I”ve been at Mudlark a month now, which feels a tiny bit weird as an almighty amount of activity has happened in that time. My first full week was spent jetting off to Bangkok to deliver the exhibition for the British Council, and to stop Toby going barmy. The second, third and fourth weeks have been a non-stop braincruncher of ideas, proposals, pitches and kicking off .
I meant to write about Bangkok when we returned, but the pitch treadmill has kept us occupied and Toby”s only just finished uploading his terrabyte of photographs. Whilst there, we spent a few days walking the soles of our shoes bald, meandering through the streets, underpasses and markets, taking in far more sights than our brains could cope with. It turns out we were doing a “Systems/Layers walkshop“, but that just seems to be nature and human inquisitiveness coded.
Now that we”re ready, I”ll have a stab at trying to explain it. I think it”s important for you to put this on first.
To start: Bangkok is the future.
This seems a bit of a strange thing to say of a city that has been around for hundreds of years, with ostentatious remnants of legacies dotted so freely around it, but it feels like the logical conclusion of something. It is potentially the way all cities will be. It is so full of life, everything is turned up to eleven and senses are wholly washed in noise. Even the weather is all in — 90% humidity and thirty degrees C.
Like every major city: commerce is the dominant beast. It is what Bangkok”s city planning is built on. Planning is used loosely, here; Bangkok doesn”t have urban development regulations — the perfectly gridded map of Manhattan is completely foreign to them — buildings sprout where there is space. If something is knocked down, a market will spawn there before new developers can get get their fences up.
In Bangkok, existence is a sales opportunity. Every possible way you turn there are pop-up shops selling huge knives, twigs, good times, mobile phones, fruit juices of all kinds, scavenged metals and simulacra watches. At times it felt like the streets are organised by product, not purpose or design — Material Street, Sports Street, Tourist Services Street, Red Light Street, Mechanical Parts Street. Entrepreneurial pop-up shops and stands rub shoulders against the globalised Super Brand malls with their air-conditioned conception of reality and skin whitening cream. Overlooking the city are skyscrapers flashing LED screens with ‘JOY IS BMW’ or ads with Manchester United covering entire office blocks.
The lack of regulation extends to the infrastructure — the city”s infrastructure is exposed and the “Networked Urbanism” is ever present. Water pipes lurch out from buildings into the ground whilst electricity and telecommunications cables dangle at head height, sagging to acute angles. Information flows within arm”s reach, not buried underground. The city”s development is already so far gone that digging up the pavement to hide water pipes, electricity, telecoms would cause too much disruption.
The traffic in Bangkok is similarly intuitive. There are systems (traffic lights, pedestrian crossings etc) that are observed, but loosely. Mopeds encroach on junctions as lights change, cars weave in and around each other with Swarm Intelligence. Traffic lanes adjust to flows, a dual carriageway becomes a three-lane/one-lane during busy periods. Movement is constant, and always seemingly with a purpose. Aimless walking is viewed with suspicion as tuk-tuk drivers beckon you, to get you where you”re going faster.
Even faster is the Skytrain: the overhead train of the future, today. Nestled in the kind of brutalist concrete that makes our hearts flutter, the Skytrain curves its way around the more salubrious parts of the city. It offers perfect eyelines of model skyscrapers, whilst obfuscating the shanty towns and underpass markets below it.
It is this strange relationship between poverty and opulence that makes Bangkok feel more futuristic than anything else. It is possible to walk out of a hotel with two pools straight into a massage district, walk from a riverside shanty town into an air-conditioned, Westernised mall. It feels more like Blade Runner than Monocle’s sanitised, Scandinavian dream of the urban environment — and all the better for it.
As cities’ resources get stretched, and land becomes scarce, they will turn into Bangkok. Poverty will flock to opulence, shops will sprout where there is enough space, every activity will be for sale and we’ll continue to build upwards. This can happen to the benefit of all, or can be horribly exploited if we’re not careful.
This is a very Modernist vision, but it’s still very much true. We shouldn’t give up on the ideals of Le Corbusier because they didn’t work once.
We are still capable of designing better futures.