Royal visit, HRH Crown Princess Sirindhon and Sudjit Sananwai, this project manager
Along the 4,180km length of railway tracks nationwide stand many railway stations with architectural or historical value which are crumbling out of neglect.
Asst Prof Sudjit Sananwai of Rangsit University's Faculty of Architecture wants to change that.
Inspired by her happy childhood life in railway houses with her engineer father and family, Asst Prof Sudjit is introducing the art of vernacular documentation to her students to conserve old railway stations in Thailand.
Vernacular documentation, or vernadoc, is a simple drawing technique which requires the use of pencils, pens and ink to record all the details as seen with the naked eye. It yields intricate drawings with shadows and dimensions that look exactly like real objects.
"This drawing technique has helped the locals to see the beauty of their railway stations _ something they normally take for granted," said Theerat Pattanapram, an architecture student at Rangsit University.
"While we were working at three railway stations in Lampang, a lot of villagers came to talk to us, wondering why we took so much interest in their old buildings. On the last day we showed them our drawings, and that was when they became aware of the architectural gems they had."
According to Asst Prof Sudjit, vernadoc is a type of art that helps attract people's attention to what they see every day but never realise its artistic value. For example, some residents of a village in Russia were about to demolish their old houses but had a change of heart after seeing the beauty of their houses through Finnish architect Markku Mattila's vernadoc works.
Mattila has produced about 5,000 pieces of vernacular documentation and organises an international youth camp every summer. In 2007, Asst Prof Sudjit and 10 Thai architecture students joined one of his vernadoc camps in Finland. The camp in Finland led to a vernadoc camp by the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) for 19 architecture students from 10 universities to work on Kian An Keng Shrine in Thon Buri, from December 2007 to January 2008.
In 2008, a group of architecture students from Chulalongkorn University did vernadoc work on the Phraeng Phuthorn and Phraeng Nara areas. In 2009, vernadoc camps were held in the Kudee Cheen area consisting of six communities in Thon Buri, and Wat Khu Tao in Songkhla, as well as a thesis with the use of vernadoc was done in the Klong Daeng community, in Songkhla. This year, a vernadoc camp was held by Asst Prof Sudjit at three beautiful railway stations in Lampang.
"Many railway stations have been deteriorating. I believe the State Railway of Thailand [SRT] should restore them instead of demolishing them and constructing new buildings," she said.
Vernadoc, she said, also inspires architecture students to explore the world with their own eyes and analyse where the true value of architectures lies.
To finish vernacular documentation on each building, her team usually spends two weeks if they work eight hours a day.
"In Lampang, for example, the first few days were for information gathering. The next couple of days, we worked in a studio. In the beginning, we knew nothing about trains and railway stations. But when the project ended, we thought we got to know about them quite a bit," said a team member, Theerat, modestly.
After sizing the buildings using tape measure and the water levels, the team would do drawings on 50x70cm sheets of paper using pencils first and applying ink on them later. Then they would add shadows and dimensions using different sized pens and a mixture of ink and water. For them, the most important thing was teamwork.
"Twenty of us worked at Nakhon Lampang railway station and 12 to 15 others at Ban Pin and Mae Tha stations each. We shared information with one another to ensure accuracy and relevance," he added.
To Asst Prof Sudjit, she selected Nakhon Lampang, Ban Pin and Mae Tha railway stations _ all in Lampang province _ for this year's vernadoc project because they represent different outstanding styles and are not too far from each other.
According to conservation architect Parinya Chukaew's article, "Nakhon Lampang, Ban Pin and Mae Tha Railway Stations", these stations were built in the same period of around 1915. While their architectures show European influences from that period, they also show resourceful local adaptation.
Nakhon Lampang railway station, for example, is the combination of European and northern Thai architectures while Ban Pin railway station is in the Tudor style but was adjusted to fit the tropical climate. "Its roof is steep and covered with corrugated roof tiles for facilitating rainwater drainage," said Warut Keejana, an architect at the State Railway of Thailand.
According to Parinya's research entitled, Railway Terminals: Thailand's Architectural Heritage, the history of railway stations and terminals began at the same time as the establishment of railways and the Royal Railway Department in Siam over a century ago. The country's first railway was built in 1886.
Most of the early railway stations and terminals in Siam were either timber buildings or concrete buildings with a colonial-influenced architectural style. They were designed by Western architects, such as Italian architect Mario Tamayo, with architectural elements suitable for the tropical climate. Their significant features included the use of fresco-decorated arches, the use of either a hipped roof or clipped gable; the roofs were covered with kite tiles. Roof structures were decorated with finely carved wooden ornaments. Doors and windows were made of wood. Among them are Hua Lamphong, Ayutthaya, Hua Hin, Nakhon Lampang, Kantang and Songkhla stations, which have been well preserved. Some others are Ban Pin, Lang Suan, Khao Tao and Kaeng Luang railway stations.
After World War II, when many railway tracks, bridges, stations, factories and other structures were all destroyed, many new railway stations were built on the same old locations. Designed by Thai architects, including MC Vodhayakorn Voravarn and Chaiwat Attachu, they are either in traditional Thai-influenced style or modern style. Those of the first type have traditional-style roofs with minimum decoration. Among them are Chiang Mai, Nakhon Pathom, Sila-art, Trang, Udon Ratchathani, Aranyaprathet, Chiang Rak, Sala Ya and Pak Klong railway stations. Those of the second kind were built in a simple modern design mainly with steel-reinforced concrete and glass. Among them are Makkasan, Thon Buri, Bang Sue, Surat Thani, Si Sa Ket, Bua Yai, Ban Thab Chang and Cha Choeng Sao railway terminals.
According to Parinya, many of the railway stations are now deteriorating due to their old age and the humid weather. Worse, the State Railway of Thailand has no system to register railway stations with architectural and historical value yet. As a result, some of these stations, such as Jed Samian and Mae Puak, were torn down. Another problem is the SRT's lack of policies to conserve and develop its structures.
Warut admitted that about 80 percent of all railway stations in Thailand lost their interior and exterior beauty due to improper extensions.
"The SRT realises that it is important to restore and conserve its railway stations and ancient buildings, but it has problems concerning personnel shortage and budget," he said.
Warut also pointed out that some railway stations were improperly mended because regional offices were forced by budget spending deadlines to finish restoration work urgently.
"Even Hua Lamphong railway station was just repainted in a different shade from the original one due to the hasty budget approval process. Our division voiced disagreement but it was too late," he added.
However, the SRT did well with the restoration of the Royal Pavilion at Bang Pa-In railway station in Ayutthaya, as well as Kantang railway station in Trang. It strictly followed building conservation procedures and constantly sought advice from the Fine Arts Department.
Monthien Attajunya, another architect at the State Railway of Thailand, said the SRT always consults the Fine Arts Department when restoring railway stations and buildings on the ancient establishment list. Hua Lamphong and Thon Buri stations in Bangkok, Kantang station in Trang, Songkhla station in Songkhla, and the Royal Pavilion at Bang Pa-In station in Ayutthaya are on this list.
To ensure proper conservation, the SRT draw up building conservation guidelines, provide training for operation-level and railway station staff, and collaborate with academics and the private sector in conserving its railway stations and buildings.
Warut and his former teacher, Asst Prof Sudjit, have discussed a plan to seek cooperation from academics and the private sector in protecting ancient railway stations and SRT buildings as people's heritage.
According to Asst Prof Sudjit, her group plans to discuss the issue with the SRT governor and seek the signing of an agreement for Rangsit University to do vernacular documentation at other railway stations and for both parties to share information for conservation.
Her student, Theerat, who chairs the university's architectural conservation club said: "If we launch a series of vernadoc exhibitions on the architectural and cultural value of railway stations, more people will see how important these stations are for communities. No more valuable railway stations should be demolished."