Varee Valley
Architecture that spotlights the flourishing abundance of the river, forest, and Isan cultures

Several decades ago, Khon Kaen was abundant with forest and lush greenery, spreading over its highlands with embracing nature. However, many Thais still perceive Isan as a drought region. Varee Valley, a restaurant that sits in a recently renovated riverside resort of Phong, boasts its concept as a landmark that attracts people to join activities and to prove the prosperity of nature and Isan cultures. This project was carried out by a Khon Kaen-born architect, Nutthawut Piriyaprakob, from NPDA Studio, who also grew up there.

Natural context and constraints

Though there is a key concept, every architect does need to compromise possible constraints and contexts. As for this project, on the first day of his visit, Nut found out that the place is an old restaurant shack that jutted out into the river, like a building that used to be quite popular for the locals ten years ago. And because it’s an old building, the law on recession distance wasn’t applied back then, unlike it is today. Hence, to acquire official construction permission for the new building, it is necessary to employ the foundation size of approximately 15 x 15 m.

Further, another constraint is that the structure to be placed on the original foundation needs to be light in weight. So, Nut decided to use steel as it fulfills what he’s looking for, whether in terms of the construction itself, weight, or price, because steel was not as expensive as today.

“Once we got the concept that the renovation needs to be built upon the old foundation, we imagined a building of about 9-10 meter tall to overlook the beautiful nature. At first, the owner didn’t much agree with it. Though the budget was not that high, with the experience I’ve accumulated for many years, I could picture that, with a site like this, how would the building turn out. Finally, when the work is finished, we’ve received quite good feedback from customers. The restaurant’s revenue increased a lot. That’s why it’s important to have an architect, especially when it comes to work for a commercial purpose.”

(Before renovations)

Architecture is like a marker and branching tree

When the overall function is perfect, matching well with the original context and overcoming all constraints, the next step is to work on abstract concepts that the architect wishes to embed in the design.

“Throughout the time I grew up, I’ve never once felt that the province was in drought. During the rainy season, it rains a lot. And in winter, the weather will be so cold that we sometimes can’t bear it. Isan people coexist with nature. Forests are the world for children back in the past. We have everything, be it culture or traditions that blend in with nature, but people always perceive Isan as an arid and drought region. It’s probably because Isan is a large area, so water management and dams are not that good. Moreover, there were also political issues. With all these reasons, most Isan people have become a stereotype of scarcity.”

Nut told that, in the past, whenever Isan people needed to do something like gathering for a meeting, community meetups, they knew that ‘trees’ would always be a marker and meeting point that connected everyone. At the beginning of the design process, the simplest idea is to create a space like a branching tree. The concept leads to a design where the main structure features central pillars, expanding into several small cross-section steel columns to support the above structure. The central pillars also serve as drainages to flow water out from the building on rainy days.

Draft of design concept
Floor plan

People may wonder, why didn’t he just drain the water along the building’s edges?
“As I design a gable roof, if I drain the water from the edges of the building, the restaurant will lose the 4 sides of its wall surface, and the building will be lower in respect to height. I want to open up the wall and make it high to the fullest extent. As the site is already surrounded by trees, the weather won’t be so hot and the trees will provide an enclosing scene to be enjoyed by the building occupants.”

And to make the building blend in with the surrounding trees while also making sure that the views are visual to the occupants, the main material picked here is the translucent double corrugated sheet, which connects the building to time. Nut said that “if we linger our time here from morning through to the evening on a non-rainy day, we’ll be able to continuously experience the light effect at each time of the day. I chose this material because it can form a very high structure. At first, I wanted a single entire sheet with no joints; however, it wasn’t possible because the delivery truck limited the height to 6 meters. So, I had to compromise as much as I could.”

“This space is practically used. There were merit making ceremonies and traditional weddings organized here. We didn’t know about it before. By thinking that if I create a space for this,  I don’t need to attract tourists with those activities. I want the building to be just a space where people can visit and they can imagine what to do themselves.” The thoroughfare inside the building is thus designed to support the stair structure so that users can slowly climb up to enjoy the views, from the bottom to the upper deck. At this part, there is also a skylight to allow natural light into the building.

Concrete that materializes Isan characters

“When I was a kid, I had a BMX bike. I rode it around with friends and went to play in the forest. There was a white bridge, or a concrete bridge, maybe, which led to children’s forest land. I put this idea in my design as well. I want it to be mellow with the atmosphere of walking beneath concrete slabs to get into an area that looks like a tree house. This is my imagination, but a functional one. This ten-meter-long concrete comes with an openable door so that it can be closed when we turn on the air-conditioning. Anyway, the weather has never been so hot, so it’s actually always open to allow air flow.”

When looking at it, we’ll realize that the pattern of this concrete is like no other, and it also gives a local atmosphere of Isan. “Like Tadao Ando, ​​his concrete casting also has a unique pattern of the Japanese style. So I think…well, as we are Isan, how should we cast concrete to make the building look modern in the style of Isan?”

The architect experimented with the use of materials in his previous design by weaving bamboo into sheets and using them as a mold for concrete casting. It softens the look of the surface. “Anyway, I must say I’m not the first one doing it. I saw it from work of a Vietnamese architect. But back then, I didn’t know what it was. As I gained experience from creating designs for clients’ houses and exploring more materials, I decided to use this feature in this project.”

The time passed by through the end of the interview. Nut said, in abstract, this building acts as a keystone for people to gather around and do activities, or even for a political purpose. As a designer, I also want to convey a concept that “We, Isan, do not live on a drought land as perceived by others. This building also proves that I’m true by standing out in the midst of surrounding nature. My attempt is not to create an identity for it, as I want people to be creative about that themselves.”

Location :  Khokaen, a province of Northeast, Thailand
Area  :   800 sq.m.
Architect :  NPDA studio | Nutthawut Piriyaprakob                     
Interior Architect : NPDA studio | Nutthawut Piriyaprakob, Kanrakorn  Vinitwattanakoon, Chayakarn Sriubonmas       
Structural Engineer :  Panya Chumuang
Site Engineer :  Parit Somprasong
Photographer :  DsignSomething, NPDAstudio

Rangsima Arunthanavut

Rangsima Arunthanavut