Can modern metropolises do without skyscrapers?

Bangkok's eccentric skyscrapers create a backdrop that is reminiscent of science fiction

In a rush of heights, the skyline of Bangkok pushes back the image of the tranquil colonial city, even if the architecture guides continue to depict almost only this.

There is hardly a place on our planet that can better illustrate the future of our megacities than Siam Square in Bangkok: the traffic roars on several levels between the skyscrapers. Motorbikes and cars roar below, Skytrains thunder above, and in between pedestrians rush silently through the humid heat on walkways and stairs until they are engulfed by one of the shiny silver shopping temples. In their coolness you will find trendy shops, chic cafés and the most well-kept toilets in the world. All of these malls are overshadowed by the lifestyle cathedral of the Central Embassy, ​​in which flagship stores of global luxury brands fulfill almost all consumer needs.

Above this ultimate shopping paradise, aluminum facade strips screw themselves around an asymmetrical glass body. The shimmering skyscraper that rears up like a cobra was designed by Amanda Levete, who was once made famous by the trend office Future Systems. Her masterpiece, completed in 2014, is by far not the tallest building in Bangkok at 151 meters, but it is one of the most striking. Especially since it looks like a contemporary reinterpretation of the Wat Arun Temple, whose central tower with its 81 meters held Bangkok's height record until the opening of the legendary Dusit Thani Hotel in 1968.

Most Europeans think less of skyscrapers when they hear Bangkok and more of golden temples and markets on canals. Bangkok is a pulsating, modern megacity that has more to offer than traffic chaos (which is not that bad) - namely an unbelievable high-rise cocktail that dominates the entire cityscape. Nevertheless, there is no literature at all about the fascinating high-rise city of Bangkok - even the architecture guides only deal with restored old buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries.

"One Night in Bangkok"

Most skyscrapers can only dream of the magical aura of Wat Arun, which is reflected in the Chao Phraya. This is also the case with the twin tower of the Magnolias Waterfront, which dissolves in the mist down the river and which - sleekly conceived by the local Urban Architects office - currently holds Thailand's height record of 318 meters. Immediately next to this upstart adorned with traditional Chofa beaks, the 459 meter high torch of the Observation Tower could one day light up the country, if it really does thrive beyond the already existing foundations.

Bangkok has experience with unfinished architecture. The four almost 200-meter-high concrete skeletons on Rama III Road, which were demolished in 2016, were a memorial that was visible from afar. At the Taksin Bridge, however, the city's most famous building ruin, the 49-storey Sathorn Unique Tower, defiantly defied the Asian financial crisis from 1997 to the present day. As a ghost tower, the attached giant, which could have come from a dark cyberpunk film, quickly became a playground for adventure tourists and influencers.

How opulent it could have become is shown by its twin, also realized by Bangkok architecture professor Rangsan Torsuwan, the State Tower, decorated with antique building elements, which was the second tallest building in the city when it was inaugurated in 2001. An Ionic round temple with a gold dome and sky bar rises on its roof at a height of almost 250 meters. There none other than Mike Tyson sang the catchy tune “One Night in Bangkok” in the slapstick film “Hangover 2” in front of the already stupendous high-rise backdrop.

Pulsating art and design scene

When this Bangkok anthem became a worldwide hit in Murray Head's original version in 1984, bars, temples and massage parlors still shaped the tourist image of the city. The art and design scene, which is pulsating today, did not exist back then, as did the beguiling skyline. It is true that the 134 meter high washboard facade of the Bangkok Bank, the brutalist concrete pyramid of the Diamond Tower and the “Dusit Thani” already stood out from a mosaic of villas, apartment blocks and office buildings.

The Robot Building opened in 1986 by the national artist Sumet Jumsai provided even more imagination of forms. Even if it is easy to miss today due to its height of only 83 meters, it once attracted a lot of attention from experts and was ultimately named one of the “most emblematic buildings of the 20th century” by the Moca in Los Angeles.

The city received its first real skyscraper in 1993 with the nearly 200 meter high Sinn Sathorn Tower. Two horn-like antennas give him that diabolical aura that made him the ideal power center of the nasty media mogul Elliot Carver in the James Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies". Since then, hardly a skyscraper that wants to be seen in the high-rise jungle of the megacity, which with its suburbs has grown to a good 15 million inhabitants, has given up an individual appearance. Most of these buildings are not office and hotel towers, but high-rise apartment buildings, the apartments of which are particularly popular with wealthy foreigners who are now increasingly coming from Hong Kong.

Warships and gold temples

Since all the heavenly climbers stand on alluvial land, their weight together with the excessive extraction of groundwater leads to an ever faster subsidence of the ground and thus to more frequent floods. Nevertheless, the high altitude rush continues even now, as many people find life in huge cities threatening due to the pandemic. In the past few months, more high-rise buildings have been completed: above all in the residential and business areas around Lumphini Park from Sathorn to Sukhumvit Road, which are already tightly packed with skyscrapers, but are easily accessible despite chaotic traffic thanks to the Skytrain and Metro.

Bangkok currently has around 2,000 high-rise buildings and a good 100 skyscrapers more than 150 meters high, many of which are unmistakable. They do not form the highest, but the most varied skyline in the world, next to which even the skyscrapers of Hong Kong or Dubai seem a bit monotonous. With crowns in the form of round temples, cathedrals, pavilions and Thai houses, gold spikes, battlements, chimneys, spheres, crystals or pyramids, sun sails and floating roofs, Bangkok's skyscrapers try to outdo each other.

You can see ski jumps, shark fins, Rolling Stones tongues and UFOs, and even a warship seems to be plowing through the clouds. Some buildings resemble flowers, others clasped hands, cheese slices or rolling suitcases, then again jukeboxes, baroque cupboards, glass cascades, organ pipes, panpipes, microphones, batteries, computer chips or letters. Even a copy of Norman Foster's London Swiss Re pickle can be made out. Compared to these imaginative, if not always stylish creations, Zurich's Prime Tower or Basel's Roche Towers appear like roughly carved toys.

In addition to the Robot Building, the 102-meter-high Elephant Building, realized in 1997 by the artist-architect Ongard Satrabhandhu and stylized Thailand's national animal into a gigantic Lego sculpture, is particularly popular with the locals. The city also owes the postmodern festival of styles the Babylonian Sathorn City Tower, the Grande Center Point, which is based on the Moscow confectioner style, or the cheerful Art Deco and Novecento crowns of the Somkid or Barcelona towers.

Many of these inventions come from the Bangkok-based companies Palmer & Turner, Somdoon, Tandem and A 49, which, like some international offices for which they often work as local partner offices, have transformed Bangkok's sea of ​​high-rise buildings into a science- Have transformed fiction scenery. Architectures as diverse as the climate-friendly, perforated, partially green skyscrapers by the Woha office from Singapore, the four squatting vulture residential towers by the London team Wright, Khennouchi, Kuruvilla or the gigantic microprocessor-like Ideo Morph 38 by Somdoon were created.

It is therefore hardly surprising that as early as September 2016 the Bangkok Post was able to identify an increasing number of unusual residential high-rise buildings. At that time, the phallic Magnolias Ratchadamri Tower of the large Californian office Gensler and the ultra-slim Mahanakhon with its transparent viewing platform at a height of 314 meters were being completed.

This glass needle, created by the former Rem Koolhaas employee Ole Scheeren, which appears to collapse due to its spiral-shaped breakouts, flirts with the transience of the city. Tandem's giant Bangkok-Sathorn honeycomb, crumbling on its flanks, tries to do the same and makes visions from “Star Wars” films come true - as does the curved Marque Tower by Palmer & Turner, whose roof pyramid threatens to plunge into the depths.

Vertical villages

The Canapaya residential tower on Chao Phraya, which resembles an over-long extraterrestrial being, also comes from Palmer & Turner. While it looks almost frightening with its huge steel helmet and powerful chin, Somdoon's Menam skyscraper, which culminates in a white meringue ziggurat, has a rather positive aura.

The same applies to the Far Eastern welcome gesture stylized Rosewood Tower by Kohn Pedersen Fox or the 309 meter high neo-modern Chao Phraya Estate Tower, which is reminiscent of New York's new Pencil Towers when viewed from the side. The Nimit Langsuan skyscraper, on the other hand, is a real, if somewhat short, pencil tower, which the Milanese architectural designers Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel have given the appearance of a minimalist grid sculpture.

Jean Nouvel's Soontareeya monolith is to be built right next to Nimit Langsuan in a prime residential area at Lumphini Park. Other international stars are currently in the process of framing the green heart of the city center with skyscrapers and transforming it into Bangkok's Central Park. Where recently the iconic Dusit Thani Hotel, which was demolished under loud protests, was now being "reconstructed" by Rem Koolhaas ’OMA office in double height and extended to Dusit Central Park with two additional skyscrapers and a green shopping mall.

Meanwhile, directly across from Rama IV Road, a big player in high-rise architecture, the New York office SOM, is building the high-rise complex One Bangkok, advertised as Vertical Village, instead of the popular Suanlum Night Bazaar, consisting of nine office, hotel and residential towers, a cultural center, one Mall and a central plaza will exist.

Its flagship, the 437-meter-high, rather boring Signature Tower will soon dominate Bangkok's skyline, as the 615-meter-high Grand Rama IX Tower, intended as the condensation core of a new business district north of Sukhumvit Road, will probably not be realized. But Bangkok's building lions are not resting and will probably continue to keep the city in suspense with architectural eccentricity.