Above: A bright canary shade characterises the interiors of Fai Fah.
This article was originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.
Prachautis is one of Bangkok’s poorest areas, around 30 minutes from the centre of the Thai capital. It’s fairly nondescript, with rows of shop-houses and low wetland areas, but it’s here where Spark Architects’ colourful Fai Fah building sits, the second of a series of youth centres commissioned by TMB Bank Public Company Limited, a Thai bank, under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) scheme. The Fai Fah initiative aims to provoke change in Thai society by giving disadvantaged children and teenagers access to the arts for self-development and creative thinking. Unlike the first Fai Fah centre, though, built to a brief written by TMB’s CSR team, here the users – the children themselves – called the shots. Spark was selected for the project from a long list drawn up by a Thai design magazine, having previously undertaken similar pro bono work in China’s Sichuan province after the 2008 earthquake there. As Stephen Pimbley, Spark’s project director, describes, he suggested to the bank that it would be valuable to engage with the children, to get them to write a brief of sorts from their experience of working and playing in the existing building.
To free up internal space, a ‘utility stick’ resembling swiss cheese has been plugged into the rear of the building.
Fai Fah’s underprivileged young clients, aged between six and 16, are starved of after-school activities. Their parents are sometimes unemployed, or work unfeasibly long hours, so the children have to look after themselves – especially, as Pimbley points out, if the family is involved in drugs or gambling. To provide for them, TMB took over two of Prachautis’ terraced shop-houses to convert into the centre, with Spark completely gutting the structure, stripping it back to an open shell. To free more space in this cleared volume, a tower referred to as a ‘utility stick’ has been plugged into the rear of the building in what had been a courtyard. This houses staircases, toilets, kitchen, storage areas and the building’s mechanical and electrical plant. “We wanted to free up the spaces of the old shop-houses as much as possible,” says Pimbley, “to provide large spaces for the activities that take place within Fai Fah rather than clogging it up with staircases and services”. Among the facilities offered are arts, pottery and dance studios, music rooms, a library and quiet study area, as well as a multi-purpose, double-height ‘living room’ on the ground floor and a roof garden at the top.
A dramatic lattice facade supports a bold neon sign advertising the centre – ‘Fai Fah’ means ‘light energy’ in Thai.
Spark held a series of workshops with local teenagers, where there were no preconceived ideas or expectations about what would occur, devising a variety of tasks that allowed the kids to engage with ideas about architecture and design. Many of the ideas generated from the workshops were then used in the design of the building. One example of an idea from the children is the screen over the retained facade. Pimbley explains: “The idea was to dress the building up and make it very different from its neighbours, as if it’s almost waving to the public and saying ‘Hello, here we are – we’ve arrived in this location’.” Some children even drew ornate patterns on the front of the building, which Spark took “as a clue to change the facade”. A dramatic lattice now fronts the buildings, supporting a bold neon sign advertising the centre – ‘Fai Fah’ means ‘light energy’. But the name also suggests climbing, Pimbley says, “a bit like a Jacob’s ladder idea. Some of the children used a ladder motif on the facade – they’re getting from A to B, progressing up, learning new skills. So we took the ladder motif and turned it into that screen.” Behind, the balustraded balconies of the shop-houses can still be seen.
Fai Fah aims to provoke change in Thai society by giving disadvantaged children access to the arts for self-development and creative thinking.
As Pimbley points out, few architects today are willing to engage with such extraordinary, bold colour schemes, but nevertheless the kids were painting the interiors with them “so that’s why it’s yellow”: the bright canary shade that characterises the interiors also neatly marks out the main architectural interventions. The utility tower is like a giant wedge of Swiss cheese, its yellow sides riddled with holes to lighten its bulk. The yellow utility wedge makes itself felt inside through the dramatic open staircase that forms the circulation spine of the building, while a geometric yellow mezzanine protrudes into the double-height entrance area.
Facilities include arts, pottery and dance studios, music rooms, a library and quiet study area.
The new Fai Fah has proved so popular that it is already over-capacity. The client loves it and the community has embraced it. Says Pimbley: “Children are turning up and taking part in its facilities. They can’t take all the children that go there.” For a program – indeed a building – that aims to empower disadvantaged kids to “look at ordinary things in extraordinary ways”, through the arts and self-education, you’d have to say that’s a true mark of success.