Friday, January 30, 2015

The Chanthaburi Multiplex - Chanthaburi, Thailand

Don't let the Chanthaburi Multiplex fool you. The 4 screen cinema hall is only masquerading as a multiplex to avoid an "out of business" notice displayed at the entrance. 

Ok, Ok, so it's actually been of business since 2011, but the point is that this chopped up old dame was once a massive single screen stand-alone; the first to be built in the city of Chanthaburi during a theater construction boom that occurred in the early and mid 1980's. 

The Chanthaburi Multiplex: Its facade is partially obscured by neighboring shop houses built contemporaneously. As a result, the signage is off-center.

Said theater boom of the early 1980's was not without precedent. At the time, Chanthaburi was in the midst of a thriving economy due to a voluminous gems trade. Ruby mines in Chanthaburi and nearby Trad provinces had high yields in those days. Chanthaburi's well-established gemological industry served as a clearing house for the stones, enriching the town's jewelers and lapidaries in the process.

In fat times, build big, the logic goes. During those fat times, 5 theaters arose across the city.

Lobby of the Chanthaburi Multiplex. Terrazzo floor and solar system ceiling fresco. 

The theater opened in 1980 as The Chanthaburi Rama - an 880 seat single screener that replaced a decrepit wooden theater occupying the same plot of land for decades prior. The old wooden theater was called The Sin Tu Nawa.

By the late 80's, four newer theaters had been constructed across Chanthaburi, giving the town one of the densest concentrations of stand-alone movie theaters anywhere in Thailand. While this scenario must have been great for film enthusiasts, it made competition among the various theater owners stiff. As an adaptive measure, in the early 90's the owners of the Chanthaburi Rama divided their grand cinema hall into 4 smaller theaters, making it one of Thailand's first multiplex theaters. 

The procedure turned out to be a wise one. With four potential viewing options, the Chanthaburi Multiplex, as it had been renamed, could offer the same viewing fair as all the other movies theaters in town combined. 

One by one, Chanthaburi's others theaters began to close their doors, while the Chanthaburi Multiplex hung on until 2011. That year a brand new SF Cinema - Thailand's second largest cinema operator - opened a branch in a new shopping mall just outside of downtown. The Chanthaburi Rama/Multiplex's 31 year run came to a halt. 

Theater 4

Remaining details of theater 4

Exit of the stars

Rusting signage

Over the years, Chanthaburi's once hot gem industry has cooled significantly, slowing the overall economy of the city in the process. But the local business community has responded in haste, smartly adapting its historic urban core as an attraction in itself.

Chanthaburi's "Old Town" neighborhood is in the midst of an economic revival, as outside investors and locals alike renovate a 100 year old commercial corridor that winds its way along the edge of the Chanthaburi River. Most of the buildings in Old Town are neo-classical/sino-colonial shop houses, a few of which date back to the mid-19th century.

Across the river, the largest Catholic Church in Thailand anchors Chanthaburi's sizable Vietnamese community. There too, locals have started the process of renovating old houses and store fronts to meet the city's historic rebranding efforts.

All tallied, Chanthaburi's historic preservation initiatives have been successful, but it is still a work in progress. If it continues at this pace, downtown Chanthaburi could be a model for other areas of Thailand looking to capitalize off of their historic architectural and urban assets.

Unfortunately the 5 erstwhile cinema halls in town have not been given the same historic preservation treatment that other buildings have. Three of them, including two of the Chanthaburi Multiplex's four auditoriums, have been turned into nesting houses for swifts, whose salivary nests can bring a tidy sum on the open market.

Chanthaburi's lack of action towards it's collection of old cinema halls, however, is not unique. Thailand in general has yet to develop a workable model for resuscitating old cinema halls for contemporary cultural purposes. But as the phenomenon takes shape in neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Burma, perhaps Thai preservationists and developers will find inspiration to do the same with some of their own historic theaters.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Unnamed theater - Wang Nam Yen, Srakaew Province, Thailand

On an quiet residential street in the heart of Wang Nam Yen stands a structure that only natives of the sleepy mountain slope burg could identify as a former movie theater. Barely any evidence remains of its past life as place of leisure, nor could anybody seem to recall it ever even having a name.

Facade shot of the unnamed theater, Wang Nam Yen.

Of the scant known facts about the nameless theater's history - beyond the usual "it-was-the-greatest-place-in-town" laments - only one was of much interest: It was originally built by a retired soldier named Prasert Tridawas, probably in the early 1970's.

Also of note, the material used for the exterior walls is one-hundred percent gypsum panels, making this the only theater in Thailand I've ever encountered made of the pallid mineral. 

Mechanics tinker away in what was once an open-air lobby.

Auditorium shots: The only remaining evidence of its theater days are the ventilation windows on the upper side walls. Do note the elegant timber frame.

Facing the rear of the auditorium. The balcony has been boarded up to seal off the room.

Today the nameless theater of Wang Nam Yes serves as a garage and warehouse for an auto mechanic, its previous life as a movie theater is all but forgotten.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wathana Rama - Wathana Nakorn District, Srakaew Province, Thailand

Contrary to popular belief, this work is not always a walk in the park. It seldom is, in fact. While interesting discoveries and positive interactions make all efforts worthwhile, there are other times when this work can leave you feeling fundamentally dejected. Like when you go to great lengths to track down such and such theater only to be casually dispensed with by a disinterested proprietor, or their lackey. No amount of reasoning on your part can gain their sympathy, until at last you find yourself shooed away like a common house fly.

Efforts to get information on the Wanthana Rama were in that vein. Instead of pressing the issue, I settled on a few lackluster shots of the theater's facade and pushed on. The only readily discernible data available is that the former theater has been retrofitted into a hotel called The Nakorn Inn.

Facade shot of the former Wathana Rama

Two eras worth of signage sit atop the former Wathana Rama, the lower of which is the original theater signage.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Srakaew Rama - Srakaew, Thailand

From a few choice vantage points the Srakaew Rama calls to mind a ruin from a lost civilization, abandoned to the jungle's verdant strangle. 

The Srakaew Rama resides in a mostly abandoned roadside development. 
While the ruinous aspect holds true at ground level, the more pedestrian reality is that the abandoned theater stands amid a failed edge city-type development, not an encroaching jungle. This was urban expansion on the heels of highway extension and the sky's-the-limit confidence brought on by automobile accessibility. Overbuilding at its finest is what it amounts to.

Thailand has no shortage of these kinds of blighted peri-urban cityscapes. They're nearly gratuitous in distribution, lining the edges of arteriole roads like warts on the fingers of civilization. This particular iteration originally housed a fresh market and the local bus station along with said cinema hall. Whatever order the collapse occurred in is unclear, but a mostly vacant business center is the clear result. 

But to dwell on the dingy aesthetic of this lapsed land would miss the point. In its midst lies a ghost of cinemas past that still bears some marks of distinction, and some architectural delights for those so inclined to venture in.  

The Srakaew Rama under morning sunlight. 

Had the Srakaew Rama been contracted in the years before developers went ape over projects that followed the highway, it might have been erected in the center of old Srakaew town, accessible by foot to a pedestrian-oriented population. The theater's architecture and scale are conducive to middle-of-the-block placement in a high density zone. One can imagine its bold signage and textured modernist facade serving as visual (and social) anchor to the traditional core of Srakaew. 

Even in its present run-down condition the Srakaew Rama is a sight to behold. Yet being removed from a practical location, conveniently accessed by motor transport alone, ensures that it remains a hidden secret to all except locals and visitors so recondite as to ask "excuse me, but does your town have any old movie theaters?"  

Ticket booth and poster boards

For those adventurous enough to seek out the secretive, the tomb of the Srakaew Rama makes for an elegant if grime-coated jaunt. 

Most notable among the leftovers is the handsome ironwork framing the ticket window and poster boards. These metal curlicues, painted a fading teal, add a loopy contrast to an otherwise streamlined concrete of the structure structure. 

"Coming soon"
While the lobby area may seem well preserved, venturing beyond reveals fewer visual delicacies. The auditorium, for one, has become a cave for bats, flying their erratic paths as they do. What seats remain were mostly ripped open, with their stuffing serving as breeding ground for all kinds of tropical fungi.

In short, surveying ended at about the ticket counter. Urban exploration, believe it or not, is not really my thing.
"Coming Soon" again

A mobile poster board with ornamental iron framing.

The writing on the door reads "Children taller than this line must
have a ticket to enter"

Even more than it's inconvenient location, the real reason for the Srakaew Rama's survival is simple neglect. The building's owner apparently took up residence in Australia years ago, abandoning the old cash cow for life down under. A more hands on overseer would have probably demolished it by now, or at least used it for some practical purpose.

Several locals remarked that it would be nice to see something become of the nearly 35 year old structure. A snack vendor operating a little stand nearby thought it would be nice if it were converted into a hotel, or lodging for itinerant workers. 

Whatever adaptive measures are taken to bring some use to this building, one thing seems certain: the Srakaew Rama will never show a movie again.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Sri Kabin Rama - Kabinburi, Prajinburi Province, Thailand

Most Thai cities, large or small, are connected to an extensive national highway system that seldom cuts through the city's older, pre-car urban core. The exception, of course, is vast Bangkok, the primate city, more than six-times the size of the second largest city. Numerous Bangkok neighborhoods have been eviscerated so that highways and expressways can wind their way through the jungle-dense metropolis.

But in the case of almost all other Thai towns, the highway was built around the urban core, with connector roads branching off onto narrow urban streets. This type of highway development is preferable to the alternative of ripping through the old town to bring traffic directly into the core. Old neighborhoods, saturated with history, have survived, if only in a stuffy coexistence with car traffic.

Despite being removed from the core, the highway system has managed to wreak havoc on Thai towns in other ways. While the town core may be structurally intact, they also tend to be economically flaccid. Thanks to the lifestyle shifts brought about by a rapid rise in car and motorcycle ownership, Thailand's "main street" economy, so to speak, has shifted to the peri-urban highway. There town dwellers and outside residents alike can easily drive (and perhaps more importantly, park) to take care of all their consumer needs. For all intents and purposes, the urban core becomes a bypassed zone, supplanted by national chain stores housed in boxy space-eating complexes. Aesthetic charms are at zero in these suburban behemoths. Sustainability is dubious.

Why the long introduction to the present state of Thai urban areas? Well, Kabinburi - home to the theater featured in this post - is perhaps the most obvious example a bypassed town in Thailand I've yet to encounter. It's present condition is a clear reflection of the Thai highway system's nefarious effect on dense urban cores.

Please bear in mind that this analysis is wholly observational. I will stop short of claims that the overall effect of the newer highway system is negative for locals. For all I know the economy might be better then ever on account of it. I'm simply saying that the economic pull of the highway has undermined the viability of Kabinburi's traditional urban core, where the streets are walkable, the architecture historic and aesthetic charms abound.  

Pulling into the Kabinburi bus station - appropriately located off the main highway outside of town - the first impression is of an interchangeable roadside pit. To reach the real Kabinburi requires a 5 minute-long song-taew ride away from highwayland.

Turning off the highway onto one of the several connector roads makes for an immediate change of scenery. The elevation drops a meter or so and the landscape goes from highway detritus to marshy and vegetated. To the trained eye, it is clear that the real Kabinburi has its roots in something riparian. Water was the fundamental nurturer of this settlement.

The song taew deposits passengers at the central market, just a stones throw from the train station, which in decades passed marked the most economically important part of town. Across the railroad tracks is the core of the town; the human scale agglomeration of shop houses, homes, banks, markets and, of course, a movie theater. The Sri Kabin Rama.

The now-abandoned Sri Kabin Rama nestled in its equally abandoned plaza - a victim of a car-centric economy, among other things.

Simple but attractive architecture, with it's neon-lit dimensional signage, so characteristic of the International Style. 

In small towns like Kabinburi, the local movie theater was often the most architecturally exciting building around. Eye candy for otherwise very ordinary, if not charming, little burgs. If it wasn't the architecture alone which caught ones attention, then it was the 2 and 3-story high hand painted billboards, festooned to the theaters facade, which lit up the street.

The Sri Kabin Rama, even in it lusterless post-life, is not surprisingly one of Kabinburi's architectural jewels. Set back from the street within an equally lifeless retail plaza, this asymmetrical dream palace pokes its head out from behind rundown shop-houses and lush vegetation.     

Its simple lines, asymmetry and signature sans serif dimensional lettering on the roof place this cinema relic firmly in the International Style school of architecture. The steel frame upholding the letters doubled as a structure to tie hand painted billboards advertising the film to. 

Left to decay

Fenced off lobby


As far as locals could recall - the owner included - it's been over 15 years since the Sri Kabin Rama last screened a movie. With its closure, so died the entire economy of the surrounding shop-houses, not one of which seems to have any activity today.

In a true sign of the times, the Sri Kabin Rama's owner is now focused on operating Tip Top Center, the anchor of an all-in-one strip mall sprawled out along the highway. He too followed the automotive trend towards the road to the detriment of the town. But for whatever reason, he has chosen not to demolished his old white elephant movie theater down in bypassed old town, Kabinburi. Good fortune for that. Its mothballed status will give future generations of Kabinburians a chance to decide a fitting reuse. Who knows, maybe some day the stand-alone movie theater will become hip again.     

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Siri Phanon Rama - Phanom Sarakam, Chachoengsao, Thailand

In Thailand, generally speaking, the word brutalism has greater association with repressive military governments than the mid-20th century architectural milieu it was coined to represent. The power-seizing, self-appointing generals, by their very own actions, have done more to correlate Thailand with the term than the hard-angled, concrete-heavy building style ever could. But alas, Brutalism the architecture and brutalism the way of governing exist in tandem in the Land of Smiles. As for the former, sometimes it can be found in the most unusual places. 

One of those unusual places is in the heart of Chachoengsao Province. On the far edge of the little trading town of Phnom Sarakam stands one of the most definitively Brutalist cinema halls ever seen in the country - the Siri Phanom Rama

Roadside marquee and entrance gate to the Siri Phanom Rama.  

The Siri Phanom Rama

The Siri Phanom Rama was completed in 1978 as the economic anchor of a surrounding retail/residential complex that was built simultaneously. It was the 3rd theater ever erected in the district and will likely be the last.

Poster cases in the lower lobby of the Siri Phanom Rama

Early this year, the movie distribution company with jurisdiction over eastern Thailand (Saman Films) made the decision do deal strictly in digital cinema, doing away with traditional film altogether. Instead of investing tens of thousands of dollars in a new digital projection system to bring entertainment to a small handful of movie-goers, the owner of the Siri Phanom Rama opted to close the theater down, thus ending a 36 year run as the lone theater in the district. 

The final movie was screened in February. 

"Next Program"

Stairwell shot with window

Upper lobby of the Siri Phanom Rama

Brutalism softened by the font of the dimensional signage. 


Brutalism developed into the architecture of choice for government buildings across the world in the 1960's and 70's. Its hard and heavy aesthetic was meant to convey a sense of infallibility, of permanence and of fortitude. Movie theaters likewise got the Brutalist treatment on occasion - particularly in Asia. In Thailand, at least one other theater highlighted on this site is characterized by Brutalist design.

Throughout the world today, however, Brutalist architecture is under threat. As examples of it approach or surpass the half-century mark, the overwhelming opinion among casual observers is not sympathetic to the style's future. For many, Brutalism's association with socialist-leaning governments of the mid-20th century leave a bitter taste. For others the style is simply perceived as ugly or unsightly, thus unworthy of preservation.

In response, a movement in defense of Brutalism has been ever-so-slightly gaining momentum, if only by building awareness of the style in general. Nevertheless, advocacy before the fact may work wonders in staving off wholesale destruction of the style as cities around the world rethink their futures.  

As for unused Brutalist movie theaters in Thailand, well, at least now you know that some exist.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Talking movie theaters at TEDx Chiang Mai

On September 27th I gave a presentation about Southeast Asia's stand-alone movie theaters at TEDx Chiang Mai. The video is now available on Youtube and below.