Bangkok is an urban paradox. Nowhere is this more evident than along Phloen Chit Road where many of the luxury malls sit alongside a hair-raising streetscape and skytrain that somehow seems like it’s from both the future and the past. Central Embassy is the supermodel of Bangkok’s malls; designed by AL_A, the inside feels like a secular retail temple, but its most poetic moment is on the outside. As Amanda Levete, principal of AL_A explained to us, “Bangkok is a city of huge contrasts. On one level, it’s incredibly frustrating and chaotic and noisy and polluted, and then there’s another side of it which is to do with the kindness and calm Buddhist culture. We reflected that contrast in a way that probably wasn’t explicit, by developing two-faced shingles to clad the building: one that reflects the city back to itself in all its chaos and the other face reflecting the serenity of the sky and gods above.”
Siwilai, Central Embassy
Apparently Amazon doesn’t really think of itself as occupying any traditional retail category like books or groceries – instead it sees itself as being in the business of customer service, which is a pretty powerful way of seeing the company’s role in the world. On a less expansive scale, Siwilai has taken a similar approach in Central Bangkok. From its home base on the fifth floor of Central Embassy, it is in the business of satisfying inner-city people. They do a pretty amazing job of it through fashion, an outdoor garden bar, deli, restaurant, workspaces, events, art and even souvenirs – when your customers want to buy your branded t-shirts you know you have fans.
Siam Discovery Centre
Most of us appear better online than in person, but the Siam Discovery Lab, designed by Nendo, is an exception to the rule because now that people have been added, the place looks, works and feels even better than it does on Dezeen. What’s most interesting is the 40,000-sqm centre’s organising logic – it almost doesn’t have one. From the gym and collaborative workspaces at the top, down its ‘town square’ style steps and through the varying designs of its mini-worlds you get both physically and mentally lost, but somehow end up at street level delighted for it.
Having also been designed in part by AL_A, EmQuartier is like the older sister of Central Embassy and it’s worth noting the differences. They’re both great malls, but where EmQuartier created a ‘helix’ of the biggest restaurant names to crown its offer over the top floors, Central Embassy brought the best of the street into an awesome basement food court. To us this proves that the notion of ‘complete and consistent luxury’ has jumped the shark – these days it’s a combination of street and elite that captures the shopper.
A recent study in New Scientist magazine revealed that when dogs look into their owner’s eyes their brain releases the chemical oxytocin, which makes them happy. What’s even better is that the same happens in reverse. The Barkyard is Bangkok’s dog-centric community space and includes a pool, a café (for humans), a lifestyle product store for pets and a big lawn, which is hard to come by in such a tightly packed city.
Great cities are made to seem all-the-greater by knockout high-rise hotels with expansive views. 137 Pillars is the newcomer to this stable in Bangkok, and while its infinity pool is beyond belief, the stand out architectural feature is a glass-covered hole on the 35th floor that allows you look down on all the underdeveloped land in the city and wonder why it’s still vacant. It’s like an urbanist’s version of the Moon Hole in Game of Thrones.
Onion feels like it should be in Tokyo in a suburb like Ebisu, which makes sense given the heavy Japanese influence and population in Bangkok. As you might expect, there is a great primarily indigo clothing range, lifestyle products and clean, crisp coffee, but what might be more useful to point out is that this sort of place attracts a new kind of international. Tourists to Bangkok are still pretty mainstream – they stick to the big roads and obvious attractions. However, at Onion you can feel the start of a global shift of knowledge workers, priced out of San Fran, London, Sydney and Tokyo, now taking refuge in a city that is at once affordable and culturally enriching.
We’ve been showcasing The Commons in Bangkok to many of our Australian clients as being emblematic of the future of malls. It’s petite, it’s healthy, it has great layers of lifestyle set upon a baseline of food and beverage, and public spaces like stairwells and lawns are the highlight. It’s a great looking place, but the definitive moment of our visit came when the background house-music-from-hell was abruptly turned down and incredible classical music filled the air. In search of the bold (if not crazy) DJ who took this tangent I walked up the stairs, past the childcare and indoor plant store where I found a quintet from the local music conservatory dressed in crisp white shirts, playing the perfect soundtrack to an inner-city oasis.
Zudrangma Records and WTF
Big city malls and street-food vendors may dominate Bangkok’s retail landscape, but there is plenty going on off-piste. Tucked in a laneway off Thonglor in Sukhumvit are Zudrangma Records and WTF Cafe & Gallery. With comparatively cheap rent, these businesses have been able to make ends meet without having to compromise their vision, giving them the kind of credibility which attracts more customers year-on-year. While the word credibility may have lost its own credibility at the hands of over-zealous marketeers, its true meaning and effect can be felt on the shelves of Zudrangma and at the bar stools of WTF. Here something much more important than money is changing hands and this should be true of any retail, regardless of scale.
About Study Tours
Study Tours are not intended to be city guides. Their purpose is to try and understand how different cities function, what kind of life they provide their inhabitants and what we might be able to learn from them. Think of them not as a comprehensive list of things to do but as a comment from a curious fly on the wall, delivered without an opinion of how the city ought to be better. All our Study Tours can be found here.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005, he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings a casual style and humanistic understanding to property development.