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

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Cecilia Fu­ma­galli, Emilio Mossa

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

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