Join our writer, Charis Heelan in conversation Rachaporn Choochuey

Ascending the narrow concrete staircase of this central Bangkok shop house, you get the feeling that you’re about to emerge into a completely different realm. The 4 flights only add to the anticipation. Once the office door opens, you’re surrounded by light and the gentle buzz of architects busily working amidst found objects, sketches and design paraphernalia. The Victorian Premier’s Design Award’s (VDPA) new international judge is very much a product of her environment. She brings a sense of joy, pragmatism and eternal optimism to her various roles as a creator, innovator, educator and now, award judge.

I’ve arrived with a set of pre-prepared question, but the conversation takes many tangents – and it’s in these deviations that you uncover Rachaporn’s true spirit and passion for what she does.

woman smiling at camera

As a first-time judge for the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards – architecture category – what are you most looking forward to seeing in the entries?

I’m looking for new ideas, new ways of practising architecture – especially trying to ‘do more with less’ because today, the issues of climate change and sustainability have become real. We’re seeing the effects of these environmental crises every day and it’s a frightening prospect. I’m looking for something intelligent, clever – architecture that addresses all the significant problems we face.

It isn’t just the building process that impacts the environment – it’s the operation of those buildings – the water usage, thermal qualities, ventilation, electricity. What we do as architects affects everything which is why we always need to adapt designs.

We go on to discuss changes in weather patterns and the fluctuations she’s been witnessing in temperature and rainfall in Bangkok. Longer dry seasons, shorter and less intense wet seasons – all new concepts to Thai people. We share a laugh about Melbourne’s 4 seasons in one day – something she really enjoys about visiting our city.

You’ve been the recipient of several awards. How important is winning an award like the VPDA for Victorian architects and designers?

Winning awards is a form of recognition and it’s a very positive experience, especially if it’s an established award like VPDA. It gives you encouragement and publicity – but more importantly, it’s a chance to share your ideas and hopefully spread them so that others can apply them to their own projects.

How would you describe your personal design philosophy?

That’s a difficulty question to answer. At All (Zone) we’re inspired to build more with less. I’m always searching for ways to minimise our footprint – and the best way to do that is to learn from vernacular architectural design solutions. Usually, the traditional, vernacular way of designing is the most interesting and perfect. It’s place-based and always considers the necessities of the people who will use the space, taking into account limitations of location and available resources.

The solution isn’t to imitate the vernacular, but to extract and abstract it – integrating the vernacular back into each project.

We’re passionate about creating spaces that make you feel at home – we have to find a way to develop buildings and areas where people can feel like they belong, more connected to the world.

That led to our next segue ‘the problem with modernism’ – which led to a discussion about the alienating and formal nature of cookie-cutter contemporary public architecture and that sense of never belonging. Rachaporn is the first to admit that when she became an architect, she was part of the problem. Working at Thailand’s largest corporate architectural firm, she churned out details for skyscrapers and hated it. Yes, it was an efficient process, but being deadline-driven and focused on the budgetary restraints rather than the people who would live, work and congregate in these spaces, was a mortifying experience for her.

‘I thought I wasn’t a good architect – but I love architecture, so my plan was to study more, maybe to teach or write, but based on my initial workplace, I never imagined myself working as an architect again.’

You completed your masters and PhD in the US and Japan. What brought you back to Bangkok and starting your own architectural practice?

I came home to Bangkok after my PhD in Japan and started to teach at university. I never planned to return to designing, but little by little, I accepted small commissions for temporary exhibition designs. Even though I enjoyed it, there was something ethically unsound about constructing something and then tearing it down a few hours or days later. It wasn’t a sustainable way of designing for me.

When I began searching for a place to live in the early 2000s, affordable solutions were hard to find, especially in central Bangkok. I noticed that traditional shophouses weren’t being fully occupied or were abandoned. These simple vernacular buildings were well priced, well positioned and functional in their simplicity. Finding this shop house – next door to my favourite local restaurant – was the beginning of my transition back to architectural design. Transforming it became my first real architecture project.

Living and working here became a vehicle for showing potential customer what can be achieved. We began taking on small commissions, projects that no other architects would take on – like marketplaces, churches, homes. I realised that it was a niche market and that we could make a difference. It wasn’t planned – the business grew organically.

What impact do you believe architecture can have on the world?

We have to build even smarter, more carefully and try to understand the necessity of each element in the design. We have to question if it could be better, more efficient, cheaper, made of a more durable material – and ultimately, do we really need it? Is there a better approach or more sustainable material? Can it be adapted or recycled?

It’s important to question and produce thoughtful architecture. As an architect, why do we have to build a monument of ourselves? The rise in consciousness about the environment means building for the client, for people and for the environment.

Rachaporn remarked that…. ‘life doesn’t last so why should a building last?’ This led us back to vernacular Thai residential architecture. All those houses were built in wood. They wouldn’t have imagined using another material. Now we realise the significance of that place-based decision and are going back to original sustainable designs. We even discussed biodegradable coffins known as Capsula Mundi…. which she described as ‘the most beautiful artefact she could think of.’

While many Victorians may not know your name, they’d definitely recognise your iconic MPavilion 9 design. And I see you still have sketches of it on your wall. How was your experience working on that project? 

In 2019 I gave a talk in Melbourne at the Living City Forum and remember having an interesting discussion with Naomi Milgrom (founder of MPavilion). In early 2020 she called me to ask me whether I’d like to design the next MPavilion. The answer was a definite ‘yes.’ Despite a 2-year pandemic-related delay, bringing that project to life was completely exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling. When Bangkok opened up again in October 2021, I had a feeling of being liberated and needed to reconnect with people again after so long.

The idea of the MPavilion was a place where people could meet and enjoy themselves in public again. It was the moment that we missed the most – meeting friends, strangers…. doing something or nothing – the place had to accommodate that feeling. We wanted to build something light, minimal and casual – but with a hint of movement – like a breeze or catching the wind. It was my friend Design Anthology editor Suzy Annetta who said, ‘you can create anything in Melbourne but please give us shade.’

I was inspired by the feeling you get when you’re in a hammock – peaceful and relaxing with shadows of the leaves under the trees.

When we mentioned to our structural engineer – Aecom’s Nigel Burdon – that we wanted it to be ‘moving’ his face went pale. Apparently, Bangkok’s wind speed is less than half of Melbourne’s, so he detailed a list of possible disasters. But it was one of the best collaborations we’ve ever experienced – everyone listened and contributed – especially tensile structure specialist Peter Lim from Tensys.

We knew the qualities we wanted in the design, but not the physical form, so this project gave our engineers room to imagine and create. Our initial ideas were fluid and the engineers provided multiple solutions to complex engineering issues. Ultimately, the engineers were more concerned about aesthetics than we were.

What advice would you give the architects of tomorrow?

You have to listen to people’s opinions and be open to their knowledge and contribution. Everything is too complex right now so one person can never succeed in creating something alone. An architect is not the master – those days are over. We need to respect people’s specialties and what they bring to the design process.

Perhaps my favourite quote of Rachaporn’s was one that slipped out at the end of our interview. She commented that ‘an architect needs to be like an orchestral conductor – you cannot miss any musicians – it will go badly – listen to every single person and create the perfect symphony – you should be the smallest and let everyone else shine.’

I thanked her for the rare chance to interview her in person, in her studio, and her response spoke volumes……

Human interaction is so important – that’s why we do what we do in architecture.