Activists say Thailand’s iconic robot building has “lost its soul” through renovations

Activists say Thailand’s iconic robot building has “lost its soul” through renovations



CNN

For nearly four decades, its cartoon eyes have gazed serenely over Sathorn, a commercial district in downtown Bangkok. Now, after its facade has been stripped back to a concrete frame amid major renovations, the tower known as the “Robot Building” is barely recognizable, except for its distinctive silhouette.

The building’s owners, the Thai arm of Singapore’s United Overseas Bank (UOB), say the renovation will make its headquarters more energy efficient and more employee-friendly. While the company won’t share photos of the proposed redesign with CNN, preservationists and architects — including the tower’s 84-year-old designer, who said he was shown plans for the new exterior — have expressed dismay at the dramatic modifications. Made on the icon of Southeast Asian postmodernism.

The robot was completed in 1986, and was intended to reflect changes in the banking industry, which at the time was embracing new computer technology. Its designer, Sumit Jumsai, who was inspired by one of his son’s robot toys, is considered a major figure in contemporary Thai architecture, and the country’s government has named him a “National Artist.”

In an email to CNN, Summitt, now retired, denounced the “distortion” of his creation. He called the renovations a “devastating statement” that demonstrates the “ignorance and arrogance of big business.”

Chinawit./Wikimedia Commons

The Robot Building was photographed in 2022, shortly before the exterior of the tower was stripped as part of ongoing renovations.

In March, the architect wrote to UOB University of Thailand expressing concern about the loss of the tower’s “original distinctive features”, including its eyes, and urging it to reconsider the plans “before it is too late”. The bank’s response, which Summitt shared with CNN, acknowledged that the building was an “important landmark” — but said the planned renovation would bring it “into a new era while honoring its legacy.”

The bank added that it would keep a replica of the building’s original appearance in “one corner of the lobby.”

The tower was originally designed for Bank Asia, then acquired by UOB Thailand in 2005. The company told CNN, via email, that its renovations focus on “enhancing environmental sustainability” and “enhancing employee well-being” for thousands of workers. Who will occupy the building when it reopens in 2025.

The organization said its redesign will reduce electricity consumption by at least 15%, with a new glass exterior design that “reduces the need for artificial lighting and thus reduces associated carbon emissions.”

The Robot Building is 20 stories tall, and its floors become progressively smaller as it rises, giving the structure its distinctive stepped shape. Its distinctive covered “eyes” served as windows to two executive suites on the upper floors, while the building’s toy-like appearance was completed by antennas – used for communications and as lightning rods – and a series of large metal nuts adorning its sides.

The Robot Building is among a small number of landmarks from that era that have survived Bangkok’s stunning urban development. After recovering from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand’s capital saw a building boom that transformed areas like Sathorn. Bangkok is now the world’s 14th tallest city, with 112 towers each 150 meters (492 feet) or more tall, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH).

Likes Olarne/CNN

A photo of the tower from the outside in August, after renovations began.

The Thai branch of Docomomo International, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving modern architecture, said it has selected the relatively small robot building on its upcoming list of the country’s 20 “most distinctive” buildings.

In an open letter to UOB Thailand, published in April, the head of the conservation group, Bongkwan Lasus, described the Robot Building as a “historical landmark” marking the transition from late modernism to postmodernism – an architectural movement known for ornate facades, ornamentation and architecture. He rejected the mid-century mantra of “form follows function.”

Despite pleas from activists, the tower has now “lost its soul,” said Bangkok-based filmmaker Dana Blouin, who is producing a documentary about the robotics building.

“We lost something that was probably more important than anyone realized,” he told CNN via video call.

Although he recognized that the tower may have been perceived as “modernist,” Blouin said the original design “felt elevated and sophisticated.” “It was still fun, it was still weird,” he added. “And it was beautiful.”

“When it was built, it was one of the tallest buildings (in the Sathorn area),” he said. “Today, the structure is so small in comparison, it’s dwarfed by the other glass and steel structures surrounding it. That’s what made it even more special.”

John S. Lander/LightRocket/Getty Images

The building’s covered “eyes” served as windows to the executive suites on the upper floors.

Many in Bangkok may not share the director’s affection. The petition, started by campaign groups including Docomomo, in April, has attracted less than 1,700 signatures at the time of writing.

Meanwhile, heritage preservation efforts and laws in Thailand are mostly directed towards the country’s ancient heritage. Activists and architects hope that although it may be too late to build a robot, other important examples of contemporary architecture may escape a similar fate.

“After nearly two decades of efforts, we are beginning to see a shift from the government sector,” Bongkwan’s letter to UOP Thailand said.

For Ploen, a broader cultural shift is needed if we are to preserve Bangkok’s other modern landmarks. “The embrace of modernity… led to the forgetting of some of these icons,” he said. “This is unfortunate.”

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