Re-Centreing the City: Spirits, Local Wisdom, and Urban Design at the Three Kings Monument of Chiang Mai

By Johnson, Andrew | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Re-Centreing the City: Spirits, Local Wisdom, and Urban Design at the Three Kings Monument of Chiang Mai


Johnson, Andrew, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Introduction

In the spring of 2010, thousands of largely northern and northeastern Thai protestors staged a months-long demonstration in Bangkok's commercial district, a protest that ended with over 90 people killed and one of Asia's largest department stores destroyed by fire. This was the most recent culmination of a crisis that has been fomenting since the ousting of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. To make sense of this conflict, many scholars of Thailand have focused on the skewed power relations between Thailand's capital and its rural hinterlands. (1) But despite the common characterisation by the popular press of northern and northeastern angst as profoundly rural, (2) the sense of impending disaster that my northern interlocutors articulated was one inherently bound up in the idea of the city as the centre of power, authority and legitimacy.

Many of the mediums and architects with whom I worked saw the city of Chiang Mai as having lost a spiritual centre and thus requiring the resurrection of an animating force that would ensure the future prosperity of the city and stave off calamity. While for some, this loss had supernatural overtones, for others, supernatural elements had been converted to cultural ones: while mediums turned towards recalling the spirits of Chiang Mai to ensure the return of prosperity and efficacy, for Chiang Mai's architects, the solution to Chiang Mai's subordinate status vis-a-vis Bangkok lay in improving upon Chiang Mai's built environment in order to revitalise a northern Thai essence. Yet for each group, it was the invocation of Chiang Mai's past that would guarantee a solution to contemporary social problems. Each group saw themselves as the privileged voices of this northern Thai-ness, a force that was increasingly imperiled by the economic and political power of Bangkok. And, for each, the Three Kings Monument was a central point around which the debate focused.

Monumentalism and heritage

While this article seeks to explore the parallels between the discourse of national heritage amongst architectural professionals and the discourse of spirits by the mediums, the subject of national heritage and monuments' role in the construction of national heritage is a contentious one. Invocations of heritage against calamity inevitably change and refocus what is thought of as 'heritage', a subject well documented in the anthropological literature. Often, constructions of things deemed 'national heritage' are often those that favour rational, secular readings of the urban landscape designed for individual consumption rather than those focused on the messiness of communities and living religions. Michael Herzfeld compares the 'social and cultural evacuation of space', (3) what he terms 'spatial cleansing', in Greece, Italy and Bangkok. In his examples, the forces of neoliberal-minded rationalisation, stemming from state or private sources, erase heterogeneous or contradictory elements in favour of a monument-oriented architecture that nonetheless purports to better serve national heritage. This is a result, Herzfeld argues, of 'the globalization, paradoxical though it may seem, of a sense of national heritage, calibrated both to the demands of an exigent neoliberal economic system and to the politico-cultural as well as financial forces that it has unleashed'. (4) Such an idea of 'national heritage', reified and put into use for the state, is what emerges from Chiang Mai's culture industry.

Anthony Vidler, in his discussion of 'the architectural uncanny', (5) describes the attempt to monumentalise the city as a form of urbanism beginning in the Renaissance: the thinking of the city as a 'memorial of itself' (6) and the planning of cities to 'perpetuate the myth of memory as installed for keeps, so to speak, in the heart of a metropolis that is (finally) rendered significant and speaking to its people'. (7) Such an image is ironically the imposition of an architect or planner's vision over that of smaller, heterogeneous communities and--as is glaringly evident from Herzfeld's case studies--pays little attention to the way in which other populations living in the neighbourhoods interpret or make use of the space.

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