The Robot Building, Bangkok
Architecture is a serious business. There are swathes of books about great buildings, famous architects, architectural movements and the like. But how many of these great buildings are fun? Well, Bangkok’s Robot Building is.
Strangely enough, the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand fails to mention it so when I saw a pair of eyes peering out across the smoggy Bangkok skyline I thought it was an optical illusion. As the Skytrain snakes around Sathorn, Bangkok’s financial district, it becomes clear that actually the building is a robot. It has eyes and ears (well, antennae), a body and legs. In a sprawling city that has some of the ugliest architecture ever, laid out in a way that suggests someone put lots of buildings in a bag, shook them hard and tipped them out it’s a bolt from the blue, if you'll pardon the pun.
This fantastic building was designed in 1985 by Sumet Jumsai, one of Thailand’s best-loved architects, also famous for the Bangkok's Elephant Building (which looks like an elephant). A contemporary of Buckminster Fuller he took inspiration from his son’s toy robot and let it loose on a design for the Bank of Asia (now United Overseas Bank) headquarters. A sign of the times, this cheery robot signifies the friendly face of technology.
For all that it looks like an elaborate joke, every robotic aspect is well-planned and well-used. His eyes are the dining and meeting rooms of the executive suites, his eyelids are sunshades, his antennae are lightning rods. His nuts were the biggest in the world at time of development. Planning regulations give him his stepped-back sides and the blue curtain walls representing the colour of the Bank of Thailand provide much-needed shade. If that wasn't enough, the robot's eyes were designed to wink at night along to music called "The Robot Symphony" by Jacques Bekaert, a Bangkok composer. I didn't see it at night so amn't sure if that actually happens. Let's hope so.
When asked the question "Why the robot?", Jumsai gives the simple answer "Why not the robot?" before deflating post-modernism as "a protest movement which seeks to replace without offering a replacement". He continues, calling it a movement "which harbours people that cannot design". Strong words considering Bangkok is full of this stuff. The upshot of it is the Robot Building is a truly wonderful thing. Art and architecture rolled into one great package. Domo arigato Mr Roboto.
Main picture by Fergus McIver. Used with thanks.
How to get there
The Robot Building is on a busy road with a concrete barrier down the middle and a Skytrain line running right through it. A trip on the Skytrain going to or from Saphan Taksin will take you right past it ,heading west between Chong Nonsi and Surasak stations.
191 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok, Thailand 10120