A showcase of Traditional Thai architecture in Bangkok. – Jim Thompson’s House.
by Jack Miles
Jim Thompson was very famous in Southeast Asia and especially Thailand. He was born in 1906 as an American citizen in the U.S. state of Delaware. After studying architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked as an architect, and was an antique collector and a silk merchant in South East Asia and particularly Thailand. He was also active during the war years and even worked as a spy as an operative of the Office of Strategic Services, eventually organizing its offices in Bangkok after the Second World War. He was a major investor in the Oriental hotel in Bangkok and was instrumental in overseeing parts of its restoration. However after a dispute with shareholders he relinquished his shares.
In 1948 he founded the Thai Silk Company Limited, which after partnering with designer Irene Sharaff prospered as Thai Silk became very fashionable. Indeed he is credited for almost single-handedly bringing about a renaissance in the Thai silk industry and ensuring its survival to this very day. He disappeared without trace in 1967 in Malaysia which prompted one of the largest search efforts ever seen in across Asia. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved.
His lasting legacy is arguably his sprawling traditional Thai house in Bangkok’s Rama I road, which is also now a museum and gift shop. It was built to house his significant collection of works of art. The house is a moulding of the old and new and is a testament to preserving traditional housing styles even in the heart of the big city.
Taking advantage of the prefabricated nature of traditional Thai houses, he re-assembled a total of six houses on his Bangkok site that were bought from all over Thailand. Most of the complete houses as well as a number of different parts came from Ayutthaya but one large house, which now forms the main living room, came from Bang Krua. It is the oldest part of the house with the next oldest being the kitchen area, which dates back to the 19th century. It is thought that it was originally part of an old palace.
The start date and time of construction was especially chosen as an auspicious time on the astrological calendar. Construction started at 9am on September 15, 1958 and it took the best part of a year to complete the house. It was finished on April 3rd 1959 and quickly became the house that was the talk of the town.
Even though the area was not commonly flooded, the houses were built in a traditional elevated fashion such that several metres of space can be seen between the ground and the living areas. Hard wearing teak wood was used as the main building material. The houses are also arranged so that the roof of the largest segment is transverse to the roofs of the end segments. The terrace runs all the way along the entire length of the structure. An entrance portal is in place and is of a good size. The drawing room and study occupy the central area and from this there is access to the master bedroom and two guest bedrooms as well as to the dining room. Separate structures house a library and several pavilions.
As with most Thai houses Jim Thompson’s house is built next to a body of water, in this case a wide klong. There is a boat landing structure in the compound and during the construction phase the klong enabled parts of the house to be floated right up to their destination.
Within the compound are smaller structures called Thai Spirit houses. Traditionally and according to Thai beliefs, these are in place to house past spirits. They are important since the spirits’ well being is said to be very important in determining the good fortune or otherwise of the living inhabitants of the main house. To keep spirits pacified food and incense is laid at the spirit houses. The location of these smaller structures is important as if they are not well positioned the spirits may be offended. Often they are built in the Eastern or North Eastern corner of the compound to avoid the main building casting a shadow over them. Thus they are in the sunlight for most of the day.
Jim Thomson’s house is built on one rai of land and is adorned in natural greenery. He found that the jungle was appealing and sought to bring this appeal to a city centre location. The land was acquired based on a reciprocal agreement for land purchases in Jim Thompson’s home state of Delaware in the U.S.
Although the house was built in a traditional style there are certainly plenty of modern conveniences in place. For example, whereas traditionally the connecting corridors and the entrance hall would be an open area, for aesthetic reasons and to ensure comfort they are enclosed. The stairs themselves are built inside the house rather than on one end. Arched doorways are used for some of the rooms. and Chinese style carvings are in place around window frames and door frames, a feature only seen in houses owned by affluent people.
Once the house was built, Jim Thompson set about filling it with all of the objects d’art that he had accumulated during his travels through South East Asia. On display are rare pieces of Chinese Ming chinaware with their distinctive blue and white designs, Cambodian carvings, Thai stoneware and statues from Burma, (now Myanmar). The main dining table was once used by King Rama V and other collectable items include Victorian chandeliers and Benjarong earthenware.
The Jim Thompson house is now a museum and art gallery where all of these artefacts, as well as the house itself, can be enjoyed by the public. There is a modest entrance fee to help with the upkeep of the compound.
The house can be found at Soi 6, Song on Rama I Road, and is open daily for visitors from 9 am to 5 pm.