At this hour, no other art space can outshine
Chiang Mai’s MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, where a vast collection of Thai
and Southeast Asian artworks can be found.
The museum was founded by Patsri Bunnag, Eric Bunnag Booth, and Jean Michel Beurdeley, a family of art collectors who, inspired by the charms of the Chiang Mai town where arts and culture have long flourished, had over the past 30 years shared their private collection with the public for over the past 30 years.
Converted from an old warehouse owned by Diethelm, the museum’s primary façade is decorated from bottom to top with countless pieces of small mirror tiles that reflect the surroundings up to the sky – a sight that sure will catch your eyes. This decorative technique was done by all(zone), led by talented architect Assistant Professor Dr. Ratchapohn Chuchuey, lecturer of architecture at Chulalongkorn University. Let’s talk to her about the stories and inspirations behind the design of this museum.
Q: When people say that MAIIAM’s architecture turned Chiang Mai into a city of art, how does that make you feel?
A: It’s a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it? Chiang Mai has been a city of art for quite some time. But if you’re talking about contemporary art, well, before the museum came along there was not really a place for contemporary art here. Only small galleries that could not really hold people together. With the arrival of the museum, there is now a place where people can gather. And not just for art exhibitions, but for a wide range of activities: performances, music, and soon there will be plays as well. So it’s just that previously there was no space for a large collection of contemporary art here. You would have to go to Singapore for something like that. I find it quite funny that the National Museum of Singapore features a significant number of Thailand’s contemporary artworks.
A: Is it true that the museum’s design was inspired by Chiang Mai’s architecture, culture, and history?
A: I didn’t want to stray too far from Chiang Mai’s background. To me Chiang Mai is already a town with a strong culture of its own. The question was how to pick something that is already there and turn it into something contemporary. I did a lot of research, which culminated in the use of mirror tiles. This is a technique I have seen in so many temples in Chiang Mai. Some use tiles of the same color, which I think look amazing. So I decided to use these single-color mirror tiles on the building’s façade because I want some kind of link to the town’s history. But the thing is the mirror tile installation technique is traditional. The mirror tiles used are not any ordinary ones, but thin ones used in temples. Another problem is that the type of glue traditionally used to install these tiles is not easy to apply. It is very sticky and dries pretty fast. The glue becomes dry even before installation is finished. We tried using it, but it didn’t work. Eventually we tried tile adhesive which is normally used for laying tiles in swimming pools, and it worked perfectly. At first, the workers said it would take more than a year to finish this process, but in the end, it took us only six weeks. Even experts from the Office of Traditional Arts who we sought advice from about laying the tiles said to us they would no longer use the old type of glue, but would use what we used instead. It’s kind of like a whole new intersection of Old and New Worlds, in a sense.
Q: Can we say this design was a reinterpretation of Lanna culture?
A: I don’t know about reinterpretation. I’m more interested in its effects. I mean, the mirror tiles can be seen in so many lights, as traditional, as contemporary, as new, as old. I think it’s an interesting component.
Q: In addition to a link to the town’s past, were there any other ideas behind the design?
A: Another reason we went for mirrored façade was because the museum is located on the main road from the city center to San Kampaeng, which is lined with huge trees. We were trying to come up with the idea of how to make the building visible, so that people won’t just drive past it, how to make it blend into its surroundings and stand out at the same time, but without attracting too much attention.
Q: And the zigzagging patterns, do they have any hidden meaning or are they just design gimmicks?
A: Not exactly. It is not about design at all, but entirely about construction technique. Because the tiling process was completely manual, we had to come up with a method that would ensure that tiling was done in a straight line. We needed to create rows for the workers to follow, hence the zigzag patterns. Another thing was with these patterns, the reflection of light on the opposite side becomes less intense, for the safety of road users. They also add depth to the façade, making it appear as if there were more than just one dimension, which is a plus really. I’ve also had people ask me if the arch of the façade was a design gimmick. The truth is we designed that so cars could make a turn, because previously the front of the building was a car park. We only acquired more land at the back and made it a car park one month after the museum was opened. So the arch was there because the area was meant to be a car park, making it easy for cars to make a turn.
Q: In other words, what appeared to be design gimmicks are actually more about functions?
A: Correct. All functions. It’s just a matter of making functions look attractive as well, that’s all.
Q: One last question. As an architect, what were the challenges involved in designing the museum?
A: It was definitely a big challenge. There were a lot more technical issues than I had thought. Most people will just think we’re creating cool space, but in fact, it was extremely difficult (laughs). The power system, air-conditioning, fire alarm, security alarm, installation, humidity control…, these were not easy. Some people might wonder what’s so challenging about creating empty rooms. But these systems cannot be visible as they will get in the way of viewing art. They are invisible, but they have to work properly. At the same time, you may see empty space, but we had to think ahead, and imagine things like, if the room has to be divided into two, three, or four exhibition areas, will the air spread evenly across the room? We needed to think about all the possibilities of room arrangements because they relate directly to those systems. Security is important too. We were the middle person liaising with engineers, technicians, construction workers, and whatnot. These days when I visit art museums in a foreign country, I tend to be more interested in learning the museum’s design techniques than in the artworks showcased there (laughs)! I’ll be like where are the power cords hidden, where is A/C, why can’t I see them, how did they hang the pictures, the proportion of this room is nice, how high is it? Turns out it isn’t so much fun visiting art museums now (laughs).