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
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.