Designworks: Transforming the built environment with innovative solutions

This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 10, 2020 - August 16, 2020.

The MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum is a converted warehouse that was completed in 2016 [Pictures By All(Zone)]

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The two words that design director Rachaporn Choochuey uses to describe Thailand-based architectural firm all(zone) are “light” and “fun”. She co-founded the company with a group of friends in 2010. “We are a group of happy design professionals who joyfully collaborate with specialists across the borders of their fields and country,” she says.

The ever-changing mega metropolis that gives a form to people’s everyday life fascinates the firm, and the team’s observations are always captured by contemporary vernacular design solutions. Therefore, their efforts are in designing alternative built environments in which everyone can be “at home” in the world.

Converting and reusing old buildings

The firm also specialises in the reuse and transformation of old buildings. “We did several building transformations and it became our expertise as well. It was not intentional, though,” says Rachaporn.

The headquarters of all(zone) is housed in two transformed shophouses in Bangkok. A new façade made of prefabricated concrete blocks was added on both the front and back, acting as a sun shade, thief protection device and privacy curtain.

According to Rachaporn, shophouses were the most common building typology in Bangkok during the city’s urbanisation process in the past century. This type of building is becoming obsolete and the city’s urban fabric is full of underused shophouses in prime areas.

The firm has also transformed two other shophouses, currently being used as an art gallery and Airbnb apartments for short-term stays.

Every floor has been remodelled into a separate office or living unit. The front and back of the buildings become a perforated space with industrial grating floors, and the prefabricated industrial metal fence allows small plants to be hung there. The design also allows for natural lighting and air ventilation in the building.

One of the firm’s most well-known projects is the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum — a converted warehouse that was completed in 2016 — in Chiang Mai. While the industrial spirit of the warehouse has been maintained, light wells were formed with local materials to brighten and illuminate the interior space.

The main façade is clad with thousands of small, decorative mirror tiles that reflect light, a decorative technique inspired by traditional Thai temple architecture.

To explore contemporary art expressions, a new installation technique is used to create tile patterns. The reflections help dissolve the wall into the surroundings while attracting the attention of passersby with the lightness of the architecture.

Rachaporn says buildings built during the economic bubble of the 1980s have begun to deteriorate and require an upgrade. “Many commissions came our way because the owners of these buildings did not know what to do. It is such a waste to tear them down and trash the debris into the sea. So, we transform them.”

Finding solutions for affordable housing

In addition to giving old buildings a new lease of life, all(zone) designed a prototype house that is affordable and easily dismantled and reassembled.

“Affordable housing is a big problem in a city like Bangkok and many fast-growing tropical metropolises. Recent housing projects are so closely tied with global real estate investment that it makes it almost impossible for a young middle class or a new generation of urban poor to live in the city with what they earn,” says Rachaporn.

“On the other side, there are several modern high-rise buildings that have been left idle in the middle of the city, either unfinished from the cycles of economic crashes or unoccupied because of obsolete building systems.”

Thus, the firm created a new type of domestic space in a tropical metropolis known as LIGHTHOUSE 1.0. It is composed of several layers of light perforated walls, shaping the minimum living space of 124 sq ft with shared water facilities.

The materials used are ready-made PE-coated metal frames, nylon net, spun bound fabric, polyester fabric, polycarbonate sheets and plastic laminated plywood. The budget allocated for each unit is US$1,000 (RM4,221).

“The prototype house is an attempt to create a new type of domestic space in a tropical metropolis. The half-temporary condition of LIGHTHOUSE 1.0 would be perfect to get settled in such condition of the unused buildings,” Rachaporn explains.

LIGHTHOUSE 1.0 can be easily installed and covered with a roof to become an urban living unit for the short to medium term. At the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, all(zone) built it in an abandoned parking structure and two designers lived in it for a week as an experiment.

An 11-minute short film on LIGHTHOUSE 1.0 was presented at the exhibition and later acquired for the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago. It has since been shown at several international exhibitions.

Unfortunately, LIGHTHOUSE 1.0 remains a prototype and was never officially used, says Rachaporn. “We built other versions for the Bangkok Design Week 2018 and Echigo Tsumari Triennial 2018, apart from the one we made for the Chicago Architecture Biennial.”

Green space with retail lots

Currently, all(zone) is transforming a vacant 8,611 sq ft plot into a public green space that comprises retail lots for a neighbourhood in Bangkok. The opening ceremony is slated for this month.

The project aims to be a model for small sustainable urban living funded by the commercial activities that will take place there. The activities include daily local food stalls, weekend markets and urban farming.

The 2-storey, 3,229 sq ft building made out of steel, concrete blocks and glass with aluminium frames will be like a pavilion in a garden, where there is a big metal roof without walls. Most of the materials can be reused and reassembled in case of relocation.

There will be four small closed-up retail lots under the roof and the remaining space will be open. The shade from the roof and existing trees will provide a pleasant environment that does not need air conditioning.

Rachaporn says all(zone) aims to survive the economic crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. “The crisis has alerted us to how the built environment can be transformed. It is a very exciting time indeed.”