Robot Building appeared on the skyline of Bangkok in 1986, it was published in newspapers around the world, eg. The Times, UK; NRC Handelsblad, Netherlands; The People’s Daily, PRC; etc. (See attached samples.)
The Robot was a joy for children, and it even appeared in a French children’s cartoon magazine called Maximum, Paris, September-October 1998.
Posters were also printed in connection with exhibitions of the Robot Building at various international venues.
Projects by Sumet Jumsai Associates, Osaka International House, Osaka, Japan 1991
Venice Biennale 1996 / International Architects Section
Group artists/ architects travelling exhibition entitled Cities on the Move; 1997/8: Vienna Bordeaux; Long Island City, N.Y. 1998/9: Humlebaek, Denmark; Hayward Gallery, London
30 years after-revisiting architects in Udo Kultermann’s book: Architecture in the Seventies, Kévés Studio Gallery, Budapest 2000; Museo Regional de Guadalajara, Mexico 2001.
Group exhibition: Arti & Archittetura 1900-2004, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Italy 2004-5. An exhibition covering a century of art and architecture to celebrate Genova as the Cultural Capital of the European Union.
History Channel – Modern Marvel, on the Robot Building (on air throughout 2010-11)