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In the realm of architecture, some may know Lek- Prabhakorn Vadanyakul as the headmaster of Architects 49 Firm, as a National Artist of Visual Arts (Contemporary Architecture), or as the owner of ‘Baan Suan Sa-ngob,’ a 9-rai forest plantation located in the Bang Kapi area. On the other hand, many more would probably be familiar with him as ‘P’ Lek,’ or a generous uncle dressed in dark tones with suspenders, which have become his personal character. Most recently, he comes with another role, being the new President of the Architect Council of Thailand (2022-2025). Today, we’d like to take this opportunity to have a friendly interview with him to discuss in-depth knowledge of being an architect for over 30 years and also about the direction of Thai architects in the future.
Dsign Something: As you have been working as an architect for 39 years, to what extent your perspectives towards this career have changed?
Lek: It did change. First of all, in the past, I didn’t really hold on to benefits. My goal was to gain experience, so I put all of myself into work. I slept over at my office and sacrificed my time to all projects I was assigned to. However, talking about these days, career goals may be different from the past. Of course, we want to cultivate knowledge and experience, but, at the same time, benefits are also something we need to take into account. Each year, if our company’s performance is not satisfying, for whatever reasons, it’ll definitely affect overtime and bonus payments. And when the benefits drop, many young staff would choose to quit and become self-employed instead, not relying much on working with a company. With all software and hardware available that are different from the previous generation, nowadays, everyone can build their own pool of knowledge, being creative in their own ways. There are lots of tools to use. But in respect of experience, you just need to gradually build them. These are the differences and a reason why there is so much entrepreneurship these days.
Dsign Something: In terms of design, if talking about the joy of thinking, is there any difference between those times in the past and today?
Lek: Happiness is no different, because if it was, I’d change my career (laughs). Well, it might be that, at present, younger architects get support from computers while, back in my days, I did all the drafts literally with my two hands. So, sometimes, when sketching up, it allows the brain to convey feelings. I might be slower in terms of line drawing and stuff though. So, it may enable us to be more concentrated. However, as for now, tools are so high-tech. Everyone conveys their ideas through the computer, so the approach may be different. It’s more about the tool we use to convey. But, anyway, either way brings joy. Soon, my generation will be gone and replaced by younger generations that are good at new technology.
Dsign Something: Anything you want to tell the new graduates?
Lek: I think, if talking about our career field and asking whether over 50 percent of the graduates have worked in the field they have learned or not, I can say that, no matter in the past or right now, it never reaches that number. But that is no one’s fault. So, once you graduate, you need to have a goal in life. I can see my goal. I want to be an architect who enjoys working on drafting design and shaping projects; who does all the presentations and conveys ideas. At this point, the goals must be clear. If you still feel unhappy with what you do, it’s nothing, no matter how long has passed, be it four years or five years. A junior of mine told me that doing routine tasks has lessened creativity. So, even if you’re not working in the field you graduated from; you don’t do designs, to put it simply, there are still other careers that require our creativity. What we have learned for five years won’t go anywhere. We just need to be confident in taking on new experiences. Finally, the knowledge we have gained from our school can be applied, no matter what we are doing. For example, in selling things, you need art in thinking. What to sell and so on. The goal is actually here, at this point.
Dsign Something: If one wants to be an architect, should him/her work for a firm first? What if he/she wants to be a freelancer?
Lek: Working in an office is like a success formula. Once you get in, there’ll be predetermined work procedures and processes in place. You come in as a junior, so you just follow the guidelines. This needs to be submitted today, at this time, at this fee blah blah. You’ll get a chance to learn that you need to submit a concept, initial draft, developed draft, construction drawings, etc. However, being a freelancer, you can learn by yourself. As working for a company, you are being regulated, but you’ll learn faster. I recommend you work for a company for 2 years and you’ll know how it goes. You’ll have an opportunity to present projects with your seniors and meet up with clients. However, if you become a freelancer right away, you’ll need to go through lots of trials and errors. We still have to figure out how to do it well. How much money do you think it’s worth? Is there any way to submit a draft and get paid for it? These are what my juniors have experienced a lot. Sometimes, as they want to get a job, they cut their professional service fees. It wasn’t their fault anyway. For example, talking about the first job in my life, after I studied for 5 years and graduated, my first design costed 1,200,000 baht. My hands were shaking. The owner asked me if I could reduce it to 700,000. A large company could not give such a huge discount. And I’d work on this job myself anyway. So, well, I needed the first job in my life. It was so tiring. I did things that were beyond the scope of work I should. It was because I wanted to get the job, so what was in exchange is the reduced fee. Anyway, I’ve learned from it. Once I got the first job, the second, and third, I could start building my reputation and get stronger. And actually, many new architects decided to quit a company and work on their own, and they are successful with a stable life.
Dsign Something: Do those make people consider the 7.5% architect fee expensive? Lek: One thing that is very important is people’s perception towards a profession, because they would think that if they let a contractor build a house for them, it’ll not be necessary to hire an architect. The contractor would have completed designs that we can choose from, which are already included in the construction fee. This profession fee is not something Thai people were familiar with 40 years ago. They were not familiar with the term ‘architect’. There are engineers, builders, and contractors. That’s all. And not to mention interior design, landscape, or lighting design.
But I think it’s getting better and better nowadays. Why do I know that it’s better? Because small offices in the region started to have walk-in clients, who wanted them to design a house, coffee shop. It’s ok to be on a small scale, because at least the clients know that, even it’s a small project, it also requires a designer. These perceptions will result in our profession being recognized with better compensation. However, I will not comment on offering discounts to get a job. We may start from negotiation, asking them not to request for a discount by offering additional services in exchange, free of charge. It shouldn’t be like a 50% discount on a design plan, as that could become a habit.
Dsign Something: Does it mean people in general play an important role in perceiving the importance of this profession?
Lek: I must say that we need to notice the importance of every profession, every design field. It shouldn’t be that I’m the president of a private company listed on the stock exchange; I know that a garden must be like this or that. Wall paintings must be like this. I’m such a smart person. There are many people thinking like this in our society. And sometimes people like this are in a powerful circle. But turning to Singapore, they know that if it comes to this kind of work, whom they should go to. What am I good at? Our country needs to give up being a society where people in a higher position are praised. You’re my boss, you’re smarter. You’re good at everything. Once we can do that, the standard of every profession will improve itself.
Dsign Something: Well, how about comparing between the profession of architects and that of other designers, such as interior or landscape designers?
Lek: Even architects have to respect other fields. I think it’s very important. When we work together, having a combination of both sides is the best. Start a project together, think together, design an exterior, interior, landscape, or layout together. If you think together from the start, the job will be perfect and completed.
Dsign Something: In addition to the perception of people in the profession itself, what do you think the Thai architect industry still lacks?
Lek: There is a doctor that I love and respect, who currently lives in the States. When doing something, he always said that he became as good as he was today because of me. Our country lacks this thing, and it often turns to something like, if you were good, I would miss the job. I once participated in a design contest. When I saw works of other contestants, I thought to myself that…oh my…if the judge chose my work, I’d be angry. So, if you aim at our country having good architecture, this kind of acceptance is important.
At my office, we don’t think adults are the best. It’s that everyone can be good at things, but we just need to really make it, and not let a problem occur along the way. We need to be able to control the price, contributing to beautiful and functional designs. Young architects may be very good at thinking, but they may lack experience. If we combine these two, it should be perfect.
Dsign Something: Let’s talk about being the President of the Architect Council of Thailand. Can you please briefly explain the differences between the President of the Architect Council of Thailand and the President of the Architect Association?
Lek: For the Association of Architects, it is a professional association with rules and regulations in place, but it doesn’t involve laws. For the Architect Council of Thailand, we have laws in hands. It is part of the government sector that also takes part in drafting laws to regulate professional practice. The Association of Architects provides recommendations for its members, guiding the members to a good path, but those recommendations are optional. For the Architect Council of Thailand, you must practice your profession with a professional license. Each license is covered by a specific work scope, entitling one to work on a design to an extent he/she is permitted. It is regulated by law. You cannot do whatever beyond what you are permitted to, because there is a matter of ethics. Your license can be suspended or revoked. This is the difference.
Dsign Something: As the President of the Thai Architect Council of Thailand, what are your duties and responsibilities?
Lek: The council is responsible for overseeing the aspects that involve laws, which are to guide the four fields. It’s also our responsibility when it comes to professional fees, and whatever that systematizes our profession, to ensure that everybody can work together. This is an important thing. To put it simply, it is to do whatever that can protect our profession while not taking advantage of others.
Designing a large project has an impact on the public. So, it requires a professional license. Another duty of the council is to make sure architecture graduates, regardless of their major, are hired as many as possible. But you know… people are afraid of exams. The day we announced that there would be an exam, there were people protesting. They didn’t agree. This is always a problem. However, we never experience this in other countries. Like in Malaysia, you need to renew your license to update your knowledge, trends, and concepts. It’s not something our country could do. So, this is an important duty of the council, which is to ensure the right amount of architects. Because if it’s too few, there will be a problem like we’ve discussed earlier. People would go to builders right away, or take someone else’s license, making a forged signature to ask for official permission.
Dsign Something: Should new graduates take the license exam right away? When should they take the exam?
Lek: It’s the most popular question right now. I think once in your life, after studying for 5 years, you should challenge your knowledge. I have a license, I can do it. I once told new graduates that they should take the exam, because it wasn’t made to fail them. It’s something that is actually not beyond what they have learned. However, many denied taking the exam because they didn’t notice its importance. It would be okay to design a small project without having a license. However, whenever you get into an argument with the project owner, and if he/she files a complaint with the police, it can even become a crime. My only advice I’d like to give to all new graduates is that don’t be afraid of taking the exam. Whether you take this professional path or not, it’s fine. Just get one. At least it’s something you can feel proud of, as you’ll then be someone permitted to carry out the professional practice.
Dsign Something: Can any architect experiencing a problem raise their concerns to the council right away?
Lek: Yes, the council has a duty to help all the members with their careers. If you’re involved in a litigation…Many architects were sued by project owners in regard to ethics, we also have an ethics committee to work on that. We have a screening committee to confirm whether you’ve done this or that. Once we screen the case, there will be an investigation. If it turns out to be the fault of the architect, the case will be transferred to the ethical part. There will be negotiation. We will do everything to lessen issues, considering damages and correction. Can it be fixed? Let us fix it here. Don’t engage in a lawsuit. The council will help here. But in a worse case, like fraud, the council will be responsible for suspending or revoking their professional license. Most of the time, they’ve already become legal cases.
Dsign Something: What do you think is important for an architect to grow in his/her career path while also being happy?
Lek: Learning never ends. I think the skill that comes from working, in fact, comes from what we want to learn. Nowadays, life is very easy if we want to build on knowledge. Until now, sometimes I still have the feeling that I am really stupid…the more I explore and read, the more I realize my body of knowledge is so small. If you want to know anything, let know it in-depth. You can learn every day. You can read anywhere. That’s an important skill that I want you to know.
As a senior architect, this is the essence that Lek- Prabhakorn Vadanyakul wants all the architect newbies, who will play a vital role in driving the Thai design industry, to know.