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Common space is for the community, but how much can the community get involved in the design? From generating questions to getting feedback that the community and environmental architect team, Arsom Silp, looked for to initiate a community cultural sports field project in cooperation with the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (Office of the Health Promotion Fund) located in a total of eight areas within four provinces, the aim was to develop public spaces that are practical and sufficient to meet the needs of people in the community.
One of the eight projects is the revival of a 2-Rai common space in the heart of Tha Chalom, Samut Sakhon Province, to meet the community’s needs with the local uncles, aunts, and other real users of the space being the design assistants.
From Tha Chalom in the past to the current renovation project
Previously, Tha Chalom was a fishing community where a group of Chinese immigrants settled. Formerly, it was prosperous in trade, but when the country began to change and factories started to replace the area, Tha Chalom deteriorated. So, Samut Sakhon City Development Group, led by a doctor in collaboration with local people, planned to stimulate the tourism economy and develop the Tha Chalom area in the hope that it will become lively again.
“We entered through the Samut Sakhon City Development Group, and at the beginning, we told them about our ‘Developing healthy areas through shared gardens’ projects, which we wished to do with local agencies that wanted to get involved. They took us to see the areas effective enough to renovate. When we first came to see this area, there are actually people using the exercise equipment and aunties gathering and chit chatting. So, we felt that this area holds a lot of value and it seems like it is a central location of the community because, currently, there is almost no common space within the Tha Chalom community,” said an architect from Arsom Silp.
The architect said that even though people were using the area, the area was relatively neglected. There were sparse trees, dark and secluded areas at the back, some playground equipment close to decay, and only a few exercise equipment available for use. Seeing this, the architects immediately concluded that this area was the most suitable for the development project.
“Saying that we are interested, the doctor in charge took us to talk with the Permanent Secretary of Samut Sakhon Municipality, Acting on behalf of the Mayor of Rayong (at that time). We offered to work on the area, and he agreed immediately. He then told us that normally, the government’s work or most government officials do not have a platform for people to participate in this kind of thing. This time, he wanted to try and see if it can be a model for developing other areas in the future as well. There are plans to renovate this area into a roofed playground, but as he listened to our offers, this plan had been put on hold. Then, he went to listen to the community’s opinions with us.”
Common space for the community that partially designed by the community
Because it is a shared space for the community, it is crucial to listen to the community’s needs first. Therefore, the first step of the design is to explore the community’s needs, starting with the architect team to get to know and build connections and trust with the community before any opinion-sharing session. There were two main forums; the first was a public forum where everyone could share their opinions. The other platform was where we invited those with whom we connected before the meeting, including various groups in the community, such as youth groups, volunteers, and the elderly. Before the actual day of the forum, the architects had the opportunity to visit the area and used this opportunity to persuade more than 30 uncles and aunties to join the platform to openly discuss ‘What activities do they want to see in this 2-Rai area?’
“It’s good to hear the group’s opinions and not just one representative. If someone suggest they want to play rattan ball, we can discuss with everyone right away if it’s a good activity for the community or not, will it be beneficial, will anyone actually play it and where in the area should this activity be taking place. We talked about the causes and effects which the architects took the ideas from this to conclude a possible design. The architects’ duty is to arrange these elements to occur according to human scales, the principles of architecture and the landscape work.”
What is the community’s needs? The design is based on those.
The difficulty of this project was that the people’s needs were overwhelming with various activities for a land size of 2 Rai. The exercise zone, gathering area, library, and playground for children, and the need to incorporate a hint of the Tha Chalom community’s character within those areas to remind the upcoming generation of the old and forgotten Tha Chalom.
The most challenging issue for the architect group was to effectively combine all the relatively high demands in an area of 2 Rai for maximum usage. The site is divided into front and back parts according to different activities. The front zone is an active area with a playground and exercise equipment. In contrast, the back is a passive area, like a community courtyard. There is a seating area designed with inspiration from a fisherman’s pontoon. There is also a running route that connects all these activities. The landscape team has expanded the size of the running path to be wider and complete the path to join all areas together for safety and minimizes the secluded area of the back part. They also completed the lighting system, which made it ready for access. The side of the paths was paved with grass blocks which still allowed people to cross each other, especially when it was not as crowded. This way, the hardscape won’t look stiff with excess concrete proportions.
In the project area, there was an old water tank which was the pride and joy of Tha Chalom. (Because this area is known as the first sanitation city.) However, with insufficient space to meet all the needs, the architects proposed a design that adapted the original water tank to be a vertical learning space that can be both a library, learning area, and observatory spot.
“It took us about a month to design. When the design was completed, we brought the model back to the community to see if the functions they proposed were correct or not. Was there anything else they would like to add or was the size proportion correct or not. They would come and help us look at the design. For example, at first the design of the library was a minimalistic design, but the local residents said that…this doesn’t seem like Tha Chalom. It doesn’t match the saloon we know. Then they took us to see the actual saloon and we used that pattern in our design,” another architect added.
A floating saloon-shaped library
After seeing the boat, the architect took the language and the atmosphere from the ship to adapt to the design, such as an opening or grid lines on the deck which they adapted the design to allow children to be little captains. “In fact, the saloon is more closely guarded against the wind and sea waves. But for this one, that function is not necessary, and we wanted it to be an interactive space. The material used, therefore, creates an open-air atmosphere. It is a glass pane that can be opened to see each other between the people in the saloon and the people outside as well as to hear the sounds of the surrounding communities.”
For the primary structural material, architects opted for steel to make the building lighter. They coated it with anti-rust paint to withstand the area’s salinity, which, when looking at the overall picture, the character of a fisherman’s boat mixed halfway with modernity.
“The library is about 30 square meters. Here we have a consultant to help look at the structure of the additional parts. The upper area is open for children to sit and do some readings here. It is a distribution of various functions which can be used in many forms. Some parts of the floor, we used a torn steel grating so that the building is as light as possible, without disturbing the old structure too much.”
The area under the old water tank had been transformed into a seating area for meeting or waiting. Based on the original use of people in the community, the direction of the entrance was slightly changed to make the space more proportional.
Little Captain’s Playground
Another part that has been updated until it looks unfamiliar and noticeably different from the original is the playground area. The architects added some identity of Tha Chalom to the design, such as using the shrouds to create a sea-like atmosphere and choosing a blue-toned floor so that the kids using the library above can imagine the space as a sea. Within this playground, the architects used natural materials such as weather-resistant hardwood with specs similar in size to the wood from a real boat to allow children to experience authentic, less-crafted materials. The ropes used were the actual giant ropes used on ships, and then reduced some parts to be suitable for children and safety.
The nearby elderly zone is intended to be placed near the original children’s playground, allowing sit and wait while looking at the children. This area is also close to the tutoring school area opposite the garden. There is a connection between the outer and inner spaces flowing continuously from one another.
When presented to the community and after everything came into place for both parties, the architects brought feedback and alterations back to adjust the ideas into the final design. They also sent the construction drawing for approval and a budget from the municipality before construction. In the past, the municipality had already delayed projects for renovation, so when he saw a model created from the community’s cooperation, they immediately decided to develop the model together with the architect and the community. An additional construction budget was established, benefiting from the value of engaging and listening to the community’s opinions. Currently, after the renovation is completed, there will be people in the neighborhood who will come and make use of the space.
“We are most impressed to know that after the completion of this project the community actually came to work in the space we designed together. They were proud of the design they helped us with, and they took good care of the space. We feel that the process that involved them with the design…created a sense of ownership of the space. We feel that working with the community taught us to be more humane. If we want the design to meet their needs as much as possible then we need to understand them as much as possible first…”
Project Location: Tha Chalom Public Park, Samut Sakhon
Gross Built Area : 3,200 sqm.
Architects: Arsom Silp Institute of the Arts
Landscape Architects : Arsomsilp Community and Environmental Architect Company Limited
Photo Credits: Tanatip Chawang