Thailand's Human-Elephant House on Display at Venice Architecture Biennale 2021
Thai Pavilion explores how architecture may embrace the other through the case between elephants and Kuy people, an ethnic group in Thailand’s Tha Tum District in Surin Province. Changes have affected their villages of people and elephants over the centuries. What never changes with time, however, is the inseparable bond between the two.
For centuries, their community was a self-sustained one. The forest gave them food and medicine, and they sustained the forest. But the lack of sustainable planning decades ago saw mass deforestation, and the images of the Kuy and elephants wandering the streets of Thai tourist towns became depressingly too familiar.
A decade ago, the government started a project to bring them back to Tha Tum where facilities such as an elephant hospital, a museum, and a study centre for students have just been built; and the forest and water source are being revived. Efforts from all those involved, from veterinarians, scientists, nutritionists, mahouts, to monks are being made to make this homecoming a sustainable one.
The architecture in Tha Tum is elementary but is embedded with much consideration for one another as elephants are considered members of the household. A typical house is one where a generous section is dedicated to elephants. A man needs a shading structure, so there is one for an elephant, too. There is a shrine related to their lives with elephants. A house shall never cast its shadow onto the shadows of the shrine, and vice versa. And when one leaves another, there is a graveyard for the Kuy; and their companions rest in another graveyard nearby.
In March 2021, a pavilion was built in Tha Tum and inaugurated on Thailand’s National Elephant Day. Rooted in the simple but ingenious architecture of Tha Tum, the pavilion is the house of the Kuy and the house of elephants integrated into one structure. Though different in size, one cannot thrive without another. The structure of the smaller helps the larger to stand. And the roof of the larger shades and protects the smaller.
In May 2021, another pavilion is being built in Venice. Though different in size, the structures of the smaller and the larger sustain one another, too. The large sloping roof will act as a screen onto which the curatorial team’s field research and the life of its ‘twin’ pavilion in Tha Tum would be told. This version of the Human-Elephant House will be in Venice for only six months. But the pavilion in Tha Tum will be there permanently and how the Kuy and elephants use this pavilion will unfold over the centuries.
With two pavilions running parallel, the Thai Pavilion for the Venice Biennale believes that Venice or Tha Tum, human or elephant, can all learn from one another. Whatever the future brings, the Kuy villages may serve as a microcosm of how to live together—even for different scales and species. And their modest house will remind us that our future buildings shall too strive to embrace those different to us.
More details available on ASA (The Association of Sieamese Architects) website.