The United Overseas Bank (UOB) in Thailand is embarking on a major renovation project that risks altering the iconic "Robot Building" located in Bangkok's Sathorn district. The building, known for its distinctive shape resembling a robot, has been a landmark in the city for almost four decades. Conservationists and architects have expressed their concerns about the significant changes being made to this Southeast Asian postmodern masterpiece.
The UOB aims to enhance the building's energy efficiency and create a more employee-friendly workspace through the refurbishment. While the bank has refrained from releasing images of the proposed redesign, critics argue that the alterations may compromise the building's unique character.
“We’ve lost something that was probably more important than anyone realized. The original design felt elevated and refined. It was still fun, whimsical, and beautiful,” laments filmmaker Dana Blouin, who has been documenting the Robot Building's history.
The Robot Building, completed in 1986, was conceived as a representation of the banking industry's embrace of computer technology at the time. Designed by Sumet Jumsai, a prominent figure in contemporary Thai architecture, the building's staggered floors create a striking visual effect. The tower's notable features include its iconic "eyes," which provided scenic views from the executive suites on the upper floors.
Sumet Jumsai, now retired, expressed profound disappointment at the "devastating statement" made by the renovations. In an email to UOB Thailand, he protested against the loss of the building's original iconic features, particularly its eyes.
“The defacement of my creation demonstrates the ignorance and arrogance of big corporations," decried Sumet, emphasizing the significance of his architectural masterpiece.
While UOB Thailand acknowledges the Robot Building as a "significant landmark," they maintain that the planned refurbishment will bring the building "into a new era while paying homage to its heritage." The bank's response has left conservationists dissatisfied, who argue that the building's historical and architectural value should be prioritized over contemporary trends.
The concerns about the Robot Building's fate have sparked a petition initiated by campaign groups, including Docomomo, an organization focused on preserving modern architecture. However, Thailand's conservation efforts and laws primarily concentrate on ancient heritage, leaving many to wonder if contemporary landmarks like the Robot Building will be spared a similar fate.
Pongkwan Lassus, President of Docomomo, expressed his hopes for a cultural shift that would value the preservation of modern architectural icons. Additionally, architects and conservationists are urging the government to consider the rich architectural heritage of Bangkok's modern era.
It remains to be seen whether these voices will be heard, and if Bangkok's unique postmodern landmarks will continue to bear witness to the city's architectural history or succumb to the pressures of urban development.
Kocha Olarn contributed to this story.