A secret agent in Bangkok
Six wooden huts stand in the heart of the Thai capital. Tracked down in the 1950s and 1960s by Jim Thompson on his travels, they were dismantled and constructed to try and preserve what was being lost
In 1945, a 40-year old American arrives in Bangkok: he is James Harrison Wilson Thompson, charged by the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the modern CIA) to coordinate the activities for the liberation of Thailand from the Japanese occupation. At the end of the War, Thompson decides to move to the Thai capital, where he starts a flourishing activity linked to the production of silk, helping to revitalise one of the most important industries in Thailand. Trained as an architect (Thompson studied architecture at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, although he never graduated) and a renowned antique collector, in 1958 he decides to combine his two passions and build what we know today as the Jim Thompson House. More interesting than the story of the house’s construction is the story of the reconstruction of six houses, tropical wooden huts, the result of patient research conducted by the American architect in the 1950s and 1960s during his travels exploring Thailand. Along the Maha Nag canal are the six huts that Thompson bought in six different regions of Thailand, dismantled piece by piece, transported to their present location, and reconstructed in the heart of today’s bustling and congested Bangkok. However, Thompson did not merely dismantle and reconstruct. The decision to adapt six traditional
Thai houses to Western standards of comfort was linked to a specific desire to preserve what was rapidly disappearing in a Bangkok frantically seeking to adapt to Western models. Despite the innovations introduced by Thompson (e.g. using the ground floor as a living space and not simply as a place of passage, and the houses serving as pavilions with specific functions), what is astonishing is the architect’s lucid ability to understand that historic buildings could only be conserved if transformed for modern uses, thus guaranteeing their survival and demonstrating their modernity. Today, Thompson’s houses survive beside anonymous tall buildings and modern public transport infrastructures, facing the klong beyond which a dense urban fabric of residential buildings still survives. Within the Jim Thompson complex, along paths linking the six houses lined with frangipanis, palms and banana plants that are home to tropical fauna, one enters a tamed jungle, adapted to Western tastes — an oasis where the pace of the modern city seems frozen in an undefined era; a place perhaps similar to the one where Jim Thompson disappeared without trace in 1967. James Harrison Wilson Thompson, (1906-1967?) was an American architect, silk trader, antique collector and secret agent. Cecilia Fumagalli (Milan, 1983) is an architect and Ph.D; she works and teaches at Milan Polytechnic. Emilio Mossa (Bari, 1991) is an architect and Ph.D candidate at Milan Polytechnic.
In 1958, Jim Thompson started building a new house to display his artworks, dismantling and reconstructing six different houses. Most of those dismantled were transported by river. The largest was the home of a weaver (now a living room) from Ban Krua
Thompson filled his home with objects collected on his travels: Cambodian engravings, a Victorian candelabra, Benjarong porcelain, Burmese statues and a dining table once used by King Rama V of Thailand. It took Thompson nearly a year to complete the villa, today a museum