Build­ing on a Legacy

Grow­ing up in an ar­tis­ti­cally blessed fam­ily with a tra­di­tion of cre­ative de­sign, ML Chit­tawadi Chi­tra­bongs was al­most des­tined to be­come an ar­chi­tect, says Ploy­lada Suchar­i­tachan­dra

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We meet ML Chit­tawadi Chi­tra­bongs at Ban Plain­ern, a mod­est tra­di­tional Thai com­pound en­veloped by lush green­ery that was once the pri­vate res­i­dence of her great-grand­fa­ther, HRH Prince Nari sara nu vat ti wong se. Also known as Prince Naris, he was the prin­ci­pal court de­signer dur­ing the reign of King Rama V to that of King Rama VII. “I’ve been around his draw­ings and arte­facts ever since I was young. To our fam­ily, Prince Naris proved that great art comes from the soul of the artist,” says the 40-year-old ar­chi­tect.

But Chit­tawadi also says that it was her great aunt, the late HSH Princess Karnikar Chi­tra­bongs, who was an in­spi­ra­tion for most of the things she has ac­com­plished to­day. “I spent a lot of time with her when I was grow­ing up and re­spected her as a mother,” she smiles. “She was a very brave woman, one with great de­ter­mi­na­tion to be­come an ar­chi­tect. But her fa­ther, Prince Naris, wouldn’t al­low her to—it just wasn’t an oc­cu­pa­tion for a lady at the time.” So, while Princess Karnikar was un­able to study art or ar­chi­tec­ture for­mally, she did turn her hand to the dis­ci­pline pri­vately, de­sign­ing some of the build­ings that oc­cupy the fam­ily com­pound.

Af­ter com­plet­ing her bach­e­lor’s de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity, Chit­tawadi went on to pur­sue both a master’s de­gree and a PhD in ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory and the­ory in the UK. It was while study­ing at the Ar­chi­tec­tural As­so­ci­a­tion’s School of Ar­chi­tec­ture that her su­per­vi­sor, Mark Cousins, in­spired her per­sonal ap­proach on de­sign. “He taught me to think about Thai cul­ture, to em­brace it in my works and put it in global con­texts,” she says. To­day, she does de­sign projects on a free­lance ba­sis and is a full-time as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity’s Fac­ulty of Ar­chi­tec­ture.

One of Chit­tawadi’s most re­cent pur­suits is some­thing she and the Chi­tra­bongs fam­ily hold very dear—a 292-page trib­ute to their beloved late pa­tri­arch ti­tled Prince Naris: A Si­amese De­signer. Chit­tawadi’s fa­ther, MR Chakrarot, also an ar­chi­tect by train­ing and a for­mer per­ma­nent sec­re­tary of the Min­istry of Cul­ture, had asked per­mis­sion from Princess Kanikar to com­pile pho­to­graphs of Prince Naris’ sketches and draw­ings. “They had never even been shown to peo­ple in the fam­ily. My great aunt loved the doc­u­ments so much and re­garded them as her fa­ther’s per­sonal be­long­ings. But my fa­ther was able to con­vince her to let us use them to cel­e­brate the 150th an­niver­sary of Prince Naris’ birth, and he in turn al­lowed me to put to­gether the pub­li­ca­tion,” she ex­plains.

The book, pro­duced by Serindia Pub­li­ca­tions, took five years to com­plete. Thou­sands of pre­lim­i­nary sketches were pho­tographed and cat­e­gorised. “It would ex­cite me ev­ery time I came across draw­ings that weren’t ti­tled but I could iden­tify nev­er­the­less. Find­ing the ini­tial sketches for the fresco of the phra ubosoth at Ra­jad­hivas Tem­ple, for in­stance, was a joy,” she shares.

On her days off she of­ten finds her­self im­mersed in books. Her lat­est reads in­clude The Foun­tain­head by Ayn Rand and the In­dian Ra­mayana se­ries. Sin­gle, she also trav­els a lot. “Each year, I make plans to travel to a new coun­try,” she tells us. “I just went to Jor­dan and spent three days at Pe­tra, each day climb­ing a moun­tain.”

Chit­tawadi’s big­gest as­pi­ra­tion is to cre­ate a liv­ing archive of Ban Plain­ern, one that com­bines a mu­seum, gallery space and Thai dance and mu­sic school. “We closed down the orig­i­nal school some years ago and I was sad be­cause I grew up with it. With the school back up and run­ning, this place would be un­like any other and so full of life. It is a huge dream of mine to one day make this vi­sion a re­al­ity,” she smiles.

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